Leading change when everything has changed

Jake Mulder Image Jake Mulder | May 7, 2020

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.

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Jake Mulder Image
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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