May 2015
Facing Leadership Challenges

Leadership in Times of Change

This article is also available in Spanish here. Este artículo está disponible en español aqui.

Change and transition is a constant in parish life. Understanding of the nature of change and the key role emotions play in the lives of congregations and their members enhances the effectiveness of parish leaders. Even parishes with settled ordained leaders encounter many changes.

Change: A fish out of water

Picture a goldfish living in a fish bowl. Next to the fish’s home is an even nicer fish bowl. The fish decides to move into that nicer bowl. The only way for the fish to get there is to leap out of its current bowl and travel through the air before landing in the new bowl. This fish is literally a-fish-out-of-water as it embarks on this transition. When the fish lands in the new bowl, it may find things are somewhat different than expected.

“I feel like a fish out of water” is a phrase used by some to describe the experience of change, even when they have chosen to make that change. Almost all transitions, those chosen and those thrust upon us, take time to get from point A to point B. Some models of transition describe this as a period of disequilibrium or a neutral zone—the old is over and the new is yet to be.

For congregations this period can be an anxious time. The ability of leaders to manage change, be aware of their own feelings, and help members address their own emotions not only enhances a congregation’s journey through transition, but also its health, wholeness, and vitality for years to come.

Why pay attention to emotions

Paying attention to our feelings provides information, deepens relationships, and builds community. Unattended feelings can impede understanding and change. Have you ever been in a conversation or meeting where logic, resources, and reason all pointed to one course of action and someone just couldn’t agree with or take that action? This person may be adamant and make strong statements against the course of action, and also be unable to articulate a rational reason for not taking action, other than “because we’ve always done it that way.” This individual’s unattended feelings may be standing in the way of forward progress.

Emotional life of individuals

Identifying how we feel can give us information about what we need to do. For example, if I identify that I am feeling sad, this can inform me that I am experiencing or anticipating a real or perceived loss and that I need to find comfort and/or support. With this knowledge I can then take effective action to respond to the feeling of sadness by seeking comfort. So too, if I can identify that I am feeling angry, this indicates that a real or perceived boundary has been crossed. A trespass has occurred which informs me that I need to reestablish or create a new boundary. If I identify that I am feeling scared, this indicates that there is a real or perceived danger and it tells me that I need to seek out safety and support.

If we fail to ask ourselves what specific feeling(s) we are experiencing (we often experience more than one feeling at a time) we may find ourselves living with a general sense of discomfort. This not only impairs our ability to be fully present to each other, but also can significantly impair our ability to make good decisions. Cognitive functioning--the ability to process information--is diminished in the face of strong emotions such as anxiety and fear.
All emotional responses are informed not only by the present, but also experiences and temperament; all emotions are valid and to be honored. There are no right or wrong emotions. Learning to recognize our emotional responses as a part of who we are can be a step toward choosing a healthy response to our feelings, helping minimize our discomfort.

Leadership strategies to honor and integrate emotions

Leaders can set the emotional tone for a congregation. When there is trust between the leaders and the congregation, members will take emotional cues from their leaders. To help build this trust, effective leaders will find resources (i.e., other trusted leaders, spiritual directors) to process their own challenging emotions before attempting to lead a congregation facing change. They will also work to identify their feelings, be informed as to what these feelings indicate they need, and seek fulfillment of that need appropriately. Effective leaders do not pass judgment on their own or others’ emotional responses and, under no circumstances, do they accept inappropriate behavior from members or leaders. If shaming, blaming, or attacking occurs, effective leaders pause the conversation, invite the presence of the Holy Spirit through prayer, and allow space for the exploration of feelings.

Effective leaders are good stewards of their own emotional resources. They stay focused on positive feelings by incorporating fun and joy into their lives; they maintain a sense of humor; they practice visualizing themselves up on a balcony looking down on challenging situations to better see the dynamics and understand they alone are not responsible for “fixing” all issues in the congregation. They may visualize themselves in a protective bubble to help them refrain from taking complaints and/or criticisms personally, preventing them from becoming emotionally reactive. Above all, effective leaders are patient with members who will likely move through a period of transition at a slower pace than leaders who gain information before others and intentionally focus on the work of transition.

Try This: Individually, as a leadership team, or congregation(before trying any of these suggestions with a congregation, first try them with the leadership team)

  1. 1. Reflect on a time when you chose to make some change or transition in your life--perhaps you left or took a new job, started or ended a significant relationship.

    a. What were the unexpected challenges and gifts in the time of transition?
    b. What strategies or sources of support sustained you during that time of transition?

    Now reflect on a change or transition in your life that you did not choose. Respond to the same two questions. How might those strategies support you now in the face of change or transition?
  2. Practice stopping and identifying your emotions with regard to a specific event or issue you are facing. Using tools available in William Kondrath’s books (listed below), identify what that feeling is telling you, and decide how you will get that need met. Share this with another while the listener practices being present and receiving what is shared; remember, all emotions are valid.
  3. Take time during a vestry meeting to share how you and others are being good stewards of your emotional resources. Explore how vestry members can support each other in this effort.

Robin Hammeal-Urban serves as Canon for Mission Integrity and Training for the Episcopal Church in Connecticut. Working in this capacity since 2000, she has worked with numerous congregations following misconduct by trusted leadership and also aided congregations ranging in size from pastoral to corporate, located in affluent, middle class and economically depressed communities. In addition to coordinating timely and appropriate care and support for all affected by misconduct, Robin develops polices and practices to enhance the safety of congregations, and promotes, designs and facilitates opportunities to further enhance the capacity of lay ministers and leaders. She has worked as a consultant and trainer for numerous dioceses and has presented at local, provincial and national conferences.


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This article is part of the May 2015 Vestry Papers issue on Facing Leadership Challenges