Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jan Nolting Carter is curating a mosaic of perspectives on the art of transitional ministry. How do we work with people and systems in the midst of change? What does transitional ministry look like inside and outside of the church? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!
by Beth Wagner
How many Presbyterians does it take to change a lightbulb? It takes a council, in stated meeting, to determine if a new light bulb is in the ministry plan of the council, if there is funding for a new light bulb, and if persons can be called who will faithfully carry out this mission.
So change doesn’t come easy to Presbyterians; we are layered-in-steps type of folk, and to be honest, we aren’t really excited about change. Yet in this new milieu, change seems to be the buzz word. Our world is changing right before our eyes.
So we need to figure out this change thing. As a transitional pastor, I experience change every two years or so; I change locations, often times my home and what I know as normal. And I am serving churches that are experiencing change, whether the wanted it or not. I feel like I live and breathe CHANGE.
I have repeatedly turned to Dr. John Kotter, former Harvard Business professor, author of 18 books, considered the authority on leadership and change, to help me. Kotter has studied and written about change for 30 years. While John writes for the business world, I have found his process to work in the church world as well. His book Leading Change has been widely recognized as seminal work in the field of change management. It introduced the 8 step process to lead organizational change.
Kotter’s work in change has continued as he observed that no matter how you look at it, the rate at which our world is changing is increasing but our ability to keep up with it is not. Kotter talks to the business world about what remains the same and why change is necessary. I think we can translate that to the church world and when Kotter talks about specific changes to our organizations, I see this in most churches I serve:
- We are falling behind the competition today
- We are ill-prepared to think about the church of the future
- We are too slow in executing change
- We are too slow in innovate
- We are too siloed to collaborate
Our leaders are disengaged from their roles and colleagues; there is a false urgency about the “dying church.” And we believe what got us here will get us to the future.
In 2011, I was able to help First Presbyterian Church of Rockford, IL make the decision to sell their 105-year-old building and merge with the neighboring congregation, 2nd Congregational Church. We used the Kotter 8 step process of change for the framework of enabling this 176-year-old congregation effectively change who they were and where they were physically located. Kotter says the 8 step process is perfect way to respond to or affect episodic change in infinite and sequential ways. It drives change with a small, powerful core group, it functions within a traditional hierarchy and focuses on doing one thing very well in a linear fashion over time.
The First Presbyterian session identified their guiding coalition, which they called the Penguin Group after Kotter’s parable “Our Iceberg is Melting.” In the fall of 2011, after months of studying Kotter, the session recommend to the congregation that the only option was for them to sell the building. They had about 3 years of money left; the sense of urgency was present and real. The congregation agreed without knowing what would happen next. They created a slogan call “Close, Move or Merge.” They quickly threw out close; they were still a vital worshipping community in the neighbor. The guiding team created the first short term win after a congregational survey said everyone wanted to stay together. The guiding team then helped the congregation create scouting teams to visit neighboring congregations (both Presbyterian and UCC) to check them out and find out if one congregation was a better fit than others. By June of 2012, the congregation knew it wanted to merge with 2nd Congregational (located adjacent to the First Presbyterian building). As meetings between the two churches began in earnest, and 2nd formed their own coalition, the excitement began to grow for both congregations. By-laws were created, furniture was moved, new offices made and decorated. It was an exciting process to be part of. On December 31, 2012, First Presbyterian Church closed it doors, sold the building and moved down the street to a new church: 2nd Congregational/First Presbyterian Church. CHANGE occurred.
Beth Wagner is a transitional pastor who has served churches in the PC(USA) and UCC. She is presently serving First Presbyterian Church of Springfield, IL. This is her sixth transitional position and she is a faculty member at the MALT site of the Transitional Ministry Education Network (TMEC). She is passionate about church and about change. If we are not changing, we are dying!