How do you introduce change to a congregationand bring people along with you,especially when that change is from more inward to more outward?
It was my privilege to address this question at last month’s Flourishing Congregations National Gathering at Ambrose University (Calgary, Alberta). It was a great way for me to reflect on my years of pastoral ministry and share some of my church’s story. “Every pastor should go through that kind of exercise and share their experience,” another presenter said to me afterward, “that way we could keep learning from one another.”
I heartily agree! The event was called Shared Stories: Promising Practices in Canadian Churches, and the stories shared throughout the day were a definite highlight. I won’t say more here about the national gathering since a book is in the works that will include an overview, but since getting back from Calgary I’ve been thinking more about the first part of that question: how do you introduce change?
When I preached my last sermon for my congregation, I was still waiting for more clarity and confirmation of the changes ahead for me, but now I’m pleased to share that as of January 2019, I will be serving as Resident Author with Valley CrossWay Church, which is a liturgical worship community. Details are still unfolding, so you won’t see anything on the Valley CrossWay website yet, but I’m excited about the creative possibilities of this new ministry: continuing to work on my own writing projects in the context of Christian community, preaching from time to time, and being involved in other ways still being discerned.
As I look back on how this has unfolded, I can identify seven movements that have helped usher in this change, and I share them here for anyone looking to introduce change in a congregational setting, who might be thinking about changing, expanding, or ending a ministry or starting a new one. I can’t call these “steps” since it’s not as if you can complete the first step, then go on to the next step and complete it, before going on to the next. At least in my experience, these seven movements overlap and continue and work together.
So how do you introduce change? Here’s how I would answer that question in light of the change that’s developing for me, and how to introduce change in a congregation.
As I became convicted to complete my pastoral ministry, my biggest concern was who then would be my people? I had worked for the church for over twenty-five years, and the church had become much more than my employer. The church was my worshipping, caring, and sharing community, the people and place who honed me as iron sharpens iron as Proverbs 27:17 says. The church had become my home. But after so many years together, I knew I would need to leave the church to let go of my pastoral ministry and make room for new leadership, but where would I go?
And so I prayed, which for me included journalling and sitting in silence and wondering aloud before God. I wasn’t looking for change for the sake of change, but in response to my felt need for ongoing Christian community.
So too when introducing change to a congregation, instead of seeking change as a novelty, I also tend to start with a need in the church and start with prayer.
I sometimes jokingly refer to google as dr. google, or even “google is my friend,” and one day google led me to Holy Trinity Anglican Church and Resident Author/Poet Margaret Macpherson. I had been looking at various writer-in-residence programs, with the thought that I might benefit from some kind of structure to help me invest more deeply in my writing, but I had never heard of a Resident Author. Most writers-in-residence have a limited time frame, but this Resident Author seemed more long-term. Most writers-in-residence seemed to be community-based or in educational settings, but this Resident Author was clearly in the context of the church.
Might there be a church where I could do something similar? Could this be an answer to my prayer?
I was prompted to explore further by sending an email, and received a gracious response in return from Margaret herself. I had also heard of a church in Winnipeg engaged in a three-year experiment with an artists-in-residence program, so I decided to find out more about that too. As I explored, I asked a lot of questions, and so appreciate the generous responses!
So too when introducing change to a congregation, explore, do research, find out what others are doing that might be similar, ask questions, and infuse it all with prayer.
For Holy Trinity, “art is an important part of who we are and a way in which we interact with God’s mission.” On its website, the church lists a theatre, a string quartet, a resident playwright, a resident curator, and a resident author/poet. I wasn’t aware of another church like that, but I began praying more specifically about a church that might be willing to innovate, that would have enough space to try something new with me, that would be a good theological fit.
I’m not a poet, so I knew I couldn’t be a Resident Author/Poet, but I began thinking about what kind of Resident Author I could be: continuing to work on my own writing projects and perhaps supplying preaching or worship materials. The Resident Author/Poet was an innovative idea, and I needed to adapt it further for my own situation.
So too when introducing change to a congregation, instead of simply duplicating what’s working somewhere else, it’s usually necessary to innovate (i.e., do it in a new way) or adapt (i.e., do it in a modified way).
As a next step, my husband and I visited Valley CrossWay Church and Calvin Presbyterian Church. It was too soon to say anything about the Resident Author idea, but worshipping together was a good way to continue exploring and reflecting on what might be possible. I knew that as a liturgical worship community, Valley CrossWay places a strong emphasis on reading Scripture and prayer, and values the written word. My husband received his doctorate at a Presbyterian seminary, and some of my writing audience is in the Presbyterian church, so I thought that might be a good fit also. The two churches share a building, co-host monthly concerts, and cooperate in other ways. Their ecumenical partnership suggested a willingness to innovate, and I wondered whether they might also be willing to partner with me.
We were warmly welcomed in both churches and appreciated the worship in both. We chatted informally with people after both worship services. Once again I was prompted to explore further by sending an email, this time to a key leader within each church that I had happened to meet on the Sunday mornings. Those informal conversations felt like an answer to prayer too.
So also when introducing change to a congregation, keep praying and exploring and connect with all concerned, including key decision-makers.
I sent an email thanking each for the warm welcome and worship, then introduced the Resident Author idea. I included an attachment with a more detailed one-page proposal outlining some of the benefits and creative possibilities for building community and outreach, plus a one-page bio. I asked:
Would you mind looking at the attached draft, and letting me know if there might be openness to exploring this further? Is there some other information that you might need before considering this? I would value any feedback you might be able to give me.
So too when introducing change to a congregation, I’ve found it most helpful to distill the information into a single page and to present it as a draft for consideration. Then invite response.
I’m grateful that each leader I approached responded in good time and was very willing to share the proposal with their respective board. That stage meant more waiting, but I understood that my proposal was just one of many items on their respective agendas, and contacting two churches at once would likely mean additional wait time. I was prepared to be patient.
As it turned out, since Calvin Presbyterian is currently in a pastor search, they understandably decided to revisit this at a later date, and I welcome further conversation if and when they might have interest. Conversation with Valley CrossWay continued, and their leadership took the next step of calling for a special congregational meeting. That took an additional two weeks notice and more waiting, but at the end of November, members voted in favour, and I’m now looking forward to beginning as Resident Author with them in the new year.
So too when introducing change to a congregation, realize that good process takes time. Wait for one another and wait on God.
At the same time, there’s an art to knowing when to wait and when to act, when to bide your time and when to follow up. A friend said to me, “Change in a church takes a looong time!” But how long is too long to wait to test an idea? When is it time to try something else?
Such questions are also a matter of prayer, part of our exploring and learning, part of the way we innovate, adapt, connect, and communicate.
So too when introducing change to a congregation, when making changes in your own life, seek the creative tension between waiting and acting. Pray for wisdom to discern the time for each.
As I reflect on my experience, these are the seven movements that I identify in introducing change. But I realize the same experience might look and feel very different for others involved, and different experiences with change may highlight different dynamics. As you reflect on your own experiences, how do you introduce change?
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