By Allen Quist & Tim Robnett
One day while watching a mother and her young son at the swimming pool, a few of us relished his grand time sitting by the edge of the water and splashing everyone around him. The boy went over to the steps and after walking down a couple of steps, stood in the pool up to his waist.
Oh, how brave he believed himself to be.
Caught up in her son’s newfound bravery, the mother scooped up her son and planted him on the side of the pool, encouraging him to jump into her arms. She promised she would catch him. He crouched down as if he was about to jump.
Then as if he had suddenly come to his senses, he paused. He stood there wanting to be brave and jump. Repeatedly, he would get ready to leap and each time his mother would brace to catch him, only to have him back away.
That particular day, his mother could not get him to jump. They left the pool with the mother upset because her son would not jump and the boy upset because his mother was angry with him.
The time at the pool for the mother and son should have been a great adventure. Because of the son’s fear and the mother’s inability to help her son through the fear, the day was a disaster for both.
Fear is an insidious, subtle, limiting, and seldom understood emotion. Paralyzing fear like this small boy felt can be just as disabling to adults. The problem does not stop with the one experiencing the fear. Inability to understand, let alone deal with, the fear of others can be just as frustrating for leaders as it was for that mother.
During the bank mergers that occurred in the early 1990s, many people received displacement notices. For them, the fear they experienced was understandable. The surprise was, however, that many of those who stayed with the merged company displayed the same fear as the employees displaced by the merger.
What caused them to be afraid?
How can leadership be part of the solution?
The answers to those questions rests in three principles:
People Tend to Freeze When It Comes to Leaving the Familiar, Even if the Familiar Is Bad.
You all know Carmen. Yes you do! She is the teller at your bank— been there for years. She always smiles at you and calls you by name when you come into the bank to make your deposit. Carmen is around forty, with short brown hair with just a little gray starting to show. She knows the names of all your kids and where you like to go for dinner. You saw her the other day at the supermarket and she remembered you. Carmen is a great woman, who just received bad news.
Just that morning, Carmen’s boss told her that the bank was going to replace some of the tellers with automatic teller machines and she was going to be let go.
It is not as if she has not dreamed of getting out of there someday. Her boss is a pain in the neck, always yelling at her and everyone else for that matter. They cut her hours awhile back and took away her free parking and her health insurance. Now she has to take the bus and it takes an hour and a half to get there and the same to get home.
But Carmen is also a scared woman. She knows in her heart that she hates her job and really does not like her mean, abusive boss, but she has had that teller spot now for years. She eats upstairs, talking about kids and grandkids with people she knows well and who know her equally well. For years, she has had you for a customer, along with many others that she is comfortable with. She cares about you as a friend would.
It may not be the best situation, but it is what she does. It is where she works. It is almost who she is. The whole thought of leaving and no longer living the life she knows makes her freeze. It feels a little like death, and that is scary.
This same fear plagues the church whenever leadership decides it is time to take a new direction, such as changing the worship style. This is standard form for most rapidly dying churches. Both the leaders and the members may realize that whatever they are doing is chasing people away and they need to change, but it is still extremely difficult to make the change.
In chapter 1, Central Evangelical had to face that fear. In their case, they had the dilemma of facing the fear of the rebirth of the church and all its unknowns, or the fear of the church’s death and the need for each of them to find a new church home.
It Is Scary to Face the Unknown, Even if We Know it Is Better Than What We Have.
Bradon graduated from seminary a little more than a year ago. Unfortunately, jobs in youth ministry are hard to come by these days, so he has been working as a janitor in a local church to support his wife, Suzanne, and their little girl. Suzanne works part-time as a pediatric nurse at a local hospital. She really wants to stop working and have another baby but cannot because they need the money. Bradon does not mind the job. He mostly works alone and just does his job. It is actually a comfortable life, at least as far as responsibility is concerned. However, it is not the work for which he was trained.
When Bradon was in high school he was a natural leader, the one voted “most likely to succeed.” He was always reluctant to take on a new challenge, but when he did, he was successful.
Now he is facing a job opportunity as a youth pastor in the church where he attends. This is not an ordinary youth pastor opportunity. That church has experienced four youth pastors in the last six years. This church chews up youth pastors and spits them out as a normal course. There are giants in that church that make Goliath look wimpy. This is what Bradon prepared for. Yet he is terrified.
