Two Painful Requirements of Constructive Change

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Every individual, group, organization, and certainly every church periodically faces the challenge of changing. It has been said that change is the one constant in life. But some change is constructive; others, not so. For instance, acquiring new eating habits and exercise regiments, maturing as a disciple of Christ, developing an outreach orientation, or plain old improving in time or money management—all are types of constructive change.

Whatever the nature of change or the context in which it is to occur, we must not oversimplify the process by reducing it to few easy steps. You know, the typical ABCs or seven steps found in self-help books. Therefore, meeting two requirements in particular–threats of change and demands of change—are particularly critical

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The threats of change are the things people perceive they will lose if change takes place. These losses often are psychological. We can overcome these threats to our psyche by first acknowledging them as a loss and then grieving them. A pastor may perceive losing notoriety and a placement on a pedestal if the spot light is shined on others who are gifted and up-and-coming leaders. It is unfortunate that some leaders are preoccupied with the pedestal. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. insightfully observed that “the only time people do not like praise is when too much of it is going toward someone else.” Remember King Saul’s reaction when the women danced and chanted: “Saul has killed his thousands and David his ten thousands.” (I Samuels 17:7) Threatened by the loss of his self-perceived greatness, King Saul literally sought to kill David.

The demands of change, in addition, are the actual tasks involved in the change process. In order for the above pastor to change, he or she must do something extraordinarily demanding. Investing time and effort in people development, promoting opportunities for up-and-coming leaders to employ their gifts, creating a congregation-centered rather than a pastor-centered ministry, and stopping the rationalizations as to why one cannot share the spot light. What a demand on Saul it would have been to affirm David in public. What a demand it would have been to acknowledge that David was more courageous and skillful as a warrior. What a demand it would have been to change his expectations of himself and devote himself to authentic leadership.

In the process of change, let us not resort to oversimplification. Let us also not yield to the tyranny of pain-free change. Change can be constructive and transformative, but it usually exacts a cost, which indeed complicates the process. In an earlier blog (March 20, 2013), I commented on how we mishandle pain:

We trade off necessary pain (the pain required for healthy change) for unnecessary pain (the pain associated with the consequences of not changing and remaining in a dysfunctional state). The trade off, however, is not among equals. Instead, it is the trading of a greater pain (necessary pain) for a lesser pain (unnecessary pain), which in essence is still a form of pain avoidance.

Leaders should take the lead in meeting the painful requirements of change. For more discussion on the topic, see my co-authored work with Steven Goodwin, Overcoming Resistance to Change.