by Rich Doebler.

“There goes my pew!”

Art Luoma, 75, watched as the younger men stacked our church pews inside the rental trucks. We had just concluded our Sunday morning service with a rather unusual liturgy – something I’d never seen in all my years of church life. All over the sanctuary, people had taken out three-eighths inch wrenches from their pockets and unfastened our pews from the floor. Now Art’s pew–and dozens more–were heading a thousand miles west to a Lutheran church in Wyoming, while we replaced the pews with movable chairs.

“I paid for that pew,” Art said, his voice turning nostalgic. “I feel like getting into the truck and going with it.” His chuckle assured me he was only kidding, but I knew Art was feeling the discomfort that often comes with change.

It’s a discomfort we’ve all felt-for a number of reasons. Here are three of them:

Change Makes Us Feel Insecure
We resist change because we enjoy the security of the familiar. We are more comfortable with things we know. Change, however, takes us into unknown areas and uncertain experiences: How do we know we’ll like the chairs once we get them? Pews seem more like church. Once they’re gone, there’s no going back.

Not knowing what may come makes us apprehensive. Familiar circumstances are much more predictable.

I still remember the congregational meeting when one person raised her hand to ask accusingly, “Is it true you’re going to paint all the woodwork in our sanctuary? You’re actually going to cover up all this beautiful stained wood with paint?”

Yes, it was true. We acknowledged her concern but also explained how decorating experts had recommended a brighter atmosphere. In other words, this wasn’t just the whim of somebody pushing their personal preference. “It will be different,” one of our leaders admitted, “but it will be better in the long run.”

In fact, since the room was made brighter, we’ve heard no complaints.

It was also true that we were planning a new church addition – one that would cover up half the exterior of the sanctuary. The organ was already gone. Small groups were in. The Sunday evening service was out. Eventually, more change would bring a McDonald’s-style “playland” to our church as part of fulfilling our vision to connect with families in the community.

We all had to make adjustments as we grappled with the new and unfamiliar.

We Sense a Loss of Control
Some years ago, the church I pastored was constructing a new building in a new location. Those changes presented a unique opportunity, in my view, to change the name of the church and launch a new image in the community. We went through a process showing the benefits of such a change, but it was a hard sell. In the end, the change we got was a compromise – a minor cosmetic shift, not the new image I had envisioned.

Even though I felt I was not in control, having failed to achieve the changes desired, others felt they had lost control because the change they didn’t want had been thrust upon them. A few months later, one board member spoke to me. “Preacher,” he said, “I think we’re going to have to change the name back again.”

We never got around to that. It would have been one more change than we could have handled. But the lesson was not lost on me – difficulty in accepting change often stems from a control issue.

When a change that I don’t choose impacts my life, I feel a loss of control. It’s easier for me to accept the changes I initiate myself, because I still maintain some sense of control. This, of course, cuts to the core of a spiritual question: as pastor, have I surrendered my will to God’s, or am I defending my personal interests?

We Don’t Process Change Adequately
Pastors and church leaders can often make changes more easily than many in the congregation can accept them. That’s partly because they’ve gone through the change process. They “own” the change, while others are more skeptical and suspicious of the motives behind the proposals.

Church leaders typically take the time to work through a matter and attempt to grasp its significance before deciding on a course of action. In the process, they come to understand why change is necessary – even beneficial. Leaders evaluate the pros and cons of various proposals. Then they lay plans to implement the change.

It’s not the same for many in our congregations. They often feel that changes happen to them, unlike the leaders who have some satisfaction in knowing that changes happen because of them. It’s the difference between active involvement and passive involvement.

We can, however, help passive become active when we provide means for the congregation to become part of the process that leads to change. If we take additional time to help people understand the necessity and the benefits, they may begin to gain personal ownership for the change. Though they might not be entirely comfortable with it, they will more likely endorse changes they have helped to shape.

Once again I find myself in a church that is contemplating changing its name. We’ve taken our time, though, because we know that such a major change can be an emotional issue. Logical reasons for changing the name of a church will not automatically supersede emotions or family loyalties. Rational explanations do not easily replace 75 years of tradition.

So we’ve been going slowly, carefully talking through the issues and taking time to remind ourselves of our primary purpose as a church. We’re gently making the case that our name is a bit antiquated. Though it’s acceptable to us on the inside, it doesn’t communicate effectively to those on the outside. If our name gets in the way of our purpose as a church, or if it creates misunderstanding in the minds of the unchurched in our community, we ask, isn’t it worthwhile to consider a change?