What if he gets chewed up also? How does he handle these people? It pays more money than his janitor job, but what if he ends up losing the job like the previous youth pastors? What will he do then? Four pastors before him did not make it. It seems like certain failure.
There is little hope, and Bradon feels defeated before he even accepts the position. He wants to just curl up with his broom at the church and let the whole thing pass him by. Bradon is trapped between his fear of the unknown future and his desire to be an adequate husband, father, and soldier for Christ. He is frozen with indecision.
Fear of the unknown has kept many from following a call that God gave them or taking a role in the church when in their hearts they wanted to. Fear of the unknown silences believers from sharing their faith with their neighbors or giving their testimonies when asked.
Fear of the unknown cripples many evangelism thrusts. Churches will hold evangelism training to prepare people to share their faith, and little happens afterwards.
Fear of the unknown kept that little boy from leaping into his mother’s arms. Long before major change occurs in most organizations, leadership starts processing the change. They form committees and have meetings for months. They have time to begin looking for ways to protect themselves socially and emotionally long before the change becomes imminent.
Yet fear of the unknown is part of the problem within leadership that keeps them from stepping out to help others deal with their fears. The unknown that leaders are afraid of has less to do with the change they are preparing to meet and more to do with the fear of dealing with people who are scared. It is a ministry that few leaders are experienced in, and therefore, they will find many excuses not to follow through. More likely, they will simply ignore the need.
What happens when leadership announces a change to the staff? How do leaders and the nonleaders (staff and congregation) view each other? There is probably some level of distrust of the leaders. After all, the leaders appear comfortable and everyone else is uncomfortable.
The leaders become frustrated just as the mother was with her son. Can the staff and congregation not see the benefit? The leaders fail to understand the fear that everyone else is feeling, even though many of them felt the same fear months earlier. The leaders perceive the staff as acting like babies or rebellious brats. They told the staff and congregation that the change would become something good, just like the mother explained to her son that jumping would be fun. Just like the boy, the people of the church cannot ignore their fear. They have not yet had the opportunity to adjust to the idea.
What might this fear look like in the church setting? Let us address a circumstance found in many struggling churches.
For many years, Your Church has been slowly losing members. The leaders decided that if they do not reverse the trend, the church will have to close its doors soon. Up to now, the condition has been obvious, but no one talks about it. The fear of facing the future keeps the problem hidden from discussion. The people avoid the fear by pretending the problem does not exist.
Your Church leadership finally surfaces the problem through an announcement in a congregational meeting. At that meeting, the pastor and board chairperson explain the crisis and how they plan to fix it. They tell those present that everything that has become tradition and routine through the years is subject to change. They will evaluate and decide which ministries to keep, examining the remaining ministries to discover how they might improve. They will protect only the foundational truths of the Bible.
People stare at the pastor and leaders with numbing disbelief. Slowly, over the next few weeks, people begin to realize the leaders are serious. The conclusion that rules the hearts of the members of Your Church is that anything the members find comfortable is likely to change.
Two prominent defensive behaviors surface: attack and avoid. Some members are afraid and attack. Others are afraid and avoid.
The attackers ask questions like “Who caused this crisis?” or “Whom should we fire?” or “Leadership is exaggerating and going too far.” The avoiders will outwardly go on as if nothing has happened, avoiding the issue altogether. Both groups are afraid and not dealing with fear effectively.
Mildred has been teaching the six- and seven-year-old children on Sunday morning for ten years and loves it—even gets her identity from it. She fears that she may not be able to teach that group anymore. Moreover, she does not believe that she is able to start a new ministry. Life in the church looks uninviting for her, so she is afraid and pulls into her shell. Soon, she stops coming to church.
Frank has a similar problem, but his is with the adult Bible study. His class is not doing well, and he knows that something is wrong. The only people who attend his class are those who do not want to hurt his feelings. People have told Frank that his class is boring, but he is afraid to think of doing something else. With the congregational announcement, leadership is forcing Frank to deal with reality. He is frightened because he believes that he will lose the few loyal friends he has, and everyone will know the truth about him. Frank is angry and strikes out at the leaders.
Leaders see Mildred as a quiet person who does not cause problems, but do not notice that she has stopped coming. They see Frank as a fighter and complainer and would rather see him either change or leave. Both people are dealing with their personal fears.
Change Takes Time, and the Longer It Takes, the Harder It Is to Cope.
Business mergers take time. For the staff, a year can go by from the merger announcement to the time the employee is in the new position or has found a new job.
