By James Riley Estep Jr.
All the steps of moving from one home to another find their parallel in the progress a church must make. It’s never easy, but the new destination is worth the thinking, planning, and hard work.
“We’re moving.” These two words evoke a wide range of emotions. Announcing this to family and friends only adds to the challenging experience. A new job, new prospects, a better house, or a future possibility—all available only elsewhere. The decision to move is often greeted with the exuberance of new opportunity.
But the exuberance soon changes to despair when dealing with the daunting tasks of prepping, packing, loading, searching for a new home . . . a new everything. One inevitably ponders, Is it really worth it? Eventually, the family makes new friends, becomes comfortable in a new church, gets to know new neighbors, and begins building new memories; through all of this, the house becomes a home. What was once new becomes familiar.
No one really likes moving, but the move is often necessary and beneficial in the end.
We can learn a lot about change in the church from our experiences of moving. Implementing change involves four basic questions. The first two questions come almost simultaneously: “Where are we going?” and “Why are we going there?” These are followed by, “How do we get there?” and then the proverbial, “Are we there yet?” Although change is undeniably more complicated than this, these questions provide an outline to help us cope with and lead the changes we know are necessary.
1. Where are we going?
Moving means you are going somewhere. To move, you must know the desired destination. Regardless of the scale of the move, a destination is required. Even a relatively simple move across town from one house to another requires a destination address.
Change requires a destination. Before any change is made at church, it is essential to describe the destination. Leaders study the current church condition, exploring and assessing it, and upon finding room for improvement, a preferred destination is described. Perhaps a congregation’s leaders realize their current evangelism methods are not as effective as they were previously, or that the percentage of members involved in Christian education has declined; in either case, a desired change is determined. Leaders are able to describe where the church needs to move—its new destination.
Where do these new ideas come from? How do you know about the new destinations? Leaders might visit other congregations, read books or magazines, participate in conferences or classes, or even contact a church consultant or listen to guests’ opinions. From this, they might determine the new, more effective method of evangelism or the need for new avenues of Christian education. And then they assess and communicate the distance between the congregation’s current conditions and its preferred condition. This first step in implementing change has two parts: leaders determine the need for change and then describe the desired change so that everyone can see the new destination.
2. Why are we going there?
While pondering where to move, one must simultaneously justify or explain why the move is necessary or desirable. Deciding to move is not just a matter of determining a desired location, but making sure the move is warranted. Anyone who has invested in a house, made it a home, lived in a neighborhood, and built memories, knows it’s hard to let go. Explaining why is particularly crucial when sharing the desired location with others, those from whom you’ll need support.
Imagine explaining to your upset family that you’re moving because you “thought it was time for a change.” In the absence of a sufficient reason for moving, resistance to the move is inevitable, even appropriate. The ability to give reasons for a move (such as a larger house, better schools, new career or ministry opportunity, or proximity to family and loved ones) is crucial for its success.
Change requires a sufficient reason, one that can adequately overcome the natural resistance to change. Those who are currently involved in the congregation’s evangelistic outreach, or those in the Christian education ministry may not readily embrace the proposed change, the new destination. Concern is always raised when leaving the familiar and convenient path for something new and unknown. If change is going to take place, leaders must build a case for why it is necessary.
The congregation’s leadership needs to present both a desired change and the rationale for considering it (i.e., vision). It is not just a matter of sharing the rationale, but sharing it in such a way that others accept, support, and personally commit to the proposed change.
While other approaches to overcoming resistance are possible, such as making authoritarian pronouncements or micromanaging the implementation of the change, the most effective approach is to see resistance diminish as members of the congregation accept the proposed change.
3. How do we get there?
Once the decision to move is made, the logistics of moving take hold. We have to plan for the move. Hiring a mover or renting a truck, determining what needs to be moved and what may have outlived its usefulness, calling new utility providers and insurance companies, setting moving dates, and creating checklists and diagrams . . . all of these details must be worked out before the move starts.
Moving is a process, and this is the middle of it. Here—in the planning and early implementation of the move—is where second thoughts and doubts frequently enter. However, the decision to move is never based on logistics, but on the rationale for the move and the desirability of the destination. If the decision to move were based on the difficulty of the moving plan, we’d never move. It is always easier to stay where you are than to move. Determining how to get there is made after determining where and why to move.
Change requires a strategy. Change in the church requires an implementation plan to manage the process. Just like moving, a detailed plan for the transition from the church’s current condition to the preferred, more desirable condition is a practical necessity.
Leaders need to prepare a team to develop the strategy and to move the proposed idea toward reality. This is the preparation work for actually making the change happen. It can start with storyboarding, outlining the broad measures or phases toward implementing the change; then, describe the specific actions within each phase.
Two key features of the plan are dates and dollars, a timetable for completion and the resources (financial and otherwise) necessary for completion. The logistics of change are often overwhelming, and hence should not become the determining factors for change (since preserving status quo is often easier than implementing change).
4. Are we there yet?
The plan is in place, the preparations have been made, and now we’re heading out on the road! As with any move, there is a period of awkward adjustment—unloading the van, living out of boxes for a while, trying to make the furniture fit, and coping with the constant feeling of unfamiliarity as you move into a new house. However, as the boxes disappear, the pictures go on the wall, and you meet the neighbors, the house gradually becomes familiar . . . and it becomes a home.
Change requires us to act to reach the desired destination. Eventually, after the change is proposed and planned for, it becomes the new reality . . . the new status quo. Usually, in this phase of the change, communication must drastically increase, to coordinate the change.
As previously noted, leaders should continue to emphasize the where and the why rather than the how of the change, just to keep the church focused on the desired end result rather than the planning and preparation. Ultimately, the church should celebrate the accomplishment, such as seeing the desired increase in new members and their deeper involvement in Christian education.
But here is the irony: we are never finished moving. The new church condition becomes the current church condition, and one day it will become less effective or no longer fit the ministry design of the congregation. The process will need to begin again. The church exists, and has existed, in a perpetual state of change.
The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same
Change is always difficult for God’s people. After 400 years of Egyptian bondage, having awaited a deliverer the entire time, the Israelites were more than ready to move. God provided them a leader, Moses, who led them toward “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8; 33:1-3). But between the border of Egypt and the Israelites’ eventual entry into the promised land of Canaan lay hundreds of miles of desert and a journey that would take more than 40 years.
The Israelites didn’t object to leaving Egypt, for they were anxious to leave, and had dreamed for 400 years of the land God had promised them. But in the middle of the move, they began to ponder, “Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt? . . . We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt” (Numbers 14:3, 4).
It was necessary for God, through Moses, to remind them it was not where they had been, nor where they were, but where they were going that would keep them moving forward toward their new home.
What does this mean for the church? It’s time to move!
James Riley Estep Jr. is cofounder of e2:effective elders (www.e2elders.org) and dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.