The moment we get involved in the mission of God we are confronted by the challenge of change. God’s mission is all about setting to rights the things that are not as they ought to be, and that spells change. As agents of God’s mission, we often have a role in facilitating change, helping people to navigate transitions when they have gotten stuck somehow. And why is it that people and organisations get stuck instead of moving through change successfully?
Change management literature identifies four essential elements in any change process:
If things are not moving along the lines that God intends it’s likely that one of these elements needs to be addressed.
Stir up Discontent
Change can stall because people are too complacent. They are prepared to put up with things the way they are, tolerating a state of affairs that falls far short of God’s intentions. This can come from an aversion to unpleasantness, a desire not to be negative or sheer laziness. Whatever the cause, it is not until people are sufficiently fed up with what the kingdom of this world has to offer that they will begin on the path towards the promise held out in the kingdom of God.
As people in the marketing business say, first you have to sell the problem, then you can sell the solution. The role of a leader in mission may be to ‘rub raw the sores of discontent’, validating dissatisfaction where appropriate and affirming righteous anger over things that are not right. There are, of course, vested interests that are determined to prevent God’s transformative work moving forward and will seek to hose down discontent through either oppression or soothing. The chief of these vested interests are spiritual forces that must be exposed and confronted.
There is a prophetic edge to this part of facilitating change in mission. Missional leadership requires courage to declare the truth; to afflict the comfortable as well as to comfort the afflicted. Be careful not to make yourself so unpopular that you have no opportunity to lead people into the next stage! Be mindful of how much discontent people can bear before they become bitter and resentful, or crushed and despairing.
A second point at which change can come off the rails is where hope is too dim to light the pathway ahead. A failure of imagination is crippling to hope. Even a person deeply dissatisfied with the present state of affairs will not embrace change unless they can see the prospect of a better future.
Imagination may fail for two reasons: fixation on threats and obstacles, and lack of exposure to alternative scenarios. Missional leaders have the task of presenting a larger perspective which addresses both these problems:
- Acknowledging threats and obstacles, but placing them in a bigger frame that also includes the stupendous power of God’s Spