" Leading Congregational Change: A Practical Guide for the Transformational Journey”
PHIL>>> What "defining moment(s)" led each of you to personally commit to reimagine Church, eventually resulting in your book, Leading Congregational Change?
JIM>>> I don't think I was reimagining church back in 2000 when we wrote the book. I think I was imagining how to help churches do more effectively what they had been doing all along. Back then we would have used the language of the attractional model of church built around the homogenous unit with success being measured by church growth.
What we discovered in the late 80s and early 90s was that our mental models were built on assumptions of slow change and homogeneity in our ministry context AND THAT WAS CHANGING. So, without challenging some of the existing mental models of the attractional approach to church, I was trying to help congregations engage change in a different way than they have ever had to do before in working to keep growing the church.
It wasn't until a decade or more later with the influence of Leslie Newbiggin and then the book "Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America" (1998) that my vision of church began to be reimagined. So, it evolved over a decade.
A part of what has helped it evolve is that we have led four massive projects where we have field tested our work. We worked with more than 250 congregations in Houston over a five-year period. Then we did a three-year project with American Baptist Churches USA and 200 church planters. Then we did a three-year project with the Indianapolis Center for Congregations. This project only had twelve congregations, but they represented everything from liberal to conservative and most major denominational traditions in the Indianapolis area. And then we were involved in a 10-year project with the Reformed Church in America, the Christian Reformed Church in North America, and Western Theological Seminary in Holland Michigan. In this project we worked with over 150 congregations.
So, it was in all that work that our sense that the need to reimagine church evolved.
MIKE>>> When we wrote the first edition, researchers were just beginning to name the reality that our society was becoming post-Christian. We could see the reality of this as we interacted with church leaders who were experiencing declining attendance while working harder than ever. We frequently said, “If you keep doing what you’ve been doing, you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting.” Since what they were getting was not good, it was clear that deep change was needed. But few pastors had been trained in how to lead healthy change. We wanted to create a resource that would help them in this very difficult work.
JAMES>>> At least four streams of thought and experience converged to shape my contribution to Leading Congregational Change. First, during the 1980’s, graduate study concerning church and community interaction while I was consulting with churches in changing communities provided a background for later learning. I realized the significance of contextual dynamics and organizational change processes, as well as the rarity of deep and lasting change in individuals and organizations. Second, beginning in 1989, work with the UBA staff team toward systemic innovation in leadership development was inspiring. The strategy of helping congregational leaders experience personal transformation increased the likelihood of deep change in their churches. Third, my initial exposure to missional theology in 1996 began a life-changing journey toward a more fruitful ecclesiology and missiology. Without deep theological grounding, which we called spiritual and relational vitality in Leading Congregational Change, change efforts are more likely to be ineffective or even distorted.
Leading Congregational Change, especially the 2020 Fortress Press edition, allowed us to summarize our learning and experiences in ways that can encourage, equip, and empower leaders to more fully embrace some of the inspirations, insights, and innovations that transformed us. A fourth motive, then, is a sense of stewardship to share some of the blessings of what we are still learning.
PHIL>>> "We write this book out of a deep conviction that bold transformation is needed in many congregations that cover the American landscape." ... Using your own question from the Preface, "Why do today's congregations need to be transformed?"
JIM>>> Because the pace of change has been so fast for so long that most of our ways of doing church no longer work. Evidence of this is the growth of the "nones" and "dones" - both the pace and the scope of that growth is exponential. A growing percentage of the US population sees the church as irrelevant.
Missional theologians have done a fairly good job of articulating the shift we need to make from primarily an attractional model to primarily a missional model. That shift is from activities that are primarily about getting people to come to church (the building) to activities that are primarily about equipping people to mobilize the body of Christ in the neighborhood and the workplace.
But the gap between where most congregations that I interact with are and where they need to be to impact the culture is huge. And in most of those congregations, the mental models of the attractional church are so deeply held that any change efforts focus on working harder at the things that made the attractional church successful.
Today I believe that every North American congregation faces two choices - deep change or slow death. And in the early stages they will both look like dying. In one case it will be dying to an old way of doing church so that a new way can be resurrected. In the other case it will be a death that results the loss of influence and impact in a more permanent way.
PHIL>>> "Congregational transformation is essential, but it will only occur when leaders commit to personal transformation. Can you live with that?" ... Why that question?
