Why do people resist change even when they know that old habits, attitudes, and systems are holding them back from doing greater good? Ronald Heifetz (Leadership on the Line, 26–30) says people do not fear change; they fear loss. People fear the grief that comes with losing what has been familiar, reliable, known. Habits, values, and attitudes—even those that are barriers to progress—are part of one’s identity, and changing them challenges how we define ourselves.
Abandoning long-held patterns feels like we are being disloyal to those who created and taught the older, familiar ways to us. People hold on to ideas as a way of holding on to the persons who taught them the ideas. Change means leaving behind familiar ways of doing things and possibly experiencing uncertainty and incompetence with the new ways. Change asks people not only to redefine their identity but also to release what their role models taught them. No wonder people resist change!
Yet nearly all moments of reformation and rebirth result from people courageously embracing new attitudes and strategies. Each of us is a walking paradox when it comes to change in the church—we long for it and we resist it; we pray for it while trying to avoid any disruption to our own way of doing things. Each of us is full of good ideas about how others in the system should change—bishops, general boards, pastors, laity, seminaries, caucuses, young people, old people, annual conferences, the general conference—and short on energy for changing ourselves or rethinking our own approaches. But true, adaptive change changes me and you!
John Wesley discovered this when he risked offering ministry in a style he personally found repugnant. In his Journal for April 2, 1739, he reports, “At four in the afternoon I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation. . . .” This first attempt at field-preaching caused him to leave the comfort of the traditional parish church to preach outdoors to the poor on their way to and from their labor. Rather than merely railing against the inadequate methods and passions of the established church to reach the poor, Wesley allowed himself to be changed. Wesley was a person in need of change seeking to change the church so that the church can change the world!
Ezra records the rebuilding of the temple by describing the ceremony that accompanies the laying of the new foundation, a service marked by prayers, singing, and the sound of trumpets. The people responded with shouts of praise because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid, but many of the priests and heads of families and old people who had seen the first temple wept with a loud voice, though many shouted aloud for joy “so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away (Ezra 3:13 NRSV).
This story captures the emotional complexity of change. Every congregation that has risked innovation to reach new people by changing worship styles or initiating outreach has discovered both the exhilaration and the grief that follows. To reach my own children and grandchildren requires offering ministry in styles and contexts that are not my preferred way. I celebrate the success of the new ways while grieving the loss of the old ways.
The Council of Bishops commissioned the most in-depth study of a major denomination ever undertaken. Based on those findings, the Call to Action calls for change that affects how annual conferences, general boards, and the Council do their work. The Call to Action asks us to redirect the resources and the flow of energy toward increasing the number of vital congregations, to reform the Council of Bishops, to streamline the work of general agencies, and to reconfigure the clergy recruitment, development, and accountability systems.
I find the directional change refreshing and invigorating. It gives me hope for a church that is more outward-focused, future-oriented, and responsive to the needs of the world around us.
And yet I feel uneasy stepping into a future without the well-known markers and predictable structures to which I’ve grown accustomed. Most of the delegates who will vote on these proposals, along with all the bishops on the stage and the agency staff in the audience, have been the beneficiaries of the systems that we now propose to change. The proposals stimulate grumbling, anger, attempts to make it go away, silent and expressed anxiety, sadness, and disorientation. People want everyone else to change, but do not want significant disruption to their own area of service.
Shouts of joy and the sounds of weeping—these are the signs of change. We know things cannot continue as they have, but change requires courage. We have to pray about it, and we’re going to have to talk one another into it. For the sake of the mission of Christ through our church, we need to shift focus and strategy as much as Mr. Wesley did 270 years ago.
What are the sources of loss you have experienced as your congregation has changed its way of offering the ministry of Christ? As your conference has changed? What have been the sources of joy resulting from these changes?
How does a desire for change sometimes feel disloyal to our forbears and mentors?
Have you ever experienced an “Ezra moment” (joy and weeping at the same time in the face of change)? Have you ever experienced a “Wesley moment” (successfully experimenting with a ministry you would have avoided at an earlier point in your life)?
For deeper reflection, read Ezra 3:10-13.