Navigating the Honeymoon Period at a Church

Five helpful change management concepts

In your new pastoral role, regardless of whether you are seasoned or a new pastor, people will expect you to bring change. Yet many of those changes they expect probably don’t align with the changes you hope to bring. Nevertheless, they do expect some things to be different. What is the key to successful change?

The decisions you make early on will label you as either rash or purposeful, firm or indecisive. … The impression you make and signals you send will either motivate people to pledge their loyalty or allow them to sit on the sidelines, or worse, impel them to turn against you.

Here are five key change management concepts that will be helpful for you. These concepts relate to fundamental mind-sets to understand and develop to bring a healthy change in your new role and deal less with the specifics on how to actually create change.

1. Communicate well what you intend to change, building upon the prior chapter’s content. You can’t overcommunicate. Keep those affected by your changes informed. Bring as many of the players into the conversation as is feasible. If you make them feel like insiders, they will readily embrace change. The more collaborative your process, the more successful your change. Acknowledge that change is difficult for you too.

2. Understand why people resist change. Change is both a scary and a hopeful word. It’s scary in that it seems that many church people seem to often oppose it. It’s hopeful because all living things change, and we want our churches to be fully alive.

People resist or embrace changes largely based on unconscious factors, because the brain tends to interpret change as a threat, which, in turn, creates resistance. The brain is organized around a fundamental principle: Minimize threat / maximize reward, which results in either resistance to change or openness to it. The uncertainty of change feels like a threat, which engages the brain’s fear centers and creates resistance to change.

God wired our brains for us to seek reward and certainty in our lives. When the future feels ambiguous or uncertain, we subconsciously feel threatened, which creates an away response (avoid that which threatens us) that results in resistance. On the other hand, we are drawn toward safety, reward and pleasure, what cognitive neuroscientists call a toward response. Away responses from people include negativity, fear, passive aggression or complaining. Toward responses might include excitement, support and good gossip—how we hope people will respond. The more uncertain and ambiguous church change appears, the less support you’ll get and the more difficult the change will become. So what do we need to remember so that our changes feel less ambiguous, uncertain or threatening?

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3. Recognize that different personalities respond to change in different ways. Your church includes both left-brain leaning and right-brain leaning people, so you’ll want to include both avoid and approach messages in your change communication plan.

Not only does your church or ministry include both avoid and approach leaning people, but it includes people who want to get information in different ways. Some people want to know the whys of change related to abstract motivation. Others prefer answers to the how of change related to concrete actions. In other words, your messaging should answer two questions: Why do we need to change, and how are we going to change? Some will need more motivation (the why) and some will need more information (the how).

4. Empathize with those who may resist and fear your changes. Neuroscientists have discovered that the part of our brain directly behind our forehead helps us empathize with others, that is, step into their shoes to see life from their perspective. The process is called mentalizing. It’s one way we perceive and intuit the emotions, motivations and intentions of others in terms of our own thoughts and feelings. Mentalizing is not mind reading. Rather, it’s an ability God has given us to perceive another’s perspectives better and imagine and interpret their needs, desires, feelings and goals. The changes you want to bring may make total sense to you but may not to others. Seek to understand how others may perceive your proposed changes and how those changes might affect them.

5. Discern the appropriate pace and degree of change. In one church where I was the lead pastor, I approached change too slowly. A few leaders shared their frustration because they thought I was dragging my feet. In my mind, I was setting the stage for change. But in retrospect, I failed to communicate my thinking, which led them to conclude I was dragging my feet. On the other hand, after I attended the Willow Creek conference that I mentioned earlier, I tried to bring too much change too soon. Neff and Citrin capture the importance of appropriate pace and degree with these words. “Just remember that too much change can break the culture—or more likely destroy the change maker. You have to pace yourself and continually assess the tolerance of the organization.” The expectations you set for the people play a role here as well. Since uncertainty can breed fear and resistance, the more clearly you set expectations, the less uncertainty will work against you. Don’t overpromise or underpromise. Ideally, your church or ministry will see that the benefits of the change will exceed their expectations. When that happens, people become even more willing to embrace future changes. David Rock, a noted expert on neuroscience and leadership, wrote, “What you expect is what you experience.” In other words, expectations can profoundly influence people’s experiences.

Change never comes easy, but it’s necessary for progress. John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States, once said, “Change is the law of life and those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” And organizational behavioral experts Kenneth Thompson and Fred Luthans noted that a person’s reaction to organizational change “can be so excessive and immediate, that some researchers have suggested it may be easier to start a completely new organization than to try to change an existing one.” So unless you are starting a new church, recognize the obstacles to change that every leader faces in an existing church. Manage your change wisely with these five mind-sets, and God will honor your efforts.

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One final note. During the first few months, assuming you have a honeymoon phase (that time period when people’s view of you is untainted and mostly positive), your authority to act is based more on your position than on the results you’ve achieved. People will expect you to bring change and tend to be most open in the beginning. But again, don’t push change too fast or you might prematurely shorten your honeymoon.

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Excerpted from Every Pastor’s First 180 Days by Charles Stone. Copyright 2019. Equip Press. Used by permission.