What Does It Take To Change A Congregation? 

In CPR Connects by camerontrimble2 Comments

By Rev. Cameron Trimble, CEO of Convergence

In a webinar this week, Rev. Jim Keat, Convergence Director of Online Innovation, asked me what it takes for a congregation to change. It’s a big question and an important one in the face of today’s realities. In my experience as a congregational consultant, creating change isn’t a challenge for most congregations. Integrating change seems to be the stumbling block. Change management statistics suggest that approximately 70% of organizational change initiatives fail. I imagine many congregational leaders can attest to this reality.

As I outlined my thinking about change, I found my experience pointed to four conditions for integrating change: 

  1. The congregation must grant trust between leaders and participants sufficient to risk letting go of who they were in favor of a new way of being;
  2. They create a culture that rewards the pursuit of new possibilities;
  3. They mediate differences between ideas, opinions, and people as needed in service to the most generative outcome;
  4. They remediate conflicts early to reduce risk to the people and possibilities involved. 

Trust

In my experience, trust is the single most important contributor to change integration. Trust is the glue that holds human community together. It creates a sense of safety, belonging, and unity, all essential for navigating change effectively. 

The Trust Equation, developed by David Maister, Charles Green, and Robert Galford, gives us a useful way to think about the conditions that generate trust: 

Trustworthiness = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) / Self-Orientation

Let’s break this down: 

  • Credibility: People strive to be credible by demonstrating their competence, integrity, and consistency. This involves being knowledgeable about the congregation’s goals and values, maintaining transparency, and upholding ethical principles.
  • Reliability: People keep their promises and consistently deliver on commitments. Leaders should set realistic expectations and ensure they follow through on their commitments to the congregation. Participants, in turn, should be reliable in their attendance and contributions to the community.
  • Intimacy: Building intimacy means creating personal connections within the congregation. You encourage open and honest communication, active listening, and vulnerability among participants. This fosters a sense of belonging and solidarity.
  • Self-Orientation: The lower the self-orientation, the higher the trust. Leaders and participants should prioritize the needs of the congregation over personal interests. Selflessness strengthens trust by demonstrating a commitment to the greater good.

The trustworthiness of a congregation is dependent on the trustworthiness of each participant. That’s the hard part: our congregations are the sum total of each of us. When we are trustworthy, the culture of the congregation is as well. When we behave in destructive ways, the whole community suffers. In this way, building trust is both an internal and external task, deeply grounded in spiritual maturity. 

The Pursuit of New Possibilities

Change in the pursuit of new possibilities, often called intermediation, is an act of integrating discontinuity to break through established norms. Perhaps that is the scary part – it requires breaking things. I have found it useful to remember that breakdowns in our systems are necessary to lead to breakthroughs. Death to resurrection. We know the pattern, even if we resist it. 

Most often, congregations pursue new possibilities through anticipatory, future-oriented experiences: 

  • Vision and Mission Planning: Convergence consultants and coaches spend our best energy helping congregations work in this generative space. We have noticed a shift in this work over time. Historically, we could develop strategic plans for congregations that might guide the leadership for 5-10 years into the future. Today, we develop visions that looks 50 years into the future and plans with practical advice to leaders for 2-3 years. Given the pace of change in life today, we have to scale out our vision while scaling in our tactics. If you wonder why that is, read about Futures Labs here. 
  • Education and Learning: Thriving congregations cultivate a culture of curiosity. Congregations are now confronted with two sources of change: the traditional type that is initiated and managed; and external changes over which no one has control. In the face of uncertainty, we must learn ancient and new ways of discovering our world anew. The Buddhist tradition speaks of the “beginner’s mind” as a practice of playful discovery. With this posture, we should explore ideas from every industry, sector, and culture for inspiration of how God is present in the world. Often change happens when we see it happening to others, and we are inspired to embrace it ourselves. For support in this area, check out the offerings on the Convergence CoLab.

Mediating Differences and Remediating Problems

Change will lead to conflicts within the congregation. It’s inevitable. Because of that, we shouldn’t be surprised or intimidated by the clash of people, problems or processes. Having the skills to mediate differences and remediate conflicts is critical. 

It helps to distinguish the two: 

Mediation is the neutral assessment between competing influences such as a tolerance for uncertainty versus the need for certainty. My late mentor, Mel Toomey, used to say, “We mediate to reduce deviations from the new norm with the intention of increasing predictability, reliability, certainty and repeatability of the breakthrough efforts.” Mediation is a creative act refining the conditions needed for change to last and usually results in deeper investment from the people involved. 

Remediation is required when people experience injury or exile, and repair, reconnection and/or re-covenanting is needed. We use conflict transformation training as a preventative antidote for congregations BEFORE major conflict takes root. Sometimes congregations let the conflict fester too long and the hurt is too deep. In that case, outside mediation grants the opportunity to surface the pain, articulate needs to move forward, and discover common ground from which participants and leaders can move back to normal functioning. 

If you find yourself in a remediated context, here are some good questions, offered by mediator Kenneth Cloke, to explore in conflicted situations:

  • What happened?
  • How did it feel?
  • What do you want?
  • Why do you want it?
  • What does the other person want?
  • Why did they want it?
  • What are each of you doing in order to get it?
  • Is that working?
  • What do you think you might do instead?
  • What could you each do to help solve the problem? Are you willing to try that?
  • What have you learned that you want to do differently next time?
  • Is there anything else you want to say to each other before we end?

Conflict is a normal part of human community. But navigating through conflict requires developed skills and practice. If you need help in this area, we hope you will reach out.

Integrating change in a congregation is a dynamic process that demands commitment, trust, and a shared vision for an inspiring future. Remember that change can be a catalyst for transformation and growth, and when embraced with the right approach, it can lead to a congregation that thrives and makes a positive impact on the lives of its members and the community at large.

Comments

  1. I’ve grown increasingly aware that while people may accept evolution on a scientific level, they somehow cannot accept it on the level of religious thought and practice. I’ve always remembered that as a teenager (and ever since) I found helpful one minister’s description of the Bible as “a story of mankind’s search for God. “

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