However, church transition can be longer. Churches will struggle for several years trying to make a change without actually making a change. Church leaders will try a token change, which is a change that may be only one step of what would be a plan if they had a plan. They might shoot at a false target, such as attacking a symptom like poor attendance, rather than addressing what is causing the drop in attendance. They do not want to hear that the services are lifeless and dull, so they will form committees and subcommittees to look into a myriad of details. The progression can take years, so long that often the urgency of the original mandate from the board softens. Little or no actual change takes place. Eventually, the day the leaders predicted arrives, and the church shuts the doors for the final time. It is too late to save it.
Back during the attempt to change, most of the leaders and some of the members of the congregation recognized what was happening. They saw the hesitancy of the other leaders and the rest of the congregation as ploys to stop change. It was so frustrating. Can the people not see the end that will come if they do nothing? Can they not see that with the change, the church could return to the state of passion for God they used to experience? Do they not see how fun it would be once they made the leap from the edge of the pool into the arms of an adventurous yet tender and loving Father?
These frustrated leaders fail to identify the real enemy. It is not the people or the struggling leaders. It is the fear. Those who are attacking or hiding are the victims of their fear. The frustrated leaders finally reach the limit of their emotions and leave the church angrily. Those remaining feel a drop in tension and life returns to normal until the moment of the church death.
To begin with, leaders can quit viewing people who are acting defensively (attacking or avoiding) as enemies. We can see them instead as the victims they are. Realize that helping scared, attacking, or avoiding people does not begin with an action, but with a theological shift in thinking.
Most people do not even know when fear is driving their behavior. But whether they know it or not, they need God’s love poured out to them through us, the leaders. What the church does not need is us as leaders reacting to our attackers or avoiders with the same defensive behavior we are receiving. It is common for leaders to react defensively to the ones God has called them to love. When we view another person as an enemy, the tendency is for us to become defensive in return and attack or avoid that person. However, when leaders react defensively, the negative impact is greater than when members of the congregation act the same way.
God is calling churches to select special people to be leaders who do not react defensively to people who are attacking or avoiding them. The church needs for leaders to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, especially during times of change and conflict. Notice that it is not “the fruit of training or study.” The leadership patience needed to transition change in the church today is the fruit of a deep, lasting, dependent, and obedient love relationship with Jesus Christ. The church needs leaders who are living sacrifices, who allow God, and not their own fears, to be in control.
Why is it so critical for God to be in control? Because it is the only way to have the power necessary to do what God calls us to do. Jesus Christ did not work independently but said, “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work” (John 14:10).
To help people through the fears they will experience when change occurs in their lives, you must view them as victims rather than as enemies. You need to see them as ministry fields rather than as problems. You need God working in you and through you to love consistently those who attack you. You need to be walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5).
Assuming we have allowed Jesus Christ to rule in our lives to the point we are a living sacrifice in every area of our lives, then how can we help fearful people during change in the church? The following suggestions are a result of years of experience helping churches deal with change.
Expect a Fear Reaction (Attacking and Avoiding)
When we expect change to cause people to respond with a normal fear reaction, in the form of attacking or avoiding, we will discover that we will experience less emotion ourselves. Remember the mother in the pool with her son. If the mother had entered the pool expecting that she was going to ask her son to do something he had never done and that he would likely be afraid, as normal children will, she would have reacted differently. Think about when we are talking to a one-year-old baby. We do not get adult conversation in return, at least not with words. Yet we do not get upset. We expect the baby to act like a baby.
Therefore, when we lead change in our church, expect people to act normally—with a fear reaction in the form of attacking or avoiding. When we deal unemotionally with the fear of others, we will discover there are two kinds of attacking and two kinds of avoiding.
People who attack will either attack us or attack the change idea. The attack against us sounds something like “You are unfit!” The attack against the idea is more like “This is a dumb idea!” (Please do no confuse attack with normal and healthy dialogue.)
The avoiders are similar. One avoider will avoid us personally. He or she will see us coming down the hall and move out of our sight. The other avoider will be happy to see us but will change the subject whenever we bring up the issue of change.
Leaders prefer having avoiders in the church, since they do not set up confrontation. However, there is a big problem with avoiders. They leave leadership with the illusion that everything is moving along without a problem. The avoiders quietly slip into the background. Often leaders will label avoiders as “backsliders” because they appear to be moving backwards in their church participation.
Leadership does not like attackers. They are in your face. They force us to deal with issues we would rather not deal with. They are labeled “rebellious.” If not helped adequately, the attackers will finally quit and leave.