We’ve floated the name-change issue on numerous occasions, often inviting feedback and suggestions. We’ve told stories of community members who question what a “Tabernacle” is–a Mormon church? A Jewish gathering? Some kind of cult? We’ve discussed in group settings how other kinds of names can convey our congregational identity more clearly.

Some people, predictably, have dismissed the discussion as “marketing” the church – a worldly concept, they say. Others have joined in the conversation and have begun to see the value of presenting a fresh identity. Several have traveled, observed other churches, and returned with new name suggestions.

But the whole exercise is our attempt to walk through the process of change, helping people understand it so they can accept it.

Going with the Spirit’s Flow
“No one pours new wine into old wineskins,” Jesus said in Mark 2:22. “If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins.”

The work of God’s Spirit, like the new wine, is growing and expanding. If we try to contain God’s work within the framework of our old systems or inflexible traditions, we limit what God wants to do. If we are rigid and inflexible, if we resist change, if we cannot stretch with the new thing that God desires to do in our lives and in our church, then we face a fate similar to the old wineskins-and the new wine itself is lost.

Like you, I like to view myself as a “change agent.” But the truth is, I can be a creature of habit like anyone else. Just ask my wife. She still remembers the time when, after several months of engagement, our wedding day drew near. The closer it came, the more I began to consider how my life was about to change. I wouldn’t be single anymore; I would have to give up time for my personal activities and interests; I would have to make new commitments and obligations; I’d be playing a new role. Yes, I was in love, and I wanted to be married, but I knew so much would be different after that day.

Sharon could read all this going on in my head. She finally confronted me during this time of serious reflection: “If you don’t change your attitude about our wedding, then I’m going to call the whole thing off.” That was enough to get me to deal with the changes. We have now been happily married for 31 years.

I wonder if God doesn’t at times view us in the same way – as reluctant participants to the commitment he’s calling us to make. He wants us to get with the program, to be totally committed to the changes he wants to accomplish. Jesus told a story in Matthew 21 about a son whose father told him to go work in the vineyard. “‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.” (v. 29). Sometimes it’s good for us to swallow our pride and reverse our previous declaration. Staying in sync with an active God is more important than saving face or preserving tradition.

Richard Doebler is senior pastor of Cloquet Gospel Tabernacle in Cloquet, Minnesota.

Steps to Owning a New Idea
Create a climate that underscores your congregation’s central purpose and goals. Here are some ways to do that.

1. Leadership retreats. These are not just for elders and deacons, but for all those involved in ministry roles. Get them talking to each other about why you exist as a church. This kind of dialogue can also occur in monthly training sessions for children’s workers or small-group leaders.

2. Purpose statement. Develop a clear and concise statement that describes who you are and why you’re here. Then continually work to increase the visibility of that statement-and not just in your literature. You might even restate it every Sunday as you welcome people to church. Or stencil it in large letters on a wall of the foyer. This statement then becomes a simple measure for evaluating the things you do-or the threshold for deciding not to do other things.

3. No assumptions. If you’re talking about changing the church name, for example, you must also talk about reasons why it should not be changed. As you navigate this process, you may decide the cost of changing the name is higher than the benefits. Pastors who seek to build consensus cannot assume the outcome of their efforts if they intend to give ownership of an idea to the congregation.

4. Self-awareness. Know who you are-how God has equipped and gifted your congregation. Also have a clear picture of your personal style. A change that is right for another church may not fit you. Collect a list of terms that describe who you are-words that describe your central beliefs and doctrine, your core values, your personality, and your stated purpose.

5. Biblical foundations. Try to identify which practices are rooted in clear biblical directives, and which are simply tradition. For example, there’s no Bible reason why hospital ministry visits should not be the exclusive domain of ordained pastors. Volunteer hospital visitation teams are great. It’s also important to teach members to value a visit from a fellow church member as much as a visit from the pastor.

6. Spiritual direction. Prayer groups and prayer meetings under the guidance of the Holy Spirit can create an atmosphere of acceptance for change. When God speaks to people’s hearts as he did to Isaiah, they will more readily embrace changes he is introducing: Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:18-19)

Rich Doebler is senior pastor of Cloquet Gospel Tabernacle in Cloquet, Minnesota.

4 thoughts on “Navigating Change

  1. Re: “happily married for 31 years” can we be grateful that some thing don’t change, but mature?

    Thanks for a thoughtful and timely article.

      •  Wait!  Is there a typo here?  Or ???  Was this article written 8 years ago?  Or, have you kept track of which years were happy, and which weren’t?  Now married 39 years, but happily married for 31 years.  Just kidding of course.  Thanks for a very interesting article.

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