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Anxiety In the Church System

Dr. Charles Revis, Executive Minister, ABC of the Northwest

Leadership insights may come from surprising places. After watching the movie The Changeling I was checking out the bonus features on the DVD. John Malkovich, who played the social activist Presbyterian minister, complimented Clint Eastwood's directing. He said, "[Clint] doesn't give you his panic and his pressure. A leader has to sort of keep that to themselves and find a way to help you keep your eye on the prize." Wow. Right on!

Family systems theory reveals that anxiety in any social system can effectively block progress. As a church journeys through transformation, conflict increases, and along with it anxiety. It's not unusual for the pastor to unnecessarily increase tension in the body by processing his/her own anxious thoughts among the church members. In this way the pastor unwittingly acts as an anxiety accelerator. This increase in anxiety can manifest itself in strange ways. Often they are subversive. For example, the pastor may take the lead in a new initiative, which in itself may be benign. But the push back from some is so intense that the pastor will wonder, "Where did that come from?" The pastor will have little idea that he or she helped set the stage for it.

Conflict in the church is a normal part of transformation. It should be expected. In fact, an absence of conflict is a certain indicator of little forward movement. So, how should a pastor and the leaders process their anxious feelings which are a normal part of leading change?

Certainly not among the general church members! This is the first rule. Learn to bite your tongue. Externalizing one's pain without discretion is a mistake many pastors make to their regret.

Self-discipline is required to process anxiety in a safe place. This leads to the second rule. Pastors must select carefully with whom they will process their pain. A trustworthy covenantal group of ministerial colleagues is one best place. This is one of the primary functions of the Leadership Learning Communities (LLC). Not only can the LLC listen and empathize and pray, the group can coach the pastor to take appropriate responsive action.

A third rule is to increasingly pour out one's worries and anxieties to God in prayer. This is one of the good things that can come from conflict as the tension reinforces motivation for pursuing spiritual disciplines. Personally, I am more consistent in prayer, meditation and scripture memorization when I am dealing with conflict. I recommend applying what Paul commanded, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."  Philippians 4:6-7

And, fourthly, follow the example of Clint Eastwood (I never imagined I would be giving this advice) and become a non-anxious presence for the congregation. Concentrate on avoiding defensive reactions. Lead by continually refocusing the church on its God-given mission of reaching the world for Christ. These steps will help reduce tension in the system, providing a more conducive environment for discernment and forward movement.

Originally published February 2009 © Dr. Charles Revis, ABC Northwest

Change Agent Game Plan

Dr. Charles Revis, Executive Minister, ABC of the Northwest

Change is ongoing in the healthy church. Leading change is a high priority strategic skill that every pastor will need to develop in a rapidly changing world. Refusing to lead congregational change is to choose slow death over health and growth.

I know that leading change is not for the faint-hearted. A declining church doesn’t turnaround and become outward focused without a demonstration of uncommon courage from the leader. There is great risk involved, yet, it is not reckless risk, for such courage is grounded in Christ Jesus who declared that He would build His church.

Church transformation requires mapping out a personal game plan that will help one stay the course, especially when fear threatens to paralyze. I wish to suggest some strategies to use in your personal game plan to becoming an agent of transformation.

1. Change agents surround themselves with traveling companions.

Leading change is similar to heading out on a week long back packing trip. You can go alone, but it will be a lonelier trek, and far more dangerous. The same is true in leading the local church through change. Most who go it alone end up lost, discouraged and in some cases severely wounded. So who should accompany you along the journey? There is wisdom in surrounding oneself with a variety of traveling companions.

Peer-to-Peer Learning Community. No one can learn enough in today’s world through solitary study. That’s why there is high value in being involved in a learning community of peers who are each committed to study, mutual accountability and reflection of ministry best practices.  A peer-to-peer group supersedes the traditional clergy cluster model in that it is primarily formed for the purpose of leadership development, not fellowship.