MIKE>>> Leaders often name the organizational change that is needed in a way that externalizes the problem. They may suggest their problems would be solved “If our church members were more committed” or “If we can raise the funds for the renovation project.” What we’ve seen, however, is that meaningful organizational change doesn’t occur unless leaders are also willing to be changed. In fact, the personal transformation usually needs to come first. Our question – “can you live with that?” – challenges leaders to not begin a change journey unless they are willing to dive into the messiness of re-examining and changing how they lead.
PHIL>>> Leaders who reimagine ministry must also take their congregation on a journey into "life-giving transformation."
- Can anyone become a change-agent? What makes someone a change-agent with the capacity to lead others into transformation?
- JAMES>>> Insofar as the essence of change agentry, or leadership, is influencing other people, we are all inevitably change agents whether that influence is intentional or unintentional, faithful or unfaithful, constructive or destructive. The call for discipleship to Jesus, the core change, applies to everyone. The opportunity to serve as a change agent, or leader, requires our own transformation toward Christlikeness, and the passion and compassion to equip, mobilize, and inspire other people for the countless expressions of Christian discipleship.
- Spiritual and relational vitality is profoundly personal and corporate."How is that not an oxymoron?
- JIM>>> When we wrote the book, we only wrote one chapter or spiritual and relational vitality. Our assumption was that most congregations were good at this. What we have learned over the years is that this is not so. As we have researched this topic and worked in the pilot projects referred to above, we can now talk about this in a more nuanced way.
On the personal side there is the work of helping people (our members) learn to have an intimate relationship with God, neighbor (stranger and enemy - see the Good Samaritan), and self. A measure of success of this work is this. Are people regularly being equipped to bear the fruit of the Spirit when it's easy and when it's really challenging (stranger and enemy) and are they joining God in God's mission in the world to restore wholeness to the earth?
On the corporate side, there is the set questions about how we mobilize people around a shared vision. We can do this in a way that get broad, deep commitment from key leaders in the congregation, or we can do this work in a way that results in formal compliance - "sure pastor, if that's what you want to do, you go ahead." The work of personal growth and mobilizing people around a shared vision is more complex than ever before.
- Please comment on these "Elements of Spiritual and Relational Vitality:"
- Encountering God's Holiness -
- MIKE>>> Ultimately, leading congregational change is about discerning where God is leading a church. But we can’t discern God’s direction if we don’t encounter God in the change process. In the absence of God’s presence, a church’s change process will be a business or political process with a cursory prayer added at the end.
- Experiencing God's Grace –
- JAMES>>> We tend to operate as individuals, groups, and communities around the practice of exchange. You do something for me, and I match your action with the appropriate response whether that involves gratitude, compensation, or action. At best, this process can result in a process we think of as fairness and safeguard against abuse. The downside of basing our entire lifestyle on exchange is the tendency to assign value to people simple for the “services” they provide and to fixate on getting the best “deal” we can on every transaction and relationship. This can easily slip into pridefulness regarding our accomplishments and the temptation to discount the intrinsic value of people inherent in God’s creation. The disastrous effect on leaders can be an obsession with whatever seems “bigger, better, and faster.” The intent of God’s design is that the appropriate stewardship of our capacities and opportunities never assumes we are self-sufficient dealmakers. We are, in fact, limited and sinful creatures. Only by God’s unconditional love and grace are we able to enjoy life’s blessings with God and with one another. The disposition of gratitude and humility that flows from that dynamic is fundamental to faithfulness and life-giving relationships
- Embracing Unity -
- JIM>>> Unity must be distinguished from uniformity. We live in a world where congregations often organize in echo chambers. Using the body of Christ imagery, hands get in one church, eyes in another, ears in another. It's rare to find progressives and conservatives, young and old, people with differing view of the work of the Atonement, etc., in the same church. Unity requires a level of emotional maturity that is often not present in congregations. Instead, we settle for uniformity.
- Engaging Community –
- MIKE>>>Genuine community facilitates the accountability and risk-taking that are necessary for healthy change. Community also draws in people with diverse gifts and thoughts, which results in better decisions. And when conflict occurs, which is inevitable in the midst of change, people who are engaged in community are better able to work through their differences.
PHIL>>> "The nature of leadership that is required to initiate and guide transformation represents a major shift for many congregations." You assert the need to shift from transactional ministry to transformational ministry. Please define the differences and why this rethinking is essential to vital congregations in our 21st century culture.
