Part 1 in a 3-part series by Pivot NW Researcher Rev. Dr. Eric Ford
“The only thing constant in life is change.” This pearl of wisdom is attributed to the Greek writer Heraclitus, 500 years before Jesus. And, it provides an entry-point for a conversation that often challenges the church. As an online follower of Pivot NW you probably feeling called to lead a congregation through a period of change, specifically focused on ministry to and with Young Adults. My hope is that this three-part series will highlight some questions and spark a conversation. As church leaders, is there anything we can do to prepare for change, so that it will make a positive, lasting impact?
Full disclosure: I’ve spent my life in the church. As the son of a pastor, and with 25 years of church leadership as a minister, I have witnessed a lot of change. Some of it was desired; at times, the change was unwanted. Occasionally, change was intentional; but often, it was a necessary reaction to the environment. I am also beginning a new chapter in my ministry as a PhD student in Industrial-Organizational Psychology. My field of study is organizational change, and in the last six months I have discovered some research that I believe could help the Church approach the idea of change from a wiser and more informed perspective. Boy could I have used some of this wisdom back in the day.
I used to think that change was simply a choice. That is, once I decided to start exercising, quit smoking, or eat healthy, it would automatically happen. Of course, I heard about goal setting, accountability, and tracking progress. If you are like me, and you have ever made a New Year’s resolution, you know how hard it is to make positive change stick. Recently, I was introduced to research that put the entire concept of change into a new framework. To make all of this practical, let’s look at change through a Gospel Story.
The pool at Bethesda was surrounded by sick people (John 5: 1-18). The blind, the lame, the paralyzed were all lying around, waiting for an angel to stir the waters. Rumor had it that when the water bubbled, the first person in would be granted the gift of health. One of the sick that day was a man who had been patiently waiting pool-side for 38 years. When Jesus approached, he asked the man, “Do you want to be made well?” In my imagination, I hear Jesus asking, “Are you ready for positive change?”
As I think about that question, the obvious answer is, “Yes, please!” Unfortunately, research shows that it’s not that simple. According to Prochaska, DiClemente, and Narcross (1992), beginning with pre-contemplation, there are five stages that ultimately lead to effective and long-lasting change initiatives.
What immediately caught my attention is that all five stages are necessary in order for the change to have a high probability of success. That is, change needs to follow a proper sequence and happen in the correct stage. This may be the reason that two-thirds of all change initiatives fail. It is not because of bad ideas, poor execution, or uninformed decisions; it may simply be the result of wrong timing.
That is why Jesus’ question to the man (and to us) is so important. In the church, I remember my attention getting pulled toward things that were urgent: leaking roof, broken furnace, calendar conflicts, etc. At times, I felt like change was happening to me, instead of me driving the change that was needed. Have you ever felt that way in your leadership?
I wonder: What if we walked around to the other side of the pool and took a different perspective? Instead of tackling your leadership issue head-on, take a step back and contemplate. In the next two blog posts, I want to offer us the opportunity to consider change within the church from a new vantage point. But for now, the pre-contemplation question is most pressing; Jesus is asking: Are you ready to change?
Eric Ford, MDiv, DMin is a first-year PhD student in the Industrial-Organizational Psychology Program at SPU. He is an ordained Elder in The United Methodist Church. His role in Pivot NW is to help congregations manage the process of change as they engage with young adults. Eric lives in Ballard with his wife Erin and daughter Skylar. He says that the best part of the move to Seattle is the wide variety of coffee choices!