Is your church immune to change? Here's what to do.

Jake Mulder | Feb 7, 2017

Photo by Bethany Legg

We all have good intentions, but good intentions only get us so far. Most of us have learned this the hard way: we set our sights high, only to find ourselves encumbered with failed plans and abandoned New Year’s Resolutions.

You might be experiencing this with your 2017 goals. Maybe you wanted to get healthy, learn something new, get organized, spend more time with family, or become more effective in your leadership. And there’s certainly a lot of the year left to make progress.

But the tough reality is, you’re doing well if you can even remember your goals—let alone if you feel like you’re accomplishing them.

Because here’s the truth: Our intentions to change are often stronger than our ability to actually see the change through.

In fact, our dozen years of research and training at the Fuller Youth Institute has convinced us that change is elusive and difficult for everyone –churches included. We regularly hear intelligent, well-intentioned, dedicated church leaders who say things like:

“I want to spend more time reading my Bible, praying, and interacting with people, but I’m completely buried in office work. I can’t seem to get out of this pattern.”

“We had such high hopes for integrating young people into the life of our overall church, but our process has simply stalled. We’re not sure how to get it back on track.”

“Our leadership team voted to make young people a top priority in the church, but now it’s one year later and it feels like nothing tangible has materialized.”

So if you’re tired of reiterating your goals like a broken record and ready to move the needle in your church’s journey, here are some next steps for you.

Step one: Recognize why our change efforts get stuck

It’s clear to most leaders that our personal and professional goals rarely come to fruition.

But why is this the case? And what can we do?

One of the most helpful responses we’ve come across is offered by Harvard Developmental Psychologists Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey in their book Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization. Kegan and Lahey explain:

“The change challenges today’s leaders and their subordinates face are not, for the most part, a problem of will. The problem is the inability to close the gap between what we genuinely, even passionately, want and what we are actually able to do.”[1]

At the heart of this challenge is the concept of competing commitments -- hidden and often subconscious goals that are in conflict with our stated commitments. Our lack of awareness of and appropriate response to these hidden commitments often renders both our organizations and ourselves immune to the very changes we desire.

As a leader, you’ve likely experienced this. Perhaps your church has stated that it wants to be more effective with young people and prioritize them throughout the whole church. The congregation decides to allocate extra budget toward the youth ministry or adds a few new “contemporary” songs to each worship service.

However, there’s an unnamed competing commitment in the congregation, which is a desire for unity and harmony. It’s an unspoken understanding that, “we’re all Christians, which means we should get along and be able to avoid conflict.” As a result, the moment prioritizing young people begins to rock the boat (inevitably someone complains about the new music), this stated commitment takes a back seat and eventually fizzles.

Step two: Begin the process for moving past immunity

In response to these challenges, we must go beyond trying harder. Instead, we need to do the (often difficult) reflection and inner-work to bring about the lasting changes we desire.

To help you do this, we’ve created a Church Change Starter Workbook that includes a 4-step process based on this change research. Simply sign up below to receive the workbook in your inbox!

Jake Mulder

Jake Mulder is the Senior Director of Strategy at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) and Fuller's Executive Director of Leadership Formation Division. As Senior Director of Strategy at FYI, he oversees business administration, coordinates new research, develops resources and trainings, and helps the team think strategically. Jake holds a BA in Business Administration in Finance from Western Michigan University, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and is currently pursuing a PhD at Fuller. Passionate about helping individuals and organizations achieve their full potential, he is the coauthor of Growing Young. Prior to joining the FYI team, Jake worked in a variety of ministry and professional roles, including as a Financial Analyst, Youth Pastor in the Reformed Church of America, Ministry Director with Youth for Christ, and missionary with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) in Europe and Asia. Jake and his family live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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