DEALING WITH CHANGE IN THE RURAL CHURCH
by Glenn C. Daman
The story is told of an old man who lived in a dilapidated house that was no longer fit to live in. The roof leaked, the plumbing was rusted, and the foundation was rotted. Finally, the plight of the old man was brought to the attention of authorities who then stepped in to help this individual. They build a new house with all the modern conveniences. The house, while small, was more than sufficient for the needs of the man. The day finally arrived when the house was finished, and the old man could move in. To the surprise of those involved the man refused to move. The fear of change prevented him from moving, even though the move would have been for his benefit.
In some ways the rural church is often like the old man. The fear of change is greater than the crisis that they are facing in ministry. Change for the rural church is often difficult, feared and resisted because it involves a break with the past and the uncertainty of the future.
CHANGE IS NECESSARY
While change is difficult, change is necessary for growth to occur. All growth involves change. Therefore, effective leadership involves leading people through the process of change. This is true individually as we lead people through the process of personal transformation. This is equally true organizationally as the church seeks to effectively minister the gospel of Christ to a changing society. Change is unavoidable for any who desire to lead people. Therefore, the wise leader not only will be sensitive to the crisis change brings, but is also aware of the principles of change. To understand the nature of change, the leader needs to understand why people resist change.
CHANGE IS OFTEN RESISTED
People resist change for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are valid, some are erroneous, some are reasonable, some are irrational, some are significant, some are trivial.
1. People resist change because of ownership with the past. The rural church is characterized by a high degree of ownership. When change is suggested it involves a break from that which they have invested time and energy and have a sense of ownership of. To accept the new involves a loss of power as they lose their ownership with the past. Change brings everyone back to zero. Fred resists changing the structure of the Sunday School because he was the one who devised the structure and feels a strong sense of ownership of the program. Changing the structure means that the program will no longer be "Fred's program." For Fred the change involves both a loss of ownership and loss of power.
2. Change is often seen as a threat to past traditions and the heritage of the church. Rural churches place a high value upon their heritage and tradition. When change is suggested it often involves a break from the past, something that many in the rural church will find difficult. Moving to a new building may be the most logical thing to do, but it involves moving from the building where couples where married and children were raised. To move to a new building would constitute a break from that past heritage. Even minor changes take on new import because of the past traditions to which they are tied. Purchasing new carpeting may seem insignificant until one realizes that it was purchased with "Grandma Johnson's Memorial Fund." For some, to remove the carpet is to abandon the legacy that Grandma Johnson had left in the church.
3. Change involves the risk of failure. Because rural churches tend to be always on the verge of closure, people will resist change because of the inherent risks involved. The past way of doing things may not be the most efficient and effective but it did at least assure the church of survival. While the change may enable the church to be more stable and strengthen the actual ministry of the church, the risk of failure may cause people to resist. The greater the change the greater the risk and the greater the perceived threat to the stability of the rural church. People use to come to the First Church because of the strong Sunday School. That is what kept the church open. For some, to change the Sunday School in any way is to risk the very thing that kept the church open.
4. People fear the unknown. Children fear the dark because they cannot see what is there. Consequently, the night becomes an unknown and feared. The same is true of change. Change brings an element of unknown and uncertainty. Even though the "Ladies Missionary Society" may no longer be effective, people know how to run the program. While a Women's Ministry program would be more effective, people will resist the change because they do not know how to organize and run the program.
RESPONSES TO CHANGE
To bring change into the rural church involves patience, gentleness and sensitive leadership. Knowing why people respond can enable the leader to lead with sensitivity. Knowing how people will respond can enable the leader to lead with patience. People respond to the challenge of change differently, depending on their personalities, background and present circumstances. How each person responds to change has both its strengths and weaknesses. People respond to change in four basic ways.
1. Some people see change as a friend to be embraced. There will always be those who are ready and open to change. In the rural church they may be the younger individuals who have less commitments and ownership with the past. It may also be older members who are dissatisfied with the present. They are individuals who are visionaries and see possibilities beyond the present. They are the initiators of change, without which the church would never be challenged to change. These individual, will constitute a small minority within the church. They are the ones frequently saying, "We need to do this differently...." The danger is that they change for change sake without carefully thinking through the ramifications and end result. At times the leader may need to hold this group back lest they make changes that the congregation is not ready to make.
2. Some people see change as a companion to be selected with care. A far more significant number of people are open to change but will not immediately embrace the change. They are those who are willing to accept changes, but they will approach the change with more caution and with the need to be shown how the change will be effective. They will not initiate change but are not usually opposed to change as long as they can see the benefits. These may be individuals who have been in the church longer and have more ownership in the past. They may say, "That sounds like a good idea, but...." To effect change the leader needs to demonstrate to these individuals the value and benefits of the change.
