Whether it is the French people confronted with austerity measures, or the introduction of a new product like New Coke, people generally resist change. Change is unsettling—it splashes cold water on our complacency. Mixing up the order of worship, changing classrooms, or leaving out an annual tradition can send people to the moon. It’s little wonder that nearly every day, the doors of another church close, as yet another community dies of inertia—dies because of the resistance, a force dedicated to slowing down or stopping movement.
In his book, Beyond the Walls of Resistance, Rick Maurer proposes some unconventional strategies that build support for change. It’s a helpful work, for most of us in ministry are well acquainted with resistance forces (and most of us need all the help we can with bringing needed change). Forces can gang up, whether it is because of cosmetic changes to the bulletin or changes in the worship style. If their signs are not recognized and addressed, one may not survive the inevitable blast. Among the indicators are these: confusion (so why are we adding another service?); immediate criticism (like a man in my first church who—like Groucho Marx– prided himself on always voting no- “Whatever it is—I’m against it”); malicious compliance (they smile and appear to go along, something I experience often as a father); sabotage (the innocent small group meeting that has morphed into a war room); silence (never assume silence means agreement!).
Resistance may be caused by the idea itself. People just think it is a poor idea, or it is the wrong time. But often resistance is more deeply embedded. Maybe there is an entrenched mistrust of leadership (the result of moral failure of a predecessor), or some deep fears of an identity we might lose, a world we fear is passing away. It might be racial. I experienced this in a multicultural, multidenominational, multi-multi church in Holland. Some of the resistance was directed at those who were Anglo, and some towards those of us who were American.
So what is a leader to do? Maurer gives several default positions, each ineffective: Aim to overpower (can be either subtle or blatant); manipulation (conveniently leave out the details—or conveniently use a sermon to coerce); overwhelm with facts (turn up the volume of information); ignore (treat as a minor nuisance, like that fly that won’t quit buzzing around the food); play off others (use friendships to get others to agree); make deals (give me your vote and I won’t say anything about your designated offering); give up too soon (this must be a sign God has called me to another ministry).
There is an alternative. Groups that have become effective in promoting change have done a number of things. Here are some:
-taken resistance seriously
-treated resistors with respect
-looked for the win-win
Part of taking resistance seriously is to do something counter-intuitive—embrace it. Get into the minds and hearts of those who oppose. Look for their fears and anxieties. Listen to their stories. Find the common ground, for ways to actually join the resistance (we both want to reach your grandchildren). Aim to come to a shared dissatisfaction with the status quo. Often, people just want to know you are giving them the dignity of respect, involvement. They want to know you understand their history, and that it will play a role in future change. Key to this, according to Maurer, is to relax, something hard for visionary, destinational leaders to do. It comes back to something Paul was instructing Timothy—“the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged” (2:25). Behind these words is the need to stay calm in order to stay engaged.
Ultimately, just about anyone wants change—it’s how to get there. Even those who prefer the adage “If it ain’t broke-don’t fix it” must realize that such language only consigns them to stay stuck in the present. Anyone who is reasonable does not want to stay frozen in place, any more than they want to keep watching reruns of NCIS (okay, maybe there are some exceptions). But amidst the resistance, you do have to ultimately move forward. The train has to leave the station. Some resistors will have to be left behind. Some moments will have to be seized—for life is too terribly short, and the stakes are too high.