I had not planned on being a “Change Agent.” Oh, I was good with vision that tweaked and refined. It was fun being in a growing church, adding programs and staff, building a new campus. We were the flagship church for our denomination, and our church loved the central role we played. The Bible School and denominational headquarters were in our city. The President and faculty of the college sat in our pews. Life was good, and leadership was fun. But things change. I’m okay with improvements; wholesale change was not what I signed up for.
Circumstances thrust me into the role of “Change Agent”, and it was scary. A number of things happened simultaneously, over which I had no control:
- Our denominational leadership decided to shut down our struggling Bible school and merge with a Bible college in another city. Translation: denominational influence was removed from our church.
- Our conference voted to merge with another denomination. That meant headquarters would move from our city. Translation: prestige and significance were removed from our church.
- Our church had outgrown its administrative structure. Growth is good (everybody wanted that) but it meant the organizational structure had to adapt (some did not like that). Translation: power structures had to change.
I happened to be responsible to lead the church through this wholesale change. I could feel the angst rising within the congregation – and me. I remember thinking one day, “Good grief, I could get shot!” Though I wasn’t in the midst of a literal war, it was true I could lose my job if things didn’t go well. We were headed into dangerous times. I was clearly in over my head.
Times like that make you pray earnestly. And God answered! I came across a book title that caught my attention, The Change Agent, by Lyle Schaller. It’s an old book now, but the essential message is still valid. It was exactly what I needed right then – a map for navigating change without fatal results.
The essence is that successful change happens in a series of widening circles:
- The Change Agent sees what needs to change before others do, and is ready to do something about it. Problem is, when someone shakes up people’s comfort zones, they want to get rid of the person causing the discomfort. I felt like I had a large target printed on my chest. So, the first action the Change Agent needs to take is:
- Recruit a Leadership Core. This way several are wearing targets, and people are not sure who to shoot, especially if some of the Leadership Core are people with ‘social capital,’ i.e. trusted influence. This group then introduces the change to:
- The Wider Group. These are people who tend to be more open-minded and objective, and accepting of constructive change. The Leadership Core must be able to explain the change to the wider group in a way that makes sense to them. When the Wider Group supports the change, then …
- The Majority eventually come on board.
I took this advice to heart, and it saved my bacon. I recruited a handful of trusted, credible leaders to walk with me. These good men and women helped me wisely navigate change, and communicated it well to their friends and the rest of the congregation. We allowed plenty of time for the Wider Group and Majority to process things; lots of meetings and answering questions.
I’m glad to report I’m still alive, and the change did happen peacefully. It took about three years to implement, and several more to prove itself. The church re-oriented its vision and focused its actions accordingly: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
This is a general ‘map’ of how change happens, but there’s more. We explore change management in detail in the CREST Master in Christian Leadership. It could save your bacon. More than that, it could be the wisdom you need to lead change wisely, into the future God is lovingly initiating.