On the other hand, if we help the avoiders adequately, they will quit and stay. Eventually, your church will have plenty of avoiders in the background doing little in the church. Sound familiar?
Listen with a Loving Ear
Many leaders get far too much exercise “jumping to conclusions,” assuming they already know everything they need to know without seeking any more information. When they do succeed in asking a question, they often stop with the first and usually most superficial answer. People protect themselves. They are seldom going to give us a deeply personal and well-thought-out answer, no matter how accurate it might be. They will not likely say something like “The reason I am attacking you is because I am afraid that I will be embarrassed in the new role I am going to have, if in fact, I have any role. If I do not have any role in the church after the change, I will be devastated because people will think that I am not competent. And of course, I will know they are correct because I have always felt inadequate.”
People would not likely admit to that level of self-understanding even if they did have it. Instead, leaders and congregation will continue to pretend to deal with issues but seldom get to the heart of the matter.
Leaders must ask questions and listen carefully to the answers if we are going to discover what is happening in the life of an attacker or an avoider. When people respond to your question, they may give you a great deal of information, some of which is germane and some irrelevant. Your task is to ignore the statements that are irrelevant to the issues that you’re trying to address, select the statements that are germane, and keep the conversation moving in the relevant direction. To be a selective listener, you have to concentrate on what the speaker is saying, resisting the temptation to think ahead about what your response will be.
Have Many Parties
If you leaders want to cut off all heartfelt discussion, then do this: Have a meeting to give people a chance to ask questions and express their thoughts. At that meeting, we may get a few attackers to shoot a few surface questions or comments at us. But we will seldom get the heart issues. There is a place for meetings, especially for sharing information and giving people the opportunity to ask clarifying questions. However, it is at parties that people begin to relax and speak from the heart. It is when people have some food in their stomachs and are feeling good that they become expressive. This is especially true when the questions are not interrogation, but caring conversation—when our eyes, facial expressions, and tone of voice communicate concern for them.
If leaders want to know the heart and pulse of the church, it is at the party they can discover the truth. However, it is hard work for a leader to go to a party if they want to learn the heart of the church. A leader is not there to be witty, impressive, expressive, or important. A leader is at the party to be a loving servant opening himself or herself up to the heart of another person to learn. A party is never the place to sell a program or idea. It is always the place for leaders to listen to hearts.
Involve People in Small Steps
There is something about involvement that helps people feel like they are part of a group. Participation gives them a sense of belonging; it provides stability, identity, and comfort.
To help people with their fears, give them something to do that is small and safe, especially in groups; it will help them keep their association with the church. When people are active with others, they have less time to languish in their fear.
Do Not Push Too Fast—but Do Keep Pushing
During a change environment, if leaders push too hard, those pushed, especially those wrestling with fear, will suffer. Change is like pregnancy. Once the change begins, there is a gestation period before a healthy birth can take place. If the push for change is too hard, then premature birth can occur and there will be an unhealthy result.
On the other hand, not pushing enough can be equally devastating. People do not like to change. They will find many reasons to delay the project. There may be a few reasons for delay; but there are more reasons to proceed. Unless leadership keeps the pressure on, the change will die an unnatural death—death through neglect.
During the planning phase, we should put as much time and effort in planning to help people deal with their fears as we spend in planning the change itself. During the implementation of the change phase, including the announcement, we should put more time and effort into helping people with their fears than we do in other parts of managing the change.
Over the years, we have taken part in many change projects. We cannot recall one project where leadership did not adequately plan for the change. Yet we can recall some of those same change projects that were like bad surgery. The patient may have lived, but life would never be the same. The problems stemmed from a lack of planning of how leaders would help with people’s fears.
Often leaders, even church leaders, judge themselves based on the change plan. Did the plan happen? Was the plan on time? Was the cost of the plan within budget?
But God has called church leaders to a higher standard. We have attempted to remind leaders what Jesus said in Matthew 22 when asked about God’s greatest command. Jesus answered that it is to love God with all you are and to love others like yourself.
As leaders, we should ask ourselves the question, “If the project was a success from a worldly point of view but failed to love the affected people, would God be pleased?” Since God is concerned for his people and his church, leaders should be concerned about God’s concern, there ought to be a carefully laid out plan to love the impacted people. That does not mean we should not make tough changes, but that we must love people through the process.
We will deal with implementation more thoroughly in chapter 15.