Leaders need support during times of change, so do congregations. It’s tough to get through any kind of change, even a good one like a building project, with absolute trust in the process. New parents, kids off to college, and brides/grooms all have moments of doubt, if not outright fear. Your congregation members will have doubts too, beginning the second you say the words, “building project” out loud. In the face of the doubts and anxiety that accompany change, your group may need some serious church conflict resolution. And you’ll need to be more than just nice to one another.
Navigating change in the church is a particular kind of challenge. Churches are full of wonderful, faithful people who generally err on the side of being Nice. But too often being nice is actually avoidance. People won’t disagree in public despite the fact that there are obvious differences in the ways that individuals approach change. They may avoid meeting each other just so they won't have to discuss conflicting ideas. Or they may ignore the issue all together. Even after announcements from the pulpit, discussions in classes, and articles in the bulletin, someone still may say: “Well, you never told ME!”
Church people also have a well-deserved reputation for operating at a snail’s pace. Generally, church folk are so wary of hurting one another, causing a rift in the community, or of making a mistake, that they avoid, avoid, avoid.
The good news is that all of this is absolutely normal. People process change at different rates. Even when there is general agreement, conflict in the church will happen. It’s human nature. However, with just a bit of training or preparation, your leaders will know what to expect and how to respond to whatever resistance you may face.
- Make sure you have a clear vision of who you are and what you want to grow to be. This is especially important for a building program. If your people cannot give you a bumper sticker phrase that answers who you are and why you’re building, there may be serious uncertainty of purpose. One of the workshops I offer is a way to help communities develop and articulate a shared sense of purpose, for groups in general, or in preparation for a major change.
- Make a study of change. In advance of major events, people prepare by doing research or educating themselves. Groups can do this too. I offer a workshop on “The Arc of Change” for the whole congregation. This gives everyone a solid understanding of the dynamics of change and the inevitable ups and downs to come.
- Listen! Really listen! People need to know they are being heard. Offer time and suggest formats for gathering concerns or issues from the congregation. Don’t try to solve or answer problems too soon. Solutions can wait, let people share what’s on their mind without fear of being judged or criticized.
- Depending on what you learn from your congregation, you can creatively focus on specific issues. For example, targeted training sessions for your leadership may address some issues. Better communications or sharing of information may help address others. Some issues may not have solutions, (for example, limited funding sources, or past failures), but simply acknowledging them may help build credibility and confidence within the congregation.
- One-on-one meetings, touchpoint coaching, or small focus groups can also be effective to address frictions or problems during particularly bumpy times.
The rollercoaster is a fitting metaphor of change..., particularly group change. The ride can be both terrifying and thrilling. We hope you’ll approach your change well prepared and ready to enjoy it!
Guest blogger Laura Lincoln, an expert in managing church change, will be contributing a series of blogs over the next several weeks dealing with early issues of conflict in planning for a major building program.
-- Laura Lincoln, MA, MS
Laura Lincoln, MA, MS is a theologian and organizational psychologist who has served as an intentional transitional minister, organizational development consultant, professor of Christian Worship, and campus minister. She has worked as a consultant for churches of various denominations in both the United States and England, is the former Executive Director of the Texas Conference of Churches, and the current Director of People and Organization at St. Theresa Catholic Church in Austin, Texas.
Laura studied at/has degrees from Walden University, Yale University Divinity School, St. John's School of Theology (Collegeville, MN), Gettysburg Seminary, and the Lutheran Seminary Program in the Southwest.