One of the “laws” of leading church revitalization is that change takes time. The last session of the American Anglican Council’s ReVive! Seminar focuses on effectively leading change in the church. This is because we’ve learned that even if you have a good vision and strategy to turn the church around, if you can’t lead change well, things will get bogged down in conflict and revitalization won’t happen. In this article I want to share some thoughts about leading change that I’ve found helpful over the years. I hope this will help you as you seek to lead change well in your church.
In my first position as an associate priest, my job description included introducing Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Church principles into the church. I took a team to a Purpose Driven Conference to learn together and I heard Pastor Rick tell a story about leading change that went something like this: “I knew an airline pilot and asked him how sharply they could turn a plane. The pilot said they could make a 90 degree turn but the problem with that is the passengers don’t like it very much! However, the pilot said, if we turn the plane at 30 degrees, we can fly in circles all day and the passengers don’t even know we are turning.” That’s how I remember the story at least. The concept has been very effective over the years when leading in times of change. Changing too sharply, or fast, causes fear. Fear often leads to people either getting angry or leaving (avoidance). However, if the changes are introduced at a slower but steady pace, you can make changes without bringing that extra anxiety into the system. I’ve referred to this so much that the term “30 degrees” became code word among our leadership to hold the course on the change but not go too fast.
I grew up near a beach in Florida with really soft sand. In fact, my high school football team would run in it to train. Our feet sank in well past our ankles and was very hard work on our legs. That may be why this next image stuck with me when I heard it. The image is of a father leading his young son on a walk on a beach with soft sand. The father with his longer and stronger legs can walk at a faster pace than his young son. As the father walks along at the pace he can handle the son can’t keep up, the distance between them grows further apart and eventually the son just sits down and quits and both are frustrated. A better option is for the father to intentionally walk in front of his son at a slower pace than he would like or could handle in order to not get too far ahead. This allows his son to stay close enough to keep moving forward and not lose hope. As leaders in the church, clergy and lay, you often have thought through the change, worked through any fears and problems with it, and by the time you introduce it to the rest of the congregation you are ready to race ahead. If you do, and there is too much of a gap between you and the rest of the church, they can sit and dig in and refuse to follow. However, by intentionally leading the change at a slower pace and not getting too far ahead, you can bring the congregation along at a pace that won’t be overwhelming. It’s like the famous leadership saying, “He who thinks he is leading, and no one is following, is only going for a walk.” If you don’t lead in such a way that people will follow it is not really leadership.
Very closely related to that image is a quote of Ronal Heifetz: “Leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate that they can tolerate.” To much change too quickly is not tolerable, and people won’t follow. As a young leader I would get so frustrated because I just thought church members should follow because wherever I was leading was obviously the right way to go! And furthermore, it was Biblical and for God’s glory somehow. If they didn’t follow I would internally get mad at them. I discovered that wasn’t super helpful to the church or my soul! I learned that not all resistance to change is the same. Although some people will resist change no matter what, for many, when I slowed down, explained better, addressed their fears and concerns, and led at a pace they could follow, they could not only tolerate it but willingly came along.
Now to be clear, none of these images are suggesting not to change. Change is inevitable and essential to turning a church around. Again, for revitalization to happen, you must lead change. It is simply a matter of recognizing that change takes time and it is better to go at a pace that brings more people along with the change and doesn’t blow things up!
In the next article I will address the three exceptions to the “change takes time” leadership law.
The Rev. Canon Mark Eldredge is Director of Church Revitalization and Coaching at the American Anglican Council.