November 2019
Embracing Change

Satisfied Churches Don’t Change

On the first day of my first call as vicar to a small mission congregation, I knew exactly what I wanted to change. It didn't seem big to me, but my predecessor had already tried to make the change unsuccessfully. His notes to me simply said, “Good luck.”

The congregation had a practice of doing announcements and prayer requests in a sort of “open mic” style before their main service began. Anyone could come up and announce anything they wanted to – from a ministry opportunity to participation in a local play to the fact that it was their birthday/anniversary that week. If the announcement was pastoral in nature, the clergy leader would come up and say a prayer or blessing, as appropriate. They loved this way of connecting with each other and sharing information.

I hated it. There is nothing more confusing to a newcomer than showing up at the publicized start time for a service, only to spend the first ten to twenty minutes hearing a parade of different voices using insider language to make announcements about unfamiliar events in a disorganized and spontaneous way.

The Satisfaction Problem

I wanted to approach this change without seeming dismissive, causing unnecessary conflict or cutting across the equally important work of building trust in the new relationship I was forming with this community of faith. The biggest impediment to this change was simple – the people loved doing announcements this way. They weren’t at all dissatisfied with their approach. I knew that this change would take strategy, intention and work.

In my work, both as a priest helping develop a congregation and as a consultant working with churches seeking to become more faithful, healthy and effective local expressions of the body of Christ, I repeatedly run into the problem of satisfaction. Yes, you heard me: One of the biggest impediments to positive change in faith communities can be that they are perfectly satisfied exactly where they are. Even when exactly where they are undermines the call of our faith to share Good News and welcome new people into the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement.

The Dissatisfaction Solution

In the mid 1970s, a group of Organizational Development practitioners (David Gleicher, Richard Beckhard and Katherine Dannemiller) came up with a logic statement that has transformed the way I understand change in the church. It helps us conceptually and practically understand the role of dissatisfaction in an organizational effort toward positive change. It looks like this:

C = D x V x F > R

Written out, it means: Change is made possible when D (Dissatisfaction with a current state) times V (Vision for a changed state) times F (First steps toward the vision) are greater than the natural and normal R (Resistance to change) in the system.

As in a mathematical equation, if either D or V or F are at zero, then they all come to zero. So, for example, if there is no vision, or no dissatisfaction with the current state, or no clear first steps, the movement toward change will not be able to overcome resistance. All three elements – including dissatisfaction – are necessary for positive change.

Most leaders are aware that in order for a change to happen we need a clear vision for the future and some concrete next steps to get us there. What can feel counterintuitive for us, especially as pastoral leaders, is the dissatisfaction factor. We are conditioned to see satisfaction, comfort and contentedness as positive outcomes. We want our people to be happy with us. As a result, we often end up bearing all the dissatisfaction for systemic change – a burden that’s too much for one person and not always powerful enough to move the change forward.

Key to understanding this process is knowing that the D doesn’t stand for “dissatisfaction with leadership” or “dissatisfaction with the priest.” D is for dissatisfaction with the current state, whatever that state is. Properly understood, this logic statement can be used to strategize dissatisfaction in ways that help a faith community strive for and own a change on a systemic level, effectively managing and overcoming their own resistance to it.

Conversations help move the needle

In my first call, I used this model to strategize changing the announcements. Instead of just changing them, I started by getting a group of people together to walk through the way a newcomer would experience Sunday morning at our church. I asked them to imagine what it would be like to enter, be greeted and then sit through up to 20 minutes of open mic announcements before experiencing any prayer, liturgy, worship or formal welcome. My small group was horrified to discover that the practice they loved violated one of their core values – to be hospitable to everyone, especially those who are new.

Suddenly, and without my asserting any authority other than convening the conversation, they were ready for a vision and first steps toward changing this practice.

We worked together to generate these as well, moving announcements to one voice at the peace and adding written biddings to our Prayers of the People. Because the shift was framed positively, as a way to be welcoming to newcomers, most embraced it eagerly. Indeed, it was not long after this change that we began to experience more visitors. And more of those who visited decide to stick around.

If you are a leader struggling to make a change, consider working through this simple logic statement and asking – is there a clear vision? Do we have concrete first steps to get us there? And finally, is my church too satisfied to change? If the answer to the last question is “yes” consider how you can start conversations that move the needle and use increased dissatisfaction to move your community toward positive change.

The Rev. Canon Alissa Newton is Vicar at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Kent, Washington. She also serves the Diocese of Olympia as Canon for Congregational Development and is the Director of the College for Congregational Development. Alissa has worked with congregations inside and outside of Olympia as a development consultant since 2008.


This article is part of the November 2019 Vestry Papers issue on Embracing Change