JAMES>>> My answer tracks with the necessity of God’s grace and the risk of functioning without it. Transactional leadership is about making deals in which a leader offers something sufficiently desirable to those he/she leads and their matching response. For instance, if a pastor provides the church a sense of direction, encouragement, and opportunities to satisfy various felt needs, the people may respond with loyalty, affirmation, participation, and resources. At the superficial level, churches can rock along for a long time this way until or unless a significant imbalance in the “trade” is perceived by one or both parties resulting in disengagement, dissatisfaction, or disruption. At the very least, the seeming positive energy only flows while the leader initiates the necessary activities. This progression helps explain why burn-out is so common among pastoral leaders.
Transformational leaders help those they lead to recognize and embrace the reign of God in creation, to discern God’s intent for their lives, their congregation, and all creation, as well as the distinct aspects of God’s movement to which they are called to contribute at every place and time. This transformational style shifts the movement from a dimension that is primarily extrinsic (initiated externally or from the outside) to motives that are more intrinsic (initiated internally or from the inside). The role and influence of transformational leaders is no less critical, but the journey toward God’s vision is likely to be more collaborative and interdependent.
PHIL>>> How will transformational leadership help us reimagine ministry?
- Praying: Making prayer congregational priority...
- JIM>>> For me, prayer is a call to align my life with God's life. God's ways are not my ways and God's thoughts are not my thoughts, but I can know God's ways and thoughts and align my life around those ways. So, at both the personal and the congregational level, discernment becomes a critical skill. People like Dallas Willard and Ruth Haley Barton are among those who have written and taught about this kind of discernment. A second thought is that when church becomes a place for religious consumers to get their needs met, prayer often becomes an activity designed to ask God to give me what I want rather than an activity to ask God to help me align my life with God's mission. Prayer and particularly corporate discernment must be tied to God's mission in the world.
- Organizing: Shifting from managing to changing...
- MIKE>>> Managing focuses on keeping the current system running as well as possible. Managing is important in contexts where change is not needed because it provides stability and efficiency. But the current systems are part of the problem. We don’t need to manage our existing systems better – we need to create new ways of thinking and new systems that are more nimble and flexible.
- DiscipleMaking: Seeking to be experiential rather than programmatic...
- JAMES>>> Programs are the routine activities we design and implement to address specific goals like Bible study, community service, prayer, etc. The benefit of programs is that they intentionally mobilize people to achieve a desired outcome. They give feet to a preferred destination. The risk is over-reliance on program design, the popularity of the activity, and the assumption that it will always contribute to the original objectives. Good learning design requires that we routinely assess whether current and potential participants in the program have an experience aligned with the result. Programs are means to the ends of spiritual and relational vitality although they may be comfortable and enjoyable in and of themselves. A second consideration is learning style. Some individuals strongly prefer learning by reflection on planned actions rather than the more traditional mode of programs based primarily on acquiring information that is later “applied” by individuals if and when they choose to do so.
- Impact: In the community but also for the community and with the community...
- JIM>>> We did a project in Houston nearly 20 years ago. We divided the city into about 40 regions, and we interview community leaders (business owners, public school leaders, police officer, etc.) and ask them several questions including "How can the church serve the community?" The most common answer we got was, "Show up when the community is trying to solve problems like education, transportation, homelessness. Mostly the church is absent from those conversations. You only seem interested in the things that benefit you." That was sobering feedback. Over the years the church is growing in its capacity to see itself as a contributor to the common good, even if/when it doesn't result in the growth of the institution that we call church.
PHIL>>> Please leave us with a question that will challenge us to seek Spirit-led direction and Scripture-fed vision...
JIM>>> Transformation is not a one-and-done journey. It lasts a lifetime. So, a question that I'm regularly asking myself is this. What must change in me that empowers me to more fully join God in God's mission in the world?
MIKE>>> I am regularly challenged by the parable of the talents in Matthew 25. We all serve in different contexts and have different resources and capabilities. God doesn’t call us to duplicate what someone else is doing. But God does call us to be good stewards of what we have been given. So how well are we stewarding our leadership gifts and opportunities?
JAMES>>> It is easy to assert our willingness and desire to change as individuals and as congregations. Most of us know, however, even without conscious awareness or articulation, that there are limits to what we are willing to change and why. In fact, most of us probably avoid reflection on or verbalization of such questions so we do not have to acknowledge our restrictions. For example, I say I want to be healthier, but I am unwilling to exercise regularly. We say we want our congregation to be faithful, but we choose to avoid any issues that create discomfort for the members.
Worth pondering…What personal and congregational changes are you unwilling to even consider? Why? What will you do?