Most Presbyterian pastors are not adequately equipped to lead their congregations through the changes that are necessary to adapt to 21st century life, the Vocation Committee of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) was told here Sept. 24.

“Most people have a ‘change threshold’ — a point past which they just can’t handle it,” the Rev. Jill Hudson, middle governing bodies coordinator for the council and the Office of the General Assembly, said in a presentation she entitled “Barbecueing the Sacred Cows: creating the change environment.”

“So do congregations,” said Hudson, who has worked at all levels of the PC(USA) in the areas of leadership and congregational development, “but most pastors don’t really know where that threshold is or how to identify it.”

There are generally two types of change, Hudson told the committee — technical and adaptive. Technical changes are usually simple, easy to identify, can be fixed quickly and don’t require much new knowledge or skills-development. “They’re kind of like real life,” Hudson explained. “A light bulb burns out so you just replace the light bulb and go on.”

Adaptive change, however, which is needed in response to large-scale rapidly evolving conditions, is amorphous, requires new learnings and skills because solutions are not readily apparent, occurs much more slowly and may require new and/or additional leadership.

“I don’t mean to take a pot shot at seminaries,” Hudson said. “They do a fabulous job of preparing us for pastoral service and care. But pastors tend to come out of seminary prepared for technical, but not adaptive, change,” Hudson said.

Citing Kurt Lewin, one of the foremost thinkers on change theory, Hudson said the three steps in creating change in congregations are to:

  • Unfreeze — establish a sense of urgency or necessity for change;
  • Change — move from the old state to the new by changing attitudes and behaviors; and
  • Refreeze — make the new attitudes and behaviors relatively permanent.

“Refreezing is the most neglected step,” Hudson said. “It’s like bending and stretching a rubber band — as soon as you stop bending and stretching it, it reverts back to its old shape. Real change in congregations happens in increments and seeps into the fabric of the [congregation’s] culture.”

There are many reasons why change fails in congregations, Hudson said. With change occurring in all aspects of 21st century life, churchgoers “desire predictability” and have “a high level of tolerance for ... the status quo,” she said.

Inadequate vision is another factor, Hudson said. “Pastors have been trained as managers, not leaders, and so have not been taught to think about articulating vision and molding it into mission strategy,” she said. “As a result, they don’t believe the vision is enough to carry the change they hope to effect.”

When a congregation’s leaders are successful in crafting a vision, it is usually “undercommunicated by a factor of between 10 and 100,” Hudson said. “Leaders are so sold tha they fail to adequately communicate the vision to church members. A congregation’s vision cannot be overcommunicated.”

Once resistance to change is overcome, patience becomes the problem, Hudson said. “Real change in a congregation takes a long time ... Patience doesn’t come easily in church organizations,” she said. “We either fail to celebrate ‘small wins’ ... or declare victory too soon.”

The pastor’s role differs from technical to adaptive change, Hudson said. While the pastor can be more directive in dealing with technical change, adaptive change calls for “diagnosing the condition and asking the right questions,” she said. “Too often we also expect the pastor to provide the answers as well.”

And while the pastor’s role in conflict situations is to “maintain order and suppress the overt conflict,” when it comes to leading adaptive change that will solve conflicts, the pastor must “expose the conflict, discuss it openly and let it emerge so it can be constructively resolved.”

Sometimes necessary change is so painful for some church members that they simply cannot remain part of the congregation. “At some point each individual has to make a decision to go or stay and then figure out a way to re-engage or disengage in the new life of the church,” she said.
“Our concern is always for the spiritual welfare of every individual,” Hudson continued. “Because for their own spiritual health, people must at times leave a congregation and find another, we need to help pastors learn how to help people leave in ways that are fully supportive of them.”

Resistance to change is normal, Hudson said. “If no resistance is present, it could mean that nothing is really being changed, or people are numb or uninterested, or everyone thinks alike, or resistance is underground — they’re just waiting it out,” she said.

People are going to resist change unless they see a clear payoff, Hudson said. “People are motivated toward what they will get from the change, not by what they are asked to get rid of,” she said.

“We have three choices with our people,” Hudson concluded — “We can increase the drivers for change. We can decrease the resisters. Or we can turn the resisters into drivers. That’s the best option.”