Every change, no matter how welcome, causes stress because making a change means letting go of something familiar. That is a loss, and when there is loss there is mourning. Anyone handling church conflict and change should also anticipate the importance of mourning for individuals and for groups.
All of us deal with low levels of change/loss/mourning on a daily basis and manage to find our way through without too much difficulty. But faith identity runs deep. Changes made at a church or synagogue or mosque may spark strong feelings that are surprising or uncomfortable. And when groups respond to change in negative ways, there inevitably will be church conflict.
Suggesting something as simple as replacing pews with chairs may spark a firestorm of emotions in some congregations. People who are otherwise loving and supportive may express anger or frustrations that seem completely out of proportion. It is important to understand that for something as simple as pulling up the old carpeting or painting the nursery a new color, you may undermine someone’s sense of place.
For some people, changes may threaten a connection to a treasured memory. For others, just giving up what is familiar may cause more general worry or concern. Wise leaders will be sensitive to this in creating a transitional process that makes room for mourning.
- Be patient. It may take time, perhaps a year or more to prepare emotionally for a major change. Also, don’t forget it may also take time to settle in and get comfortable in the new space.
- Mark the stages of change and growth with public events. Worship services of thanksgiving or forgiveness, a storytelling night, a youth group reunion… think of all the groups that might participate in a ritual or other activity to acknowledge the reality of change and include this in the transition.
- Do not expect to be “done” according to a schedule. Mourning will last in a length and manner proportionate to a member’s sense of disruption. The more out of kilter the congregant feels, the more prolonged the mourning is likely to be.
- Not everyone will care at the same level. For some people, the proposed changes are entirely welcome, and they couldn’t be more excited. Others will barely notice, while others will actively resist. That’s normal, so don’t expect everyone will be treated the same.
- Sometimes people leave. In this case, they are not mourning the loss associated with fond memories. They are actively fighting against a loss of status or power within the congregation. If a person or small group’s resistance to change becomes an impediment to the rest of the congregation it may be time for them to go. Ideally, these breaks can be done with support and grace. Be prepared to wish them well.
Download the entire resource "Managing Church Change and Conflict" and let us know if we can help you on your next building project:
Guest blogger Laura Lincoln, an expert in managing church change and mourning, 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.