3. Some people see change as a stranger to be accepted with caution. The second significant group within the church are those who will eventually accept the change, but only after much resistance. They will accept the change only after the change has proven to be valuable. The problem is that they will resist all change for a time, often defeating the changes that would have helped the church. One reason they resist the change is that they do have a high degree of ownership with the past. They are the ones often heard saying, "We have never done it that way before." The leader needs to help these individuals accept the change even if they may not fully agree with the change. They need to be willing to give the change an opportunity to succeed.
4. Some people see change as an enemy to resist. Just as a small portion of the people will be open to change for any reason, there will be a minority who resist change regardless of the reason. While the number will be few, they will be vocal and a formidable opponent to change. Their favorite phrase is, "It will never work." Even when it does, they will find reasons why it will not continue to work. It is important to realize that every church will likely have these individuals. The leader needs to demonstrate love for them but not allow them to defeat the necessary changes.
Understanding how people respond to change can enable the leader to carefully identify and work with each group.
BUILDING TOWARDS CHANGE
Change does not just happen, it must be carefully developed and planned.
1. Carefully communicate why the change is necessary. The most crucial element of change is communication. Before people will accept change, they need to see why the past no longer will work and why the change will bring better results. This involves constant communication In the process of change over communication is never a problem and the natural tendency of leaders is to under communicate. Assuming people understand the reasons and benefits of the change will usually result in people failing to understand the reasons and benefits of the change. Communication needs to be clear, complete and constant with no assumptions made about the people's understanding or acceptance of the change.
2. Tie the present change with the past heritage. People will accept new changes if they see that it is an extension of the past heritage of the church. Because the rural church places a high value on the past heritage, the change should be shown to be an extension of their heritage. Talk about the past and relate the present to the past. Carpeting the church with the "New Grandma Johnson Memorial Fund" will enable the people to keep the heritage while replacing the carpeting.
3. Provide people the opportunity to have input in the process of change. People resist change because of ownership with the past. If they are involved in the process of change, they will develop a sense of ownership with the future. An important rule of thumb in the rural church is that the leader cannot dictate change. People will only accept the changes when it is "their idea." Before they replace the old, they will need to own the new.
4. Relate the changes to the needs of people. Relationships are a core value of the rural church. By relating the change to the needs of people the leader can show that the changes will strengthen relationships rather than just build the organization. Showing people why small group bible studies will be more effective in building relationships and spiritual maturity will provide the content for changing from the traditional Prayer Meeting. Rural churches are more concerned about relationships than they are fads and programs.
5. Be patient. The rural church is not impressed with fads and it will be slow to adapt significant changes. Gary McIntosh suggests that it takes 5-7 years to make significant directional changes in a traditional church and 10-12 years in a rural church. The leader needs to be patient with the people. Many important and significant changes in the rural church are left undone because the leader lost patience with the people. Change is never easy for people in rural churches, therefore the sensitive leader gives people the time to process the change. If the change is important enough to the ministry, the wait will be worth it.
6. Give people the freedom to reject the change at anytime. Respecting people involves giving them the right to reject the proposed change, even after the change has been implemented. To demand a change will only bring defeat not only to the change, but even to the ministry of the leader. People will be less likely to resist the change if they aware that they can always reverse the decision later.
COMMON REACTIONS TO CHANGE
· 1. When people are confronted with change, they often feel uncomfortable, awkward, silly, self-conscious, and even embarrassed--especially in the beginning.
· 2. When people are asked to change the way they do something, their initial focus is on what they have to give up rather than on what they are going to gain.
· 3. When people are asked to do something differently, even if a lot of others are going through the same change, they feel alone.
· 4. When people are asked to change too much, they can become overwhelmed and immobilized.
· 5. During a change effort, people tend to display different levels of readiness to change.
· 6. When a change effort starts, people often are concerned that they don't have enough resources to make the changes.
o Ken Blanchard, Playing the Great Game of Golf
1. Aubrey Malphurs, Pouring New Wine into Old Wineskins, Baker Book House.
2. Douglas Alan Walrath, Leading Churches Through Change, Abingdon Press.
3. Lyle E. Schaller, Strategies for Change, Abingdon Press.
4. Lyle E. Schaller, The Change Agent, Abingdon Press.
5. Barney Wells, Martin Giese, Ron Klassen, Leading Through Change, ChurchSmart Resources.