On Making Big Changes in Churches

People are not fundamentally rational beings. We are emotional first. Rational, second. I know we like to think we are more rational than emotional. We just aren’t when it comes to church. I also know our feelings often feel quite rational. It just isn’t the reality.

I was first challenged with this idea by Edwin Friedman–the greatest observer of human behavior in the church I know of. It was ratified recently by Seth Godin on his blog. Godin writes:

A statement of fact is insufficient and often not even necessary to persuade someone of your point of view…

Politicians, non-profits and most of all, amateur marketers believe that all they need to do to win the day is to recite a fact. You’re playing Monopoly and you say, “I’ll trade you Illinois for Connecticut.” The other person refuses, which is absurd. I mean, Illinois costs WAY more than Connecticut. It’s a fact. There’s no room for discussion here. You are right and they are wrong. But they still have the property you want, and you lose. Because all you had was a fact.

On the other hand, the story wins the day every time. When the youngest son, losing the game, offers to trade his mom Baltic for Boardwalk, she says yes in a heartbeat. Because it feels right, not because it is right.

Have you ever wondered why the 2-month sermon series on letting women take an increased role in the assemblies doesn’t make a huge difference in the reaction of the church to your adding it? They have a negative reaction because it feels wrong, not simply because they think it’s wrong. They’ve spent their entire lives worshiping in a particular way based on a set of theological presuppositions. Many people wear church like old baseball mitts–they like what feels right to them. They care about what they “know” is right as well, just not as much. If you can help the change feel right, not just be the right idea, you have a much better change of making a quicker change with minimal carnage.

Not even your brilliant sermon series is likely to change it 🙂

If this is so, perhaps change processes are better engaged and carried through at the emotional, rather than rational level. This, of course, doesn’t mean we don’t think through what we’re doing or make rational arguments for the change. It simply means we understand the persuasion we seek is more like convincing mom she’s better off moving into your house instead of living by herself in the middle of nowhere in failing health at age 96. It’s less like one chemist debating another on the optimal formula for gasoline.

This applies whether you are adding campuses, changing the church name, releasing a staff member, or radically altering the style of worship.

Make no mistake, it is about reason. But, not foremost.

Recognizing the church as an emotional system above a rational thought system will equip you far better to make large-scale changes.

All of this assumes you are making a good and necessary change. Church folk are not just good at resisting change. They are good as recognizing hair-brained ideas. So, make sure the change is a good one. Then, recognize the emotionality of the change, and give it a 70% stake against 30% for the rational side of the change. It won’t make the change easy. But, it’ll work a lot better than otherwise.

Agree or disagree?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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8 thoughts on “On Making Big Changes in Churches

  1. great article tim. as we’ve both experienced, leading change, especially in the church, is a challenge but much needed. i wholeheartedly agree with you that as leaders, we must address the emotional side of change. as leaders, we tend to come up with the vision, the strategy, and the communication plan, but we don’t spend enough time praying and processing through the emotions of change.

    dan & chip heath’s book “Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard” is a great book that addresses the emotional and rational side of change.

    the best take away from the book is the reality that “self control is an exhaustible resource.” most people don’t buck change because they’re jerks. they buck it because they don’t know what to expect, it creates fear and therefore necessitates self-control. and that self-control begins to run out and they get feisty.

    as a predominately “rational” leader, i need to surround myself with leaders who process more emotionally (“feelers” on the Myers-Briggs and those with relational strengths on StrengthsFinders). and i need to ask them how this change will impact them, their ministries, and the people they know.

    good stuff my friend… see you in 2 weeks in SD!

    • GREAT comment, Jonathan. I’m pretty far over on teh rational side of the Briggs too (ENTJ)…and have learned the truth of what Chip says from both the positive and negative end. Thanks for the good word. Looking forward to seeing you, too, Brother.

  2. Agree. When I was trying to introduce a newer song list I appealed to the older generation based on their desire to see their grandkids involved in church (emotion), and had a fairly good response. When I wanted to change the seating arrangement in the auditorium, however, I forgot this principle and stated the facts (it is obvious how a different arrangement would benefit the singing, worship, preaching, etc), but found myself going upstream the whole way. We still have not made that change, minor as it is, even though there is no doubt it would be for the best in many ways.

    • You might be surprised how often the seating arrangement situation comes up in churches. Is there a particular reason the people are hesitant? Is it a pews vs. chairs thing?