Vision Team. This should be a broad representative group of people from the church that would discern the church’s vision and work out a vision path for implementation. These would represent the various stake holders of the congregation and would serve to interpret and defend new directions the church takes as new ministries are launched. Most importantly they believe in the emerging dream, and help the pastor communicate it with urgency. Detailed explanation of a vision team may be found in Direct Hit, by Paul Borden.

Prayer Group. Find the people who understand the power of prayer and will commit to praying daily for the church and its leadership as it goes through transition. This group should meet together at a strategic time in the week, perhaps early on Sunday morning. Regular communication of the existence and purpose of this group will foster prayer as a high value during the change process.

Coach and/or Mentor. There is much to be said about the increasing role of personal coaches and mentors in leadership development. Without taking the time to explain the difference between coaches and mentors, let it suffice for this article that either a mature mentor or a skilled coach are both invaluable companions along the leader’s developmental journey.

2. Change agents demonstrate change in their own lives first.

The pastor is the fundamental change agent. Not the sole change agent, mind you, but the primary one. If anything is going to change in the church it must start with the leader. In fact, the only person over whom any of us have control is ourselves. We can persuade, cajole, threaten, inspire and suggest. But we can’t force change on anyone, or any group, much less a congregation.

Leaders who wish to change the system, have to change themselves first, and foremost. If the leader changes, then the relational system of the congregation must change as well. Pushing hard from the pulpit and hoping for resultant change is insufficient as a tactic for transformation. In fact, it can lead to resistance. Most people push back when pushed. The person in the pew needs to observe the leader engaging in new behaviors that flesh out new direction as well as new commitments. Churches will find a changed pastor difficult to resist.

There are several churches in our region that have experienced a major turnaround. In each situation the pastor showed the way, usually through leading a team of people to engage in some form of hands on ministry that was external in focus. For example, Paul Burnham has led the Newport Hills Community Church from a congregation running 15 in worship to one that is now beyond 130. Paul and his wife, Leona, started a myriad of ministries that reconnected the church with the surrounding community. They didn’t wait for someone else to do it. For example, they started a mid-week children’s ministry that targets the families within the low-income housing across the street from the church. This work involves a meal, family worship time and break out Bible studies that are age appropriate. They rolled up their sleeves and launched the ministry. Of course, they have recruited others to help, but they cooked the meals, walked the halls of the apartment complex inviting the children and their parents, and designed the evening’s program.

Leading a church outward in renewed ministry requires that the pastor show the way through new behaviors. The change agent starts the change process in himself, or herself, first. This personal change has strong potential for transforming the entire congregational system.

Originally published December 13, 2004  © Dr. Charles Revis, ABC Northwest

Change or Die!!!

Dr. Charles Revis, Executive Minister, ABC of the Northwest

When I came across this quote, it hit me like a ton of bricks, especially as it relates to the church.

"When the rate of change inside an organization is slower than the rate of change outside an organization, the end [of that organization] is in sight." ~ Jack Welch, former CEO of GE

Most sociologists tell us that we are in the midst of a rapid cultural shift. I agree, I can no longer find cassette tapes for my aging 1992 Previa! I gave away 300 vinyl albums when I moved to N. Idaho (wish I had them back now). I couldn't get them to play in my svelte CD player. Seriously, we're at a key inflection point in world history, but not unlike what has occurred at other pivotal periods.

One example is what happened when the printing press was invented in 1439. Gutenberg's printing technology spread rapidly throughout Europe and is considered a key factor for ushering in the European Renaissance. The Gutenberg Bible was first printed in 1455. Soon the masses had access to Scripture. And, eventually comic books in 1935. (Every positive move in technology has a concomitant negative move, I believe.) This tectonic shift has been labeled the Gutenberg Revolution. The impact on the church was massive. The Catholic Church, corrupt at every level, yet powerful, could not contain the outbreak of the Protestant Reformation. That movement radically reshaped the church. In addition to prophetic leaders such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Melancthon, the Reformation was greatly advanced through the dissemination of printed materials.

Likewise, the computer, the Internet, cable optics, cell phones and a host of new advances in communication are playing a huge role in the changes that are swirling around us. Add in the effects of post-modernity, multiculturalism, international free trade, and the fall of communism, and there is no doubt that we are moving through a "worm hole", as some have called it. What awaits us on the other side of all of this remains to be seen. One thing is certain, the world we experienced in 1950 and 1960 is not returning anytime soon. Sorry, Elvis fans. We are in the midst of a giant change, and the pace is quickening.

In the face of all this change, many churches are hunkered down, perpetuating ministry patterns designed in the 1950s and 1960s. The question I would ask is, "How is that working for you?" Actually, there is a better question, "Are you still as effective at reaching the lost and making disciples as you were three or four decades ago?" Most likely not.

Throughout the ages and in various cultures when the church has experienced renewal and growth, one major factor has been the adoption of new methods. The church adapted in order to effectively reach its target group with the Good News. Here again examples abound. Consider the various innovations of John Wesley, D. L. Moody, William and Catherine Booth, Hudson Taylor, Billy Graham, and Bill Hybels. Each had a passion for reaching the lost. Each created new methods, relevant to the culture, to convey the Gospel in more effective ways. The result? Millions of people have been saved from a hellish eternity by coming to know the Savior of the world.

The ramifications for the church are huge. If an individual church intends to do its part in helping to depopulate hell, it must be willing to adapt, continuously. The search for fresh wine skins is never called off. Change in the church's methods and ministry forms must be continuous. In certain periods the pace of change must quicken as the changes in culture accelerate. This is such a time.

I know that resistance to change is endemic to our species, especially as we age. (I still prefer Tom Brokaw to Brian Williams on the evening news....sorry, Brian.) And this is exacerbated by the penchant to transform the church into the last refuge of constancy in the middle of the surrounding cultural storm. Longing for a safe haven we can turn the church into a religious museum. How? Insure that everything about the church stays the same, from the furniture to the carpet, to the music and the programs, and, vigorously resist anyone who tries to change it. The result will be slow death. I guarantee it. It may not come this year, or the next, depending on the size of the endowment fund, but it will come.

But, is this the way of Jesus? I think not. He ushered in radical change. In everything! He turned the Jewish religious establishment upside down. Worship would no longer be confined to a physical temple. The priesthood would no longer be for a privileged few, but for every man, woman, boy or girl who became a Christ follower. He broke down the dividing wall between the religious insiders and the secular outsiders (see Ephesians 2:11-19). He is a wild man for change, especially when it results in transformed people--old creations into new creations--that sort of thing.

Jesus taught with a warning in his voice, "Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins...No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved" (Matt 9: 17). In this new age of the Holy Spirit, whatever structures and methods the church employs to pursue its God given mission, one ingredient must be constant, pliability, or the new wine will burst through. The old wineskin will be ripped apart, destroyed.

I know this is a great challenge for real churches in real places. But, God is able to calm our fears, take us by the hand, and lead us into exciting new days of ministry, while helping us make the changes that are needed to make it happen. So, I encourage you, embrace change. Or, prepare to die. To vigorously resist change, I believe, is to abandon our God-given mission. Rather, we must embrace the mission, and discover creative ways to carry it forward. Let us emulate Paul who wrote that he was willing, "to become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some." (1 Cor 9:22)

For more great reading about change I recommend the following:

  • Who Stole My Church? by Gordon MacDonald
  • The Present-Future by Reggie McNeal
  • LeadershipNext and ChurchNext by Eddie Gibbs
  • Deep Change by Robert Quinn
  • The Shaping of Things to Come by Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch
  • Change or Die by Alan Deuschman

2009 © Dr. Charles Revis, ABC Northwest

[This article is from Dr. Revis’ blog,]