Monday, February 16, 2009

Leading Change and Transition

I hear that a number of our thriving churches are taking a critical look at their “contemporary worship” services – the services that we began over a decade ago that feature electronic, “contemporary” music and images. We appear to be moving to more eclectic, “ancient-future,” blended sorts of services.

I’ve sure had my questions about some of our contemporary worship – the music seems dated, highly personal, lean on biblical content, too much performance rather than participatory, etc.

However, looking back on the move of some churches to have a contemporary service, I think that perhaps the greatest, most lasting gift to the church will be that for most of our churches, their contemporary worship service gave them experience in change for the sake of faithfulness to the gospel. In about a decade, our worship changed more than it had changed in two hundred years. The risk, pain, and disruption caused by the move to these services required our clergy and churches to do work that many of us were ill equipped to do – lead the church to change.

For generations we clergy specialized in preserving the past, treasuring what was given to us by the saints, passing that on to a new generation, insuring continuity. Now we are required to be leaders of an institution that needs change.

In learning more about how to lead change I have been greatly helped by a great little book on change in organizations, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change by William Bridges.

Bridges begins by distinguishing between “change” and “transition.” Change is situational and external– new job, different goals, new rules. Transition is internal, what happens and is happening. Transition is what needs to happen in you as the result of the change that’s going on around you, in order for the change to be owned by you.

As one moves into change, it is helpful to note the predictable states that people in transition find themselves. In my past four years I have seen members of our Annual Conference in all of these three phases of transition. And, in Scripture, I have seen all of these phases evident in the people who worked with Jesus.

Three Phases of how people transition through change:

Endings – letting go, some grief, sometimes some relief. Any change begins with an ending. Major issue in this phase is loss of attachment, influence, power, security, meaning and relationships. People suffer from the loss of illusion. Ending requires letting go. In this phase it is important to honor the past and acknowledge what has been done up to this point, yet all with the understanding that the past will not continue to hold us captive.

Leaders must see the problem first, before attempting to sell the solution. Expect and plan for a variety of reactions and emotions, and acknowledge all of them as valid. Give people instructions and don’t be afraid to repeat yourself. In the ending, people can be expected to have a variety of emotions: shock, denial, anger, bargaining, and sadness. Expect to hear lots of “Why questions.” Why us? Why now? What did we do wrong? Why weren’t we told sooner? Is there a hidden agenda? Is there any way to avoid the pain that comes with change? Etc.

Neutral zone – this is the in between area of change. Limbo. People feel disoriented, “in between.” They are beginning to realize that some accustomed things are ending, but they are not ready, nor do they clearly see what comes next. Expect a lack of clarity and anxiety over the future. What’s going to happen? People are often less productive and less motivated during this phase. Rumors abound. People search for facts, hanker for answers but are distressed when the answers they get from their leaders seem vague and unsatisfying to them. Much energy is expended in what Bridges calls “Recreational complaining.”

And yet this can also be a very fruitful period. This time has much innovation potential. In this period, leaders must resist the temptation to get through the crisis and come up with easy solutions. This ought to be a time of experimentation and breakthrough possibilities. The new world and new roles have not clearly emerged so this can be a time to try out a variety of options, a time for resourcefulness, trying out different possibilities.

Leaders need to listen while an organization is in the Neutral Zone, says Bridges. They need to explain what the Neutral Zone is and to validate people’s feelings as normal. Leaders also need to strengthen intragroup support and communication, giving people opportunity to voice their fears and hopes. Be patient, while keeping up a certain amount of pressure.

New Beginnings -- at last we have reached new rules, new roles, and a new place. Now at last there is a higher degree of comfort, increasing acceptance and commitment to new vision. People step up and express a more positive mood, saying things like, “We knew we needed to change; we just couldn’t figure out how.” There is a new focus on the tasks at hand. The organization reaps the benefits of improved productivity and increased clarity but there is lingering concern about being successful in new environment or in a new role. People continue to ask, “How do I fit in and how can I contribute?”

How do leaders help in times of New Beginnings? Bridges says we must do four things: Give people new sense of Purpose – help people understand the purpose behind the changes. Picture – help people imagine the future and how it will feel. Plan: outline steps and schedule when people will receive information, evaluation, support and training. Give people a part to play: help people understand their new role and relationship to the new world.

