Preparing for Change

Amy Wagner

We’ve all heard it: “They didn’t teach that in seminary!” It’s true, the first year or two in congregational ministry will teach you many things that you won’t learn in seminary. But this summer, I’ve been grateful for one thing I did learn in seminary: how to lead during times of change. And as it turns out, this particular lesson has been as useful in my family life as it has been in my church life.

The most memorable lesson from the semester-long seminary course, “Leading through Change,” was this: Prepare for change by increasing care. The premise is this: change – positive or negative – always brings stress. A new worship service = stress. Growth in the church = stress. Decline in the church = stress. Change brings a certain level of stress for an organization and the individuals within it. Therefore, the best, most pastoral thing you can do when leading a congregation through change is to increase care for each another in anticipation of the coming stress.

How does that happen? Strengthen small groups, where relationships are built and maintained. Shore up your prayer chains. Deliberately increase time spent visiting the elderly and others who might be easily forgotten in the midst of the change. Maybe even add a staff member to provide pastoral care, strategically freeing the pastor and other leaders to focus on leadership and vision. Do whatever you need to do to remind people that they are loved, cared for, and valued in the midst of change.

It isn’t intuitive, this way of approaching change. It can feel like circling the wagons right when you should be pulling out of camp. Visionary leaders are anxious to move ahead, reach new people, and strive toward strategic goals. And they should be! But doing so without laying a strong foundation of care within the existing congregation can lead to misunderstanding, hurt feelings, and divisions among the body.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, slowing down enough to shore up your systems of care brings big payoffs down the road. When members feel valued, you’ll see greater buy-in for the vision, more engaged leaders, and fewer misunderstandings and complaints. Strengthening relationships and increasing care for one another creates natural communication channels and provides healthy outlets to share concerns and questions. Persons feel more confident stepping into ministry in new ways because they feel supported. Hospitality is more naturally extended to others when members feel secure in their own relationships within the congregation.

I’ve also realized, with my most recent change of appointment, that the same lesson applies to my home and personal life. In the midst of a move, my children need more of my time, not less. One clergy mentor told me that he dedicates the first year of a new appointment to his new church, and his family knows they will not get as much of his attention in that first year. For me, the opposite must be true. In the midst of transition, my children will need me more than usual. I make it a priority to be there for first days at a new school, and playdates with new friends. Getting my children settled into new routines and new relationships is one of my highest priorities in the early months of a new appointment.

So far, the communities to which I have been appointed have been gracious and understanding of this. They get to know my family this way, and they see me modeling healthy boundaries and good parenting. Over the first year, as we begin to develop a vision for our future together, I’m ready to offer more of my time to living into that vision. It is much easier to gradually increase my workload at the church than it is to cut back after habits and expectations have already been established.

Perhaps the hardest piece to honor, in the midst of change, is my own self-care. I’ve learned – with the help of a spiritual director – to schedule self-care days on my calendar well in advance of significant ministry changes. Before my most recent move, I scheduled personal days – apart from both church and family responsibilities – once a month for the first six months of my new appointment. It felt unnecessarily self-indulgent when I was writing them into my calendar, but as the days have rolled around, I’ve been surprised at how desperate I was for a break. If those days hadn’t been marked “unavailable” on my calendar, the much-needed rest would not have come. Planning ahead for self-care allows me to attend to my own emotions and reconnect with my own spiritual journey in the midst of change. It makes me a better mom and better pastor.

Consider, as a new semester begins: Where do you need to increase care, in preparation for the changes that are upon you, or soon to come?

Posted Oct 13, 2014

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