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THE CHALLENGE OF CHANGE

by Mike Robinson


Her voice and her words communicated all the emotions of grief. The sense of loss. The tones of anger mixed with confusion. At times she seemed close to tears. Predictably there soon emerged the age old question, "Why, Pastor, why?" At other points resistance gave way to acceptance....and then quickly reverted back to resistance & even anger.

Clinically, it was classic grief. But pastorally, I ached for her because she was feeling her loss very deeply. Had someone close to her died? No. Had she just received some bad news? No. She was grieving for what she saw to be the loss of her Church. Had her Church been closed? No.

Her Church had changed. It was no longer the Church which had held so many special memories. For her, everything was different and the sense of loss and of being disenfranchised was overwhelming.

Was the Church growing as a result of the changes? Yes, it was. Then why the struggle? To know that, there are some factors that have to be understood.

For example, there was a time when she knew just about all the people in that Church. Now, with the arrival of many new people, she felt like a stranger. This aspect of her grief was compounded by the fact that some of her closest friends had left the district. Other friends had stayed in the district but were now attending another Church and were being less than gracious in some of the things they were saying about their former Church. This meant that her grief was increasingly complex. And confusing. She felt isolated and that "sense of belonging" was diminishing - rapidly diminishing.

She felt guilty that she could even entertain the idea of leaving. But that option felt like it was becoming almost inevitable every passing week. The encouragement of her other friends who had left the Church to do likewise was fairly powerful.

Then there was the music. They had changed so much to do with the music. The familiar hymns that were so much part of her Christian life now seemed to be mostly ignored and (dare she say it) almost treated with some kind of contempt. The sound of the organ for worship had been replaced by guitars, keyboards and drums. Why does the young generation have to have their music so loud? Whatever happened to reverence? Yes, she understood that there are a wide range of musical tastes and preferences. But, after all, this is "Church" we are talking about and there are some things that are just not suited to reverence and worship.

And another thing: there was a time when the Pastor knew everyone in the Church and often visited in the homes of Church families. But that has all changed, too. Now it is expected that everyone will belong to a Home Group or, failing that, you might be 'phoned or visited by a member of some 'Pastoral Care Team'. It's just another example of how much the Church has changed.

The conversation continued for quite some time as other areas of concern about change were raised. She was both gracious and honest on the 'phone. I knew her concerns were genuine and I appreciated that she was willing to "say it where it counts". She had bottled up these feelings far too long. Now it was time to express her sense of loss and to see if there was some way through the isolation she was feeling.

As the Pastor of her Church, I have had this same or similar conversation many times with many people. The faces are different but the issues & feelings are essentially the same.

The lady and the conversation are not imaginary. She is typical of many in the Church today who feel they are being increasingly isolated and alienated from the Church "family" that once was so special and precious to them.

What can we do as Pastors and Church leaders to adequately and appropriately respond to the heartache that many seem to be feeling today? As a Pastor, my response to those who struggle with change in the Church is not consistently the same. It is largely dependent on what I sense to be the motivation of the person expressing their grief and concern. My response ranges from aching with the person whose grief and pain are authentic to being angry with the person who is opposed to legitimate change for their own selfish reasons and agendas.

Over the years I have endeavoured to walk with people who genuinely struggle with change issues. Some have eventually walked away from change because it was too painful for them. I ache for them because their pain has been authentic.

Yet I gratefully acknowledge that there have been others who have walked into change and, in the process, have been changed themselves. I salute those people. They have selflessly absorbed the pain and struggle because of the benefits that would flow to others, if not to them. Yet the truth is that they have been rewarded beyond their expectations.

However, I have also encountered people who have resented and resisted change in the Church because such change would deprive them of the influence and control they have had and were not prepared to surrender. They have manipulated and manoeuvred to secure their own empires. Frankly, I get angry with those attitudes.

I am finding that my best response to the grief that authentic people encounter when it comes to change is ....

a.. to love them unconditionally
b. listen to them carefully and
c. lead them gently in understanding the issues of change.

It is not easy to rationally explain the dynamics of change when the emotions are in control. But, as time and opportunity permits, Pastors and Church Leaders need to do all they can to communicate the following three realities.

1. THREE BASIC TRUTHS ABOUT CHANGE

A. CHANGE IS INEVITABLE

We may as well try and hold back the tide as to prevent change occurring. In almost any area of life you care to mention, there is (and will continue to be) change. From the changes that happen through growth in our physical bodies right through to rapid changes in technology, we are surrounded by the change dynamic.