And then we start all over again! Change tends to come in waves and in any healthy institution, change is constant. There is always something else to be fixed, some new task to be assumed. The leader doesn’t have to manage it all, but is there to interpret, reassure, and encourage. If our church is to keep up with the movements of the risen Christ, we are going to all have to gain more skills in constant change and transition.

The good news is, We are!
Will Willimon


Cloro said...

I find it interesting that a 'transition' is now taking place from contemporary to ancient-future services. The inception of change within the service venue has led to a new change, as our churches search for better ways to meet the needs and wants of the Christians that comprise their ranks. We have initiated these changes to arrive at the New Beginnings phase, only to realize that there is more growth needed, more changes to be made, and more ways in which the church needs to reach out and touch the community.
I struggle with the loss of the communitas that the familiar service provided, while feeling the need to stretch our congregations and shake them out of the lethargy of the the rote.

I almost seem to be stuck between the desire to see changes and the wish to avoid change for its own sake. How do you create that "higher degree of comfort" when the venue seems to inspire continual variation in order to 'spice it up'? How do you bring a sense of the eternal within the context of continual change?

Steve West said...

I love your observations. I find the terms "contemporary" and "traditional" both overused and imprecise, if not irrelevant. All good worship is both contemporary (with the times) and traditional (rooted). I believe that the AncientFuture blend, or perhaps more precisely what we call "emergent" ways of worship, is indeed a way the Spirit is moving. I love worship in my present appointment (a relatively new church) because it is very much like this.

Weston Williams said...

Excellent observations, but as a pastor I think there is one omission in phase one. The omission is the pain the church must feel. Change and transition come naturally and quickly when the church feels the pain, not just the leader. Having just recently transitioned our church through adopting a new mission statement I spent more time introducing them to the inadequacies of the old than I did on the new. This was "prefoundational" work that had to be accomplished before I could even begin to lay a foundation. That prefoundational work is demolition and can be painful. It's key that this is done well, for in destroying old structures in the church we must not destroy the people who are attached (or even built) with those structures. But, it must be done, for so long as the congregation feels the old structure is adequate they will retreat to the familiar. They must see that it is crumbling and feel the pain of the fall before they'll move to the new.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this post is really interesting in how it applies to me personally...

I'm not in a leadership role in that sense, but I've totally gone through the 'endings' phase recently and am moving into the 'neutral zone' with my faith.

I've certainly been asking a lot of questions and doing some 'recreational complaining.' But I was so doubtful through all of this (as was my wife) as if it was a sign that I was just losing my faith.

It's good to know that asking all these questions is a good thing. I'd been raised to believe 'You just don't question what WE believe.' So when questions did come up I felt so... off, somehow.

Anyway, thanks for this summary. I'll have to take a look at that book.


dvopilgrim said...

I’ve watched a few episodes of American Idol the last few weeks, especially the Final 36 competition. The three songs that I remember most were “oldies”: one from the 80s and two from the 60s. Two of the songs, “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted” (1966) and “Bette Davis Eyes” (1981), were deemed “too old-fashioned.”

These comments remind me of worship services in churches today. A song from one or two years ago would be judged too old, if people even remember it. This is fallen human nature, ever craving for new things, as when Paul was asked by the Athenians if he had any new teaching to introduce to them (Acts 17:19).

The appetite for new songs in churches is never satisfied. Why not? The Bible even commands us to “sing a new song to the Lord” in many places. Taken at face value, this would seem to justify the weekly new song introduced by the worship team.

But what does the Bible really say about “new songs”? Read more here:

"'New Song' and American Idol(atry)"

One thing that never changes is that the preaching of the Word of God, partaking of the sacraments, and prayer are the means of receiving God's grace. In public worship, these three are constant. The Word of God is read, preached, prayed and sung.

Gregory West - Computer Instructor & Freelance Writer said...

At Central United Church in Sarnia, Ontario, Canada we are listening to your podcast and have an discussion group talking on your topic in a Facebook group:

As you can see we very much agree with some of the relevant points you bring to our attention. Thanks for the great topic and insights.

Gregory West