Change in the Rural Church
Creating change in any organizations is a vital and healthy practice but can be difficult to successfully accomplish. This is especially the case in rural congregations. Kotter (2012) believes that many organization’s change efforts fail due to a lack of holistic approach. Although his process is one among many, its step by step approach would be extremely helpful to organizations that are resistant and unfamiliar with change. Change, in many cases is a time consuming process. In rural areas, this can be even more so. Wells writes, “Remember that change in the town and country church is a marathon, not a sprint” (Wells et. al., 2005, p. 77). With that in mind, let’s look at some steps.
Step 1 is to “Create a sense of urgency. Help others see the need for change and the importance of acting immediately” (Kotter, 2006, KL 723). The shepherding of others to see change can be one of the more difficult areas of a change event, especially in a rural area/culture where many churches are located. Changes in general are typically so gradual they are not noticed (Wells et. Al., 2005, p. 59). The responsibility of a leader in change is to help everyone see the same picture of the need. Good can sometimes be the enemy of the great as moderately successful congregations would have a hard time seeing the need for change as attendance and giving are doing well, programs are well attended and staffed, etc… An effective way create urgency and knowledge of the need for change in an organization with a false sense of security like this is to help the leaders see the need for change themselves. For example, asking “Have you seen so-and-so in a while” to bring attention to their high turnover rate. The bottom line is that no change will take place until the vast majority see it as not just helpful but necessary.
Step 2 is “Pull together the guiding team” (Kotter, 2006, KL 723). Change events need teams. Kotter’s focus on a team with a diverse set of skills and attributes is Biblical (1 Cor. 12) and would be essential to change in a rural congregation. In that context, it would be important to build a team to leverage the relational aspect predominant in the church. Wells writes, “If relationships are intact, then the congregation will be much more responsive to their leaders’ proposals for change” (2005, p 85). It would be important to build a team representing the diverse membership of the congregation. Looking for team members from new members, old members, young age, old age, with or without children, young adult, and others would give all in the church someone to ‘make their voice heard’ in regards to change.
Step 3 is “Develop the Change Vision and Strategy. Clarify how the future will be different from the past, and how you can make that future a reality” (Kotter, 2006, KL 723). Vision and Strategy go hand in hand and are crucial for organizational success. They become all the more important in change management because they give the organization concrete images and plans in a time of uncertainty. In many rural and town and country churches, this may be the toughest part of change management. No change takes place until people can see it with their minds-eye. Preach it, teach it, talk about it over coffee, anything to get the picture of the preferred future off of paper and into hearts.
Step 4 is “Communicate for Understanding and buy-in. Make sure as many others as possible understand and accept the vision and the strategy” (Kotter, 2006, KL 723). This is where the real legwork of a congregation would happen. The communication strategy must be comprehensive; from the pulpit down to the publications, a church needs a unified communication plan so everyone understands the change. Realistically, no church can expect 100% buy-in on change but it is important that everyone at least have the opportunity to voice their opinions or objections. “It is the leader who has done the hard work of listening to the concerns of the other who will then be listened to” (Rendle, 1998, p. 120). It would be helpful to roll out any change plans on an evening dedicated to such purpose. In that service the leadership could lay out plans, explain reasoning, and have dedicated time to voice concerns and field questions.
Step 5 is “Empower others to act. Remove as many barriers as possible so that those who want to make the vision a reality can do so” (Kotter, 2006, KL 723). Empowering others during change is especially helpful for buy-in to the change process and closely linked to Step 4. But empowerment is not only for buy-in but Biblical reasons as well. Empowering others is the role of congregational leaders (Eph. 4:12) and is supremely important in organizational change. “Leaders need to nurture the natural gifts of the congregation and help provide new learnings in order to help it mange a time of change” (Rendle, 1998, p 70). The typical congregation form of empowerment is a clipboard or signup sheet and that will not cut it here. A solution would be an individual who is familiar with the gifting of the members of the congregation and whose specific purpose on the change team is to recruit people to help and act as a resource for those people.
Step 6 is “Produce Short-Term Wins. Create some visible, unambiguous successes as soon as possible” (Kotter, 2006, KL 723). These short term wins toward change build momentum and trust as Wells writes, “Before tackling some of the more important or challenging changes, build momentum and trust by starting with some of the obvious changes that most everyone can see need to happen, or some of the simpler and more doable changes that won’t be hard to accomplish, or some of the less controversial changes” (Wells et. al., 2005, p. 77). This is especially important in the rural setting due to cultural considerations. “Given the historical and cultural context, mini-changes are generally preferred in town and country churches. In rural areas change has tended to come more slowly and with some reluctance. In such a context, revolutionary changes may cause more harm than good, even when the change itself is successfully implemented” (Wells et al., 2005, p. 62). A taste of change that works creates a hunger for more. Here again communication is essential. Congregational leaders would do well to celebrate every small win toward change in a formal way; a bulletin board, newsletter, illustrate the wins during sermons, etc…
Step 7 is “Don’t let up. Press harder and faster after the first successes. Be relentless with initiating change after change until the vision is a reality” (Kotter, 2006, KL 723). This step is self-explanatory. To keep enthusiasm high and work toward progress change must come at a steady and familiar pace. This in itself will help Step 8.
The 8th and final step is, “Create a New Culture. Hold on to the new ways of behaving, and make sure they succeed, until they become strong enough to replace old traditions” (Kotter, 2006, KL 723). Leadership is vital to this process. It is not just about a singular event but a new culture that must be upheld. “Leaders do not just need to make things right. Theirs is the far more difficult role of introducing people to the new condition and helping them to learn new ideas, behaviors, and alternatives that are more appropriate to the new condition” (Rendle, 1998, p.41). The new culture, familiar to change is a healthy one. All organizations need change over time but a culture that embraces change, when it is needed and necessary, will be quicker to react and able to change in a healthy and God-honoring way.
One thing that should be noted about change, especially in a congregational context, is that the end result should not be the only consideration in change. Kotter’s steps help illustrate that the process matters. “Process is as important as the end result. Process is ministry. Ministry doesn’t begin after the change is completed; ideally ministry will happen during the process of change. Both route and destination hold great promise” (Wells et. al., 2005, p. 62). There are many reasons and resources for change available to the Church from the business world that can and should be used but it would be disastrous to see it as only an organizational change and not a spiritual one. “Leaders in congregation need to remember that some of their most essential learnings will come from their Bible study and not from their budget reports” (Rendle, 1998, p. 23).
Kotter, J. P., & Rathgeber, H. (2006). Our iceberg is melting: Changing and succeeding under any conditions St Martins Press.
Kottter, J. (2012). The 8-step process for leading change. Retrieved 4/15, 2013, from http://www.kotterinternational.com/our-principles/changesteps/changesteps
Rendle, G. R. (1998). Leading change in the congregation: Spiritual and organizational tools for leaders Alban Institute Herndon, VA.
Wells, Barney, Martin Giese, & Ron Klassen. (2005). Leading through change: Shepherding the town and country church in a new era Church Smart Resources.