Even our God, Who does not change in His essential nature and person (Malachi 3/6), is always doing new things! (Isaiah 43/19). The real question for us, then, becomes not "Should we or will we change?" but rather "How do we handle change in the most creative and helpful way for all involved?"

Most people realise and accept that change is inevitable in life generally. But when it comes to change in the Church, that realisation (the head) gives way to the feeling dimension (the heart) and resistance can intensify dramatically.

B. CHANGE AND GROWTH ARE INSEPARABLE

Here is a statement that I believe. We have to find a way to communicate its truth.

"You can have change without growth but you cannot have growth without change".

Consider the first part of that statement. "You can have change without growth...." In the Church scene, there are many examples where changes have been made that produced no growth - either immediately or in the long term. Such changes are nothing more than "change for change sake" - cosmetic change - and that kind of change will lead us down a path that ends in a cul-de-sac of disappointment and despair.

A visiting Pastor or speaker comes along and conducts a seminar in our city and we embrace the idea that if we made the changes in our Church that he made in his Church, we would get the same amazing results that he obtained. I suspect that the list of Pastors who have fallen for that trap is a long one.

Those opposed to change will often quote such examples of failure as reasons to stay as they are. They rightly question the "band wagon" mentality that prompts some Churches to make superficial changes that are inappropriate even if they are trendy.

However, consider the second part of that statement above. "....but you cannot have growth without change". Growth involves change. Talk to any parent. Talk to a mother as she watches her child go off to school on that first day!  Talk to a father as he walks his daughter down the aisle of the Church to give her to another man! Try and tell them that you can have growth without change. Talk to a teenager as he or she experiences rapid change in their physical and emotional growth.

All of life is filled with examples that growth invariably involves change. Because the Church is a living body of believers involved in a process of growth and maturity, change is inevitable. To resist the right kind of change is to resist growth.

What happens when we resist all kinds of change? Some years ago, my wife and I visited an area in Pennsylvania, USA, where many of the world's Amish people live. These people have created a time warp for themselves. Their dress, their farming methods, their mode of transport, their way of worship - just about everything about them is a testimony to what happens when change is resisted.

While there are some aspects of Amish life that we might envy in our busy 'rat-race' world, the Amish people are largely a monument to irrelevance in our 21st century. The Christian Church has the same potential for irrelevance in the world that it has been called to reach for the Kingdom of God.

C. CHANGE AND PAIN ARE UNAVOIDABLE.

If we accept that growth and change are inseparable, then we must also accept the truth of another statement that I heard just recently.

There is no growth without change; there is no change without loss; there is no loss without pain.

If that is true, then it's no wonder that we humans have an inbuilt resistance to change! Who wants to experience loss and pain? The answer? Only those who can see the long term benefits on the other side of the change process.

Even as I write that truth, I recall an interview I had with another Pastor. As we talked, he shared with me a conviction that was birthed in his heart through a painful experience he had when the Church he formerly pastored resisted change and rejected him. He said this: "Our people and our Churches will never change until the pain of staying the same becomes greater than the pain of changing."

It is only as a Church begins to experience the pain that comes with staying the same - declining attendances, diminishing effectiveness, ageing constituency and so on - that such a Church will allow itself to go through the pain of change. The alternative is death.

If the above three statements (the inevitability of change, the relationship of change and growth and the pain in all of that) are true and our people are willing to face those realities, what can we do to facilitate necessary change?

2. CHANGE AND PAIN CONTROL

There is a cost (pain) involved in the change process. However, the pain of change ought to be minimised rather than maximised. It all depends on the question we asked earlier, "How do we handle change in the most creative and helpful way for all involved?"

My wife is a Registered Nurse and in her care of patients, she is not always able to eliminate their pain but she can minimise it through pain control via medication. Sometimes in Church life, we do not handle people and issues well. Some Church leaders have initiated legitimate and desirable change in insensitive and hurtful ways. In doing so, they have maximised the pain of change rather than minimised it. "How do we handle change in the most creative and helpful way for all involved?"

I can direct you to no better example than that of the Lord Jesus Christ. In John 16, Jesus began preparing His disciples for change. The change related to His departure from them and the coming of the Holy Spirit. The disciples were about to undergo a radical change in the nature of their relationship with their Lord.

