Managing Congregational Change

Change management matters. We change or we die, as Church and as Christians. Of course that does not mean that all change is a good thing. Change can be managed well or managed badly. Change is not only big decisions about buildings, it is about everything that people assume about what will happen at church and what it will look like and their part in the process. There is a balance between consultation and participation, with leadership and direction. But even leaders with a vision need people who believe their message.

Elders are key people in discerning what God wants for a particular congregation. Working through their own reactions from hope to fear is an important part of helping the congregation as a whole work changes through in terms of testing and developing ideas, getting approval from stakeholders, implementing the project, and learning from the experience.

People react to a new proposal not just in terms of whether they think it is a good or a bad idea, but in terms of whether they have been give time and opportunity to own decisions and not have them forced upon them.

A key tip is to frequently invite people back to discussion of questions of purpose, mission and theology, and then return to the practical matter at hand. What is our mission? Why do we worship? What do we believe about God? What then do we need to do? This helps us see hesitations or opposition to change as an opportunity to understand better what people are concerned about.

Here are some other pointers for managing change in a congregation. A change proposal may be about large things or small. A seemingly trivial modification to congregational life can have a strong emotional or symbolic importance. What is to many a sign of promise and hope about new styles of music, different times of service, the facilities of a new building, or the redecoration of space, or the benefits of a Christian education or outreach program, may be the last straw in their sense of ownership and security for someone else.

Decisions which have failed to take people along have wrecked ministries and damaged congregations. Yet it is possible to do it right, and turn the risk of change into an exercise of faith which grows people's trust in God and confidence in each other.

When St Columba was looking at a new building before they moved from Pakuranga to Botany Downs, they put the congregation in buses and toured round other churches. They then met to discuss what they liked, what they did not like, and made suggestions to the planning committee. The whole church were on the journey.

Thanks to Keith Nisbet!