Managing Parish Change


“And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.” (II Corinthians 3:18)


A priest of a parish or an executive director of an organization is a primary change agent. They dedicate vast amounts of time and energy in preaching, teaching and, according to their best ability, modeling good stewardship. They invest in parish management software including credit card giving and auto debiting from checking accounts; and educate the stewardship committee. Yet months later, people still persist in their old ways. Where are the hoped for improvements expected? And when will the reactions and resistance to change subside?

Unfortunately, parishes don’t just change because of new systems, processes or sermons. These external stimuli may present the opportunity to change but meaningful and lasting change only occurs when the people within the parish (especially thought leaders and opinion makers) adapt and embrace the change. This is when a parish truly reaps the benefits of change.

As the primary change agent, the challenge for the priest or executive director is not only to get the systems, processes and teaching right, but also to help and support people through these personal transitions (which often feel disorienting and threatening.)

The model below is a popular and powerful model used to understand the stages of personal transition and organizational change. It helps a leader understand how parishioners will react to change, so that they can be assisted to make their own personal transitions.

Here we’re describing major change, such as relocating the facilities of the parish or transitioning from the dues system to genuine biblical sacrificial giving, which likely will be traumatic for the people undergoing the change. If change is less intense, adjust the approach appropriately.

There are four stages most people go through as they adjust to meaningful change. (See the figure below)

When a change is first introduced, people’s initial reaction may be shock or denial, as they react to this challenge to the status quo or the way things have always been done. This is stage 1.

Once the implications and impact of the change is felt, people tend to react negatively and move to stage 2. They may fear the impact, feel angry and actively resist or protest against the changes. Some will wrongly fear the negative consequences of change. Others will correctly identify real threats to their situation. As a result, the parish experiences disruption which, if not carefully managed, can quickly spiral into chaos.

As long as people resist the change and remain at stage 2, the change will be unsuccessful, at least for the people who react in this way. This is a stressful and unpleasant stage. For everyone, it is much healthier to move to stage 3, where pessimism and resistance give way to some optimism and acceptance.

Suggestion:

It’s easy to assume that people resist change out of sheer awkwardness, stubborness and lack of vision. However, it’s important to recognize that for some, change may affect them negatively in a very real way that may not be readily apparent. For example, people who have been giving their dues, are actually incapable or at least perceive that they are incapable, of giving more or in the case of parish relocation change, they will have to drive twenty minutes more to come to church.

At stage 3, people stop focusing on what they have lost. They start to let go, and accept the changes. They begin testing and exploring what the changes mean, and so learn what’s good and not so good, and how they need to adapt.

By stage 4, they not only accept the changes but also start to embrace them: They reorient their relationship with the parish (and often the principal change agent!) Only when parishioners get to this stage can the church benefit from the new way of giving or effort to build the new facility.

With knowledge of the how the challenge of meaningful change can affect parish membership, plan how you’ll minimize the negative impact of the change and help people adapt more quickly to it. The aim is to make the curve shallower and narrower, as can be observed in figure 2.

As a primary change agent introducing change, use the knowledge gained from this article to give individuals the information, attention, and help they need at each stage. This will help accelerate change and increase its likelihood of success.


Stage 1:

At this stage, a percentage of parishioners may be in shock or in denial. Even if the change has been well planned and the leader personally understands what is happening, this is when the impact of the change affects the parish. People will need time to adjust. They also need information, a clear presentation of the process and perhaps most importantly, the purpose(s) of why the change is necessary.

This is a critical stage for communication. Make sure communication is frequent but also that people are not overwhelmed with information. They’ll only be able to take in a limited amount of information at a time. But make sure that people know where to go for more information if they need it. Most helpful may be dedicated listening time by the parish council and focused listening time by the priest or executive director with key individuals.


Stage 2:

As people start to react to the change, they may start to feel concern, anger, resentment or fear. They may resist the change actively or passively. They may feel the need to express their feelings and concerns and vent their anger. For the parish, this stage is the “danger zone.” If this stage is badly managed, the parish may temporarily descend into crisis or chaos. Once again, more patient listening may be required. When people feel that they are heard and that their feelings and point of view is accepted (does not necessarily mean “agreed to”), feelings often become less intense.

This stage needs careful planning and preparation. As someone responsible for change, prepare for this stage by carefully considering the impacts and objections that people may have. There will be a temptation to over react and in a worst case scenario, begin to vilify the opposition.

Always remember, that they are on the team as well. Treat them as though they are on the team. Do not give “an eye for an eye.” Informed and loyal opposition is the grain of sand in the oyster that causes the pearl to form. They serve to force the proponents of change to do their homework, test assumptions and to effectively (and charitably) respond to unforeseen consequences. Seek parishioner feedback and look for valuable information that will assist in the change process.


Stage 3:

This is the turning point for parishioners and for the parish. Once the corner to stage 3 is turned, the parish starts to emerge from the danger zone, and is on the way to positive and likely long overdue changes.

As parishioner acceptance grows, they’ll need to test and explore what the change means to them personally. They will do this more easily if they are helped and supported to do so, even if this is a simple matter of allowing enough time for them to do so.

As the primary change agent, lay good foundations for this stage by making sure that people are well informed, and are given early opportunities to experience what the changes will bring. Be aware that this stage is vital for learning and acceptance, and that it takes time. Also accept that there will be a small percentage of the parish that is always uncomfortable with change of any sort. Active, visible resistance may transition into passive resistance. Here, the muscular unconditional love and acceptance proclaimed in the gospel is the only option. We know to love and accept people where they are, as God does for each of us.


Stage 4:

This stage is the one for which there has been much hope and prayer! This is where the changes start to become an unquestioned and important fact of parish life.

As the primary agent of the change, the benefits for which there has been much sacrifice now bring forth rich and beautiful blessings. Parish leadership starts to become productive and more effective. Better service is rendered by programs. There is a palpable sense that the mission of the parish is being fulfilled.

While busy counting the benefits, don’t forget to celebrate success! Never postpone joy. The journey may have been rocky and it will have been uncomfortable indeed for some of the people involved. Yet, everyone deserves to share in the joy. Consider calling a few key supporters and thanking them personally. A joy shared is doubled. If the courage is there, consider calling a few key leaders of those who resisted the change and find a way to thank them as well. By celebrating the common achievement a track record of success is established that may make things easier in the next change process.

“To live is to change. To become perfect is to have changed often.” – John Henry Cardinal Newman

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