It is evident from the text that Jesus understands the process of change and its accompanying emotions. All the emotions associated with change are there. Grief (v.6) Confusion (v.17,18) Pain (v.21) Ultimate joy (22). Jesus does not try to save them from the inevitable and necessary process. What He does with His disciples becomes a model for us as we handle change creatively and helpfully.

A. COMMUNICATION

This communication first of all involves explanation. Although there is much that Jesus cannot share with them because of their inability to receive it (v.12), He does tell them as much as they can receive and He explains it as clearly as possible. Sometimes the only reason people resist change is because the reasons for the changes have not been clearly communicated to them. Jesus explained the benefits that would flow because of the Spirit's presence and ministry (vs.8,13,14,22)

When I encounter resistance to change, I have to ask myself if I have clearly communicated the nature and the reasons for the changes I am proposing. The only way I can determine that is to talk and listen to the person or persons who are opposing the change. Some will talk with me. Some will not. Some will understand the explanation. Some will not.

Communication also involves re-assurance. Jesus told the disciples why this major change in His relationship with them was necessary.

But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.(v.7)

I am impressed by the fact that He re-assured them that what was about to happen was good for them! But not everyone wants to be re-assured that the proposed changes and associated pain are good for them!

It is never possible to fully explain to everyone's satisfaction the details and benefits of proposed changes. This is not for any reason of secrecy or deceit but simply because we don't know all that is before us. Some benefits will only be known and appreciated when they are experienced in reality, not when they are debated in prospect.

B. UNDERSTANDING

It is obvious that Jesus understood what was in the hearts and minds of His disciples as they tried to grasp the implications of the changes that were being explained to them.

Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, "Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, 'In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me'?(v.19).

I can almost hear the disciples asking, "Why is this change necessary? What's wrong with the way things are? We are just getting used to this relationship and now you want to change it?"

People need to know that we do understand their pain and that we, too, as leaders, are not exempt from similar pain as we lead the change process. I suspect that there are people in the Church where I pastor who think that my leadership in the change process is without heartache for me. They are wrong. But maybe I have never communicated that fact to them?

This example of Jesus emphasises for me that His understanding comes out of relationship. Jesus was close enough to His disciples to know them and to anticipate their response to change. Over three years He had built a relationship of love and trust. They knew He was absolutely committed to them; that He would never do anything that was deliberately designed to hurt them.

To initiate change in a Church where there is not a high level of trust between Pastor and people must surely be unadvisable.

C. VISION

Part of the communication process for Jesus was helping the disciples look beyond the sense of loss, pain and grief to the final outcome. He endeavoured to help them catch a vision of what will be in the future after the pain of change.

A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.(vs.21,22)

As we have already observed, Jesus could not tell them all that the future held but He told them as much as they could absorb. (v.12)  Similarly, those who are leading the Church in change should tell as many people as possible as often as possible in as many ways as possible

The Lord Jesus Himself is the greatest example of what it means for a future vision or goal to make the pain worthwhile. In Hebrews 12:2 we read,

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

While our pain of change hardly approximates to His immeasurable suffering, the principle is clearly the same. If the people we are seeking to lead through the processes and emotions of change can have a vision of what lies beyond, they are more likely to endure the pain.

There remains one last reality that we, as Church leaders and change agents, cannot escape. We will not be able to eliminate all the pain and struggle for people. No matter how thoroughly we try to relate, communicate, understand, explain the vision and manage the change process, there will still be those who either cannot hear, do not want to hear, cannot understand or will not understand. In the final analysis, I cannot be held responsible for their choice even though I will be effected by their choice.

My responsibility is to do all I can to ensure that the changes I am initiating, the attitude with which I am initiating them and the pace of the changes are what God wants of me. I know I won't always get it right. I will make mistakes. I have told our Church that fact. I think they knew long before I told them!

I take heart as I listen to Jesus and watch the way He led His disciples in change. It seems to me the real key for Him was the relationship He had established with them over those three years. They may not have understood all He said and did, but they did love Him and trust Him.

Isn't that the bottom line for change agents in the Kingdom of God? Trust? Whatever be the outcome concerning the process of change, nothing is gained if, at the end of the day, we no longer love each other as Christ commanded us to love.

More important than the specific issue is the heart attitude. More important than the final goal is the process leading to that goal. Change best happens when we allow the attitude of Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:5) to permeate the process.

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