For some years now, I’ve been interested in how we process change. It’s become especially important in my work as a transition pastor. But it is also a valuable consideration on a personal level.
For the most part, it’s evident that though change is inevitable and rather constant, most of us are not very good at managing change. And here I’m thinking especially of how we respond to the changes that come into our lives over which we have no control. Even small changes to our plans or routines seem to bring a great deal of stress and frustration. Yet it is not uncommon to lose something, miss an appointment, or see our best plans go awry. Sometimes, of course, we experience large seemingly accidental changes: loss of a job, loss of a relationship, sudden illness, or death of a family member.
Churches are like individual people; they tend to handle change poorly as well unless they are coached through it. That’s why there’s an important place for the kind of work I am doing along that line at this point in my life. Not only do churches fail to negotiate change well when something major happens (the pastor resigns, or their is a conflict that causes some people to move on, or they move for other reasons), they also have trouble with making changes that can enable them to be more effective.
We resist change for many reasons, but mainly because it puts us into situations in which we are uncomfortable. Change, whether thrust upon us by circumstances, or the leadership of others, can be painful because it upsets our routine, forces us to make adjustments, makes us re-think what’s important in our beliefs, and often leads to conflict with others. Sometimes it seems that the older we grow, the harder it is to adjust to the changes that are happening in our lives. It takes a good deal of emotional and spiritual maturity to adjust well to change.
One of the things that stands out as you begin to look at the Bible is how often God introduced change into His people’s lives. Though He is the God who never changes in terms of His character and decrees, He allows circumstances and situations to develop that push us into new levels of faith and trust toward Him. One has only to think of the children of Israel in their journey to the Promised Land, or of how God allowed their enemies to subdue them when they turned to idolatry. Sometimes God engineers threatening changes in our lives because of sin. Other times, as in the case of Job, he allows change to take place as a means of testing our faith.
Half a century or more ago, Virginia Satir, a family therapist, theorized that change follows a pattern (which she diagrammed) in which a period of status quo is suddenly disrupted by some destabilizing event. For a period of time, when this happens, people find themselves in chaos consisting of various elements of grieving — denial, anger, and depression. But it is in this valley that, properly coached, they may be able to find some kind of transformational opportunity or idea that sets them moving upward again with new learning and understanding. Eventually, by pursuing these new transformational ideas, they rise to a level of experience that is higher and even more meaningful than the quality of life or service they had experienced earlier.
Jesus was the greatest change agent who ever lived. His coming radically challenged the status quo and thinking of the people of his day. He himself was rejected by the people of his own home town because of the applications he made to them from Scripture. He thrashed grain and healed on the Sabbath in a way that was not inconsistent with the spirit of the Law, but most of the people where not prepared for this change to their thinking. In the end he introduced the New Testament in his blood as opposed to the Old Testament of obedience to God’s law. In reference to these changes He spoke of the difficulty of sewing a new patch on an old garment or putting new wine in old wine skins. He knew these changes would bring conflict as they most certainly did.
Individual people and churches need to understand that God allows and manages change for good purposes. As in Jesus and Paul’s day, churches today need to wrestle with what it means to be true to the unchanging aspects of God’s truth while, at the same time, appliying it to current culture. Rather than resisting change in the church, believers need to be willing to wrestle with the hard realities of doing ministry in relevant ways to an ever-changing world. This will inevitably involve tension at various levels. But it is clear that the church cannot move forward without consistently making certain adjustments in how it goes about doing ministry.