Dwight Stinnett ABC GRR Logo Current Thoughts
from Dwight’s Corner

December 2002



How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?

Of course, we have all heard the unflattering (even if true) joke.

Real change is desperately difficult and exceedingly rare for all institutions—not just churches. John Kotter, a Harvard business professor, has done the most extensive research of real (as opposed to theoretical) institutional change in this country. (His books include Power and Influence, Leading Change, and The Heart of Change) I will come back to Kotter later.

Change is a complex, ongoing process.

It is complex because it is a process, and not simply an event. It is complex because it involves more than one person. It is complex because it involves an entire system. It is complex because it impacts every resource at an organization’s disposal. It is complex because it persists over time. It is complex because it includes a range of expressions, from incremental/transitional change to revolutionary/transformational change. (In churches we talk about renewal, revitalization, and redevelopment as distinctive kinds of change).

Many gurus of church change have emerged in the last 20 years. They publish books, sell tapes, and speak to sold-out crowds. Most have had no firsthand experience in leading change in a church. Some try to impose their experiences from starting a church onto existing churches. Very few speak from the determination and frustration of leading change in an established congregation.

The idea that transformational change can be achieved single-handedly by a strong leader in less than a year is false.

Kotter’s research is very clear. Deep and lasting change is rarely accomplished in less than seven years. He looked at successful change and found eight tasks or steps that were followed (even if unconsciously):

1. Identifying with a sense of urgency

2. Establishing a team to support and guide the change process

3. Creating a compelling vision of the future

4. Clearly communicating that vision to the entire organization

5. Empowering people to begin living out that vision

6. Recognizing and celebrating the short-term wins along the long-term journey

7. Dealing with systemic resistance (conflict) and barriers (ineffective structures)

8. Anchoring the changes

There are no short cuts.

Obviously, the eight tasks are given in shorthand. There is incredible depth to each point.

At least two groups have intentionally examined change in churches in light of Kotter’s research. The first is Leading Congregational Change by Jim Herrington, Mike Bonem, and James Furr. The second is Redeveloping the Congregation by Mary Sellon, Daniel Smith, and Gail Grossman. I urge you to read either of them before your invest yourself in someone else’s vision of what a changed church should be.

While it predates Kotter’s research, I still recommend Gilbert Rendle’s Leading Change in the Congregation as the best “nuts and bolts” presentation of the pastoral role in congregational change.

Pastoral leadership is essential, but is not sufficient to bring about change. It is clear from studies in all kinds of organizations that transformed leadership precedes transformed organizations. With that in mind, I continue to recommend Jeff Woods’ Better Than Success.

That leads me to three axioms directed to pastoral leadership:

First, do not presume to lead change unless you are prepared to first submit yourself to change. If you think you have the answer, you are almost certainly wrong. Be prepared to change in the midst of things. How have you changed in the last five years? If you haven’t changed, you are in no position to lead congregational change.

Second, do not initiate change unless you are prepared to commit 5-7 years of your life to it. Change leadership is not for those with short attention spans, or low thresholds for pain.

Third, do not unleash change without first counting the cost. It is irresponsible to disregard either the resource needs or possible consequences of the change process. One of the certain consequences of the change process is conflict. Leaders must anticipate and be prepared to deal with conflict in constructive, redemptive ways.

Despite its difficulties, change lies at the very base of the Christian experience. More typically we call it “conversion.” Conversion, metanoia, transformation, change is what Christmas is all about. God “changed” the way of dealing with humans. Christ changed positions from heavenly glory to earthly poverty. We are invited to change from flesh-bound creatures to spirit-empowered friends.

How will change be initiated in you this Christmas? How will change unfold in your congregation in 2003?

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