November 2019
Embracing Change

Only Change Begets Change

“Change” is a dreaded word in many churches. Most of us can see where it is needed, but we tiptoe around it. We don’t want to rock the boat and offend those who may be even more resistant than we are. Faith communities share the desire to grow – which is also to change. Growth means more people.

One thing I learned in math (or maybe physics) is only change begets change. Albert Einstein is credited with saying, “Insanity is doing something over and over again, expecting different results.” If we claim we want to grow, yet make it difficult for our leadership to innovate (read “mess with the status quo”), then we need to question whether we really want to grow.

When doing what we always do doesn’t work

Are our faith communities doing the same thing over and over in the midst of changing times in our culture and society? It seems that many do, even though they do not get the same results as in the past. They keep doing it because Great Aunt Dolores would turn over in her grave if they messed with the Christmas Bazaar doily sale.

Don’t get me wrong. I love tradition. I’m not suggesting we throw it all away. If we objectively evaluate the effectiveness of a long-time program and determine we’re hitting the mark, then great. Let’s not change things for the sake of change.

What I am suggesting is that we don’t avoid change to avoid offending someone. If growth is the end goal, then change is coming. Why? Because only change begets change.

Innovation means to introduce something new or fresh, and should not be confused with invention. I’m not suggesting your church do brand new things all the time or miss the innovation boat. I think there’s a need for church programs/events to be evaluated and then tweaked or eliminated altogether if they aren’t meeting your objectives. What worked fifty years ago – or fifteen – might not work anymore. Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 is pretty clear: “For every activity under the heavens, there’s a time to be born and a time to die.” Some things are worth keeping. Some need to go away to allow space for new programs, events and ministries to take root and yield new fruit.

Change is hard

So you may want to grow, but growth requires steady change. And change is hard. I love what Sue Mallory, author of The Equipping Church, has to say about change in the church. She writes, “Of all the organizations I’ve ever worked with, the local church is most resistant to change, even when change has been the agreed plan.” The struggle is real.

I know change can be hard for some, even more so for others. It threatens our current reality. Curious about what others had to say on the topic, I posted this on Facebook: “What is it that people don't like about change? What makes some people avoid change?” There was a flood of posts from ministry friends around the country. From more than 50 responses, a theme emerged: Fear.

Fear is a powerful force and can sabotage the best of us. So how can congregations create a culture where change isn’t a naughty word? I wish I could say, “Creating a culture of change is simple. Just do x, y, and z.” It’s seldom easy, though. If change is to be lasting, it takes a tremendous amount of energy. Change is not for the faint of heart.

Edwin Friedman’s books, Generation to Generation and Failure of Nerve, argue that the most effective change is facilitated by a non-anxious presence, someone who is self-differentiated and anticipates sabotage. And while sabotage is only possible if we don’t see it coming, there are things we can do to limit its impact. Things like an evaluation process that helps folks recognize areas of ministry needing improvement and reaches beyond the core leadership to all who want to be involved. The more people in the process, the better, as it will provide the necessary buy-in for generating the energy required to change any system.

Three steps toward a healthy framework for change

1. Major Event evaluation forms
If you want your church members agree about an event’s effectiveness, it’s important that everyone work from the same map. How to do that? Develop a standard evaluation form for each major event. The list below can help get you started. Be sure to get feedback from every participant.

  • Name and date of the event
  • Its objective (purpose)
  • Participation goals
  • Participation level
  • Was the objective achieved?
  • If so, how? If not, why?
  • Things that went well
  • Things that could’ve gone better
  • Ideas to incorporate next year

Some churches provide evaluation forms at the event and some send surveys afterward. There are loads of ways to get good feedback. Ideally, the event’s coordinator will compile a summary of the results and submit it to the church’s leadership. This shares the overall analysis with multiple people and positive narratives can be celebrated. Resist the urge to file away the evaluation. Create a system so when event rolls around next year, the previous year’s notes are reviewed and recommended improvements made.

2. Ministry Evaluation process
For each ministry of the church to make contemplative and strategic decisions based on more than just the personal preference and opinions of a few ministry leaders, an intentional ministry evaluation process is ideal. Church leaders who allow the congregation to share their thoughts on the church’s direction will find they have an easier time getting buy-in from others. Those resistant to change feel empowered and excitement grows about even small changes that make their ministries more effective. The fear factor is easier to squelch when members know they aren’t going it alone.

3. Host an annual Think Tank event
Here’s the concept: The Think Tank brings together folks who care about your church’s ministry to dream up the calendar of events for the next year.

The rector, vestry member or an outside facilitator can facilitate the gathering. The ideal timing is in the late-winter/early spring. This gives ministry teams time to plan for the following program year before the lazy days of summer hit and to recruit other volunteers. Two to three representatives from each ministry area attend the all-day event. If, for example, your church has seven major areas of ministry, then you can expect a minimum of 14 people to attend. That’s a great group of people!

Encourage positive, non-anxious and hope-filled leaders to attend. What’s most important is to have more than one person representing each ministry area. Three per group is even better!

You can find an outline to assist in planning your annual Think Tank here.

Innovation keeps things fresh. By strategizing together in a collaborative way, change can happen. All things are possible with creativity, strategy, teamwork…and the belief that what you’re doing matters to God.

Melissa Rau is ECF’s Senior Program Director of Leadership. She is responsible for overseeing the Leadership Resources areas, which includes Vital Practices, webinars and training, publications and the ECF Fellowship Partners program. In addition to overseeing existing leadership initiatives, Melissa is helping ECF discern its unique contribution to entrepreneurial and transformational leadership in the wider church. Prior to joining ECF, she served churches as a consultant doing strategic visioning, assessments, facilitation, training and coaching. She has studied with Princeton Theological Seminary, the General Theological Seminary and Candler School of Theology. She has written and published curriculum and numerous articles for online and printed publications and more recently co-authored a book – Ten Solutions for Small Churches. She has extensive ecumenical experience in parishes throughout the country.


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