Leading change when everything has changed

Photo by Javier Allegue Barros

In the midst of COVID-19, I’ve heard from a lot of leaders who feel stuck.

They feel stuck inside the house. Like their life is in slow motion. Or like their ministry is on hold and they’re passing the time until things get back to normal.

When it comes to ministry life and leadership, this is not a season for stuck. In fact, I’d argue this is the wrong way for leaders to approach the period we’re in.

With a small shift in your mindset, this might be your greatest season of momentum and change. 

What’s the shift? It’s seeing this as a season of openness and possibility rather than gridlock and inability. It’s believing that you’re uniquely positioned to lead change in your ministry, precisely because the world has just changed.

I’ll admit that can sound like a bit of motivational hype. Perhaps, like me, you find yourself more skeptical of good news after two months on lockdown. Let me assure you this is not just wishful thinking. Research on organizational (and congregational) change reveals that leading change is indeed difficult. However, several leading scholars claim that the most difficult aspect of leading significant change in individuals or ministries is getting people out of their existing rut and opening their heart and mind to a new way of doing things.[1]

If you’ve been around church for any length of time, you know getting people out of a mental or behavioral rut is not easy.

There’s the couple who’s sat in the same pew for years—you know because you once unknowingly sat in their spot and they were less than friendly about it. 

Or there’s the contingent of people who threatened to leave your congregation when the pastor suggested a seemingly minor change in worship style. 

Or the parents who looked at you like you were crazy when you suggested their teenager drop travel soccer so she could spend more time serving with the youth ministry.

The list could go on. 

Change experts would agree each of these ways of thinking or acting is frozen. Further, the experts would tell you that the first and most difficult step of bringing about change is what’s known as unfreezing.[2] Unfreezing means getting a person or group of people to be open and consider a new way of thinking or acting. 

Typically, unfreezing requires you to create a significant sense of urgency. Or spend a lot of time convincing people. Or in some cases, hours upon hours of prayer that God would soften peoples’ hearts or open their eyes. I’ve been there, and bet you have been too.

What’s another, faster, and often easier (for you) way to unfreeze people’s existing expectations or actions? 

A crisis. A significant event, like COVID-19, that disrupts people’s regular rhythm or patterns and resets their default expectations. Once we’re in such a season of instability and disruption, we long for psychological safety and consistency. So we seek out new options and solutions. We’re no longer stuck, but open to new ways of being and doing.

This concept of unfreezing is absolutely essential for any ministry leader who has wanted to lead some sort of change but so far has been unable to do so. The pandemic means that much of our deeply-held thinking about the “right way” to do church or youth ministry are currently unfrozen. Viewing your leadership and ministry in the current season through this lens means the pandemic isn’t simply a barrier—it can in fact be an opportunity.

Consider some of your biggest ministry hopes and dreams from the past year. Maybe you wanted to make a shift toward intergenerational worship or more relational forms of ministry. Perhaps you’ve wanted to begin a new way of relating to and supporting parents in their discipleship efforts with their kids. Or you might be tired of leading Sunday morning worship that feels more like a well-produced Broadway show than an event designed to help people experience the risen and resurrected Christ. I’ll bet you could name more than a few ministry passions worth throwing yourself after.

No matter what your worthy dream, don’t simply defer until next year and waste this season. Certainly, there’s much that we did before that we can’t do now. But in this season of crisis and change, this is your chance to prepare. To lay a foundation. 

If you are a pastor, a ministry leader, or a parent who wants to lead change when everything has changed, here are three quick tips:

1. Keep your eyes focused on Jesus.

While it might sound like the Sunday School answer, it’s also the right answer. Keeping our focus on Jesus sustains us for this journey. What’s more, I believe Jesus has brought about more personal and organizational change than anyone in history. If we’re smart, we’ll pay attention to how he led. Now might be a good time for you to open the gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John and ask yourself: How did Jesus lead change?

2. Get some time on the balcony. [3] 

Most of us stay so busy in the urgency of day-to-day activities. To lead change well in the midst of a crisis, we need to find time to step back from what’s urgent and focus on what’s most important. Find a 30-minute time this week to pull back from the busyness, find a quiet spot, and ask some big picture questions. Start with, What’s the big dream God has given me/us for our ministry, and how might I/we take next steps in this season?

3. Focus most on what will never change. 

In times of rapid change, we can exhaust ourselves by focusing on what’s changing. Consider focusing your attention on those things that will never change. People will always need relational connection. There will always be a hunger for truth and the transcendent. Consider making a list of the people, experiences, or places that most shaped your faith journey. Then ask how those concepts or themes might be relevant to what your people need today.

As you lead boldly in the midst of the pandemic, we’d love to journey with you. Here are some of our most popular posts and tools for leaders: 

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[1] This theme runs through the work of several influential scholars in organizational development and organizational psychology, including Kurt Lewin, Edgard Schein, and Karl Weick. For further reading, see Lewin and Schein’s articles in Warner Burke, Dale G. Lake, and Jill Waymire Paine, eds., Organization Change: A Comprehensive Reader (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).

[2] The term unfreezing comes from Kurt Lewin, “Quasi-Stationary Social Equilibria and the Problem of Permanent Change,” in Organizational Change: A Comprehensive Reader, eds. Burke et al. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).

[3] The phrase “get on the balcony” comes from Ronald Heifetz and his important work on adaptive change. See Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2002).