May 5, 2009

a great article from Alban: "Leading in a Culture of Change"

Leading in a Culture of Change
by Jeffrey D. Jones

Michael Fullan, who writes primarily about public education and business, describes change as a nonlinear, usually chaotic process. "Change cannot be managed. It can be understood and perhaps led, but it cannot be controlled."1 Given the chaotic nature of change, linear, step-by-step processes which attempt to manage it are problematic. They do not allow the process of change to unfold in its natural way, and they present an illusion of control that is unrealistic. Even though the proponents of those processes most often discuss their circular nature and warn against trying to follow them too rigidly, the very fact that the process is discussed in steps leads to an overly mechanistic view of organizational change.

An additional difficulty with these linear processes is that they run counter to the culture of most congregations—usually all but the largest ones, which, because of their size and more hierarchical, controlling structures, have developed a corporate mentality that makes the illusion of control easier to fall into. The organic nature of organizations is more apparent in most congregations, however. There is great informality in the way decisions actually get made; there is a reliance on more casual conversation and the building of consensus. Therefore, linear planning processes placed in the hands of a few most often seem alien to congregations, if not an out-and-out imposition. People may go along, because they want to be cooperative or because they do not know what else to do. Most often, though, these step-by-step processes do not produce the desired results. We've all heard the stories about the months spent crafting a purpose statement that gets hung on the wall or printed in the Sunday worship bulletin but has no discernable impact on the ministry of the congregation—it's the kind of thing that happens when congregations rely on a linear process to enable organic change.

The difficulty a congregation has in resisting the use of a linear process is often compounded when it seeks assistance from judicatory leadership or outside consultants. Many of these people work in a corporate culture in which more disciplined planning is essential, and they often rely on being able to share usable "tools" with congregations. What they fail to recognize, however, is that what is essential for their purposes is often detrimental to congregations.

Fullan, in contrast to steps, talks about the components of change. The challenge of leadership is to develop the various components so that they are apparent within the organization. Once that is accomplished, meaningful change can take place in its own nonlinear, often chaotic way. The components Fullan lists as essential to meaningful change are:

  • Moral purpose—sharing the guiding purpose for an organization's existence.
  • An understanding of change—developing a working knowledge of the key dimensions and dynamics of change.
  • Relationship building—seeking relationships with diverse people and groups, especially those on the fringe and those who resist change.
  • Creation and sharing of knowledge—sharing information in a way that it becomes usable both to initiate and to sustain change.
  • Achievement of coherence—bringing sense and common purpose to the ambiguity that is change.2

 The presence of these components in the life of a congregation will encourage positive change. At times the change will be chaotic. At times there will be conflict. But these components set a tone that makes positive change possible.

If this approach to change were taken in a congregation, there would be no formal engagement in a step-by-step change process. Instead, these various elements would be introduced over time:

  • The church board would take time on a regular basis to consider the dynamics of change in a congregation and the forces at work in the world and community that make traditional congregational approaches to ministry less effective than they once were. (For example, the board in the congregation I serve has taken a half-hour at the beginning of each of its meetings to explore issues related to change.)
  • The pastor would begin to introduce concepts that underlie a vision for the congregation. (I began talking about being a disciple-forming community in my discussions with the search committee members, and when I discovered that this concept resonated well with them, I began to talk about it more frequently and more broadly after beginning as pastor.)
  • The congregation would begin to engage in specific actions that affirmed the vision and began to actualize it. (As part of our worship, we have begun regular commissioning services, which acknowledge the ways church members are living out their lives as disciples and pledge the church's support to them in that effort.)
  • Conversations among church leaders would formalize a new understanding of the congregation's purpose and vision. (We used the development of a new church brochure that explains how we seek to be a disciple-forming community.)
  • The congregation would begin to address issues of its life and ministry from the perspective of its developing understanding of the vision for the future to which God is calling it. (This concern enters the discussion as we talk about which Sunday school curriculum would work best for us, how to make visitors feel more welcome, and how we develop the annual budget. Virtually every decision we need to make can be viewed from the perspective of being a disciple-forming congregation.)
  • Leaders would take every available opportunity to discuss issues related to change and vision. (I make reference to this emerging vision in sermons regularly and have developed a number of brief phrases that others in the congregation use to reinforce their own understanding of the new direction in which we are moving.)


Approaching change in this way takes time. It also takes constant attention to the ways everything in the life of a congregation can be used to further the change needed to lead the congregation more faithfully into the future.

1. Michael Fullan, Leading in a Culture of Change (San Fransisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001), 33.

2. Ibid.


Adapted from Heart, Mind, and Strength: Theory and Practice for Congregational Leadership by Jeffrey D. Jones

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

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