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Home > Issues > 2007 > Spring > Before You Introduce Change

Bringing change to an organization isn't easy. Everyone who has ever led a church would agree. Perhaps it's a congregation that's aging and isn't connecting with younger people, but no one wants to make changes that would welcome younger people and integrate them into the life of the church.

Perhaps it's a congregation that has a full calendar and keeps its people busy, but isn't engaged at all with people in the community outside the church.

Where do you start with the necessary changes?

John Kotter, an expert on leadership at the Harvard Business School, has studied how the best organizations actually "do" significant change. He suggests that useful change tends to be associated with a multi-step process, which creates power and motivation sufficient to overcome the inertia, obstacles, and inevitable resistance.

In his book Leading Change, he outlines this eight-step process:

  1. Establish a sense of urgency.

  2. Create a guiding coalition

  3. Develop a vision and strategy

  4. Communicate the change vision

  5. Empower broad-based action

  6. Generate short-term wins

  7. Consolidate wins and produce more change

  8. Anchor new approaches into the culture.

I've found his process has substantial implications for guiding change in my church.

In Kotter's opinion the first three steps are necessary to defrost a hardened status quo. Steps four to seven introduce a number of new practices. And the last step grounds the changes into the organization's culture.

My mistake (and in my observation, the mistake of most churches introducing change) has been to start at step 4: communicating the vision. But Kotter cautions that steps 4, 5, and following won't succeed unless steps 1 through 3 are implemented.

Without the first three steps, there is rarely a solid enough foundation to bring about lasting change.

Without the first three steps, there is rarely a solid enough foundation to bring about lasting change. Here's what I've learned about the needed preparation before changes are introduced and the "vision is cast."

A sense of urgency

Establishing a sense of urgency means that people in the church recognize that there's a real problem. Until they sense "Something's got to be done," too often a congregation will live in denial.

This can be due to the comfort afforded by past successes, a lack of a visible crisis, low standards of performance, or fuzzy thinking about the church's purpose. Others are paralyzed by the complexity of change. The response is to become passive. Whatever the cause, such complacency must be torn down. Honesty is required, honest talk that is well-informed.

I had recently become senior pastor of a prominent church with a glorious history in Portland, Oregon. The church enjoyed a storied past that included a number of church plants and the establishment of Western Seminary.

More recently, however, the church had experienced significant pastoral turnover, four senior pastors in eight years, and the congregation was seriously graying.

At my first annual business meeting, I was asked, "What changes do you expect to introduce to the congregation?" The question was asked by one of our older members, one of more than 600 seniors who attended the church. While they enjoyed the church programs and adult Christian education classes, almost no one between 20-40 years old attended. I knew if any plans for the future were to succeed, it would require the support of this senior population. But I also knew they did not sense a crisis.

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Related Topics:ChangeDecision MakingPlanningPrioritiesValuesVision
From Issue:Behind the Curtain: Holiness, Spring 2007 | Posted: April 1, 2007

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