Inspiring change in the local church can be a bit like trying to navigate the Titanic to go in a different direction. And many times the changes we are trying to make end up feeling like we are just straightening the deck chairs as our inevitable demise lurks in the distance. This can be overwhelming and discouraging to say the least.

Last week I had the opportunity to hear a lecture from Dr. Scott Cormode, the Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller. I found his insights to be particularly helpful since I am the type that actually likes change (and to be honest might get a little impatient waiting for the change-haters to get on board). A few of the compelling highlights:

Mental Models – These are the images that we have in our head that represent our understanding of things and help us make sense of our world. For example, if a group of people were asked to imagine a bird sitting in a tree, one person might have the mental model of a blue jay in an oak tree, another could be thinking of an eagle perched on the highest branch, while still another might think of a humming bird buzzing around a shrub. These are all legitimate understandings, however they are very different from one another. We must recognize that mental models are the stories we inhabit from previous experiences. The best way to inspire change within a mental model is to invite people into a new story.

Small Wins – These are momentum shifters captured in a small story that encapsulates the whole of what you are trying to accomplish. Sort of like an elevator pitch but instead of selling something, you are hoping to inspire and invite people into the story. Find little stories of things that are already happening towards the greater goal and tell these stories over and over. Top-down programming doesn’t work because people don’t have a story to place themselves into. Allow people to imagine what could be and how they could play a part. Then connect these stories to the overall mission of the church.

Technical Problems and Adaptive Change – Technical problems can typically be solved by a program or technique (up to a point). A program can only do so much; at some point people need to make changes that you cannot make for them (a doctor can perform surgery but cannot quit smoking for a patient). The program can cultivate an environment that promotes growth and change. Adaptive change, on the other hand, is when something happens in which things will never be the same again, so you have to adapt. This is painful because it creates a loss, and with loss comes a grief process. Adaptive change can be especially difficult when the things that have been successful in the past are being questioned.

Maintain Disciplined Attention – This is where the hard work of change comes into play. We must create a process to focus on the change including specific time set aside for this (my favorite quote from the lecture: “The tyranny of the urgent will get in the way unless you set aside time to work on it.”) Find ways to share the story and pace the change to fail people’s expectations at a rate they can stand. Ultimately vision is a shared story of future hope.
Mindy Coates Smith currently serves as the Co-Director of Youth Discipleship at Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles with her husband of eight years, RO Smith. She is close to finishing a Doctor of Ministry degree in Theology with an emphasis on Youth, Family and Culture. In her spare time, she enjoys vanilla lattes and is a fan of Project Runway. Together RO & Mindy love to travel, watch movies and take long walks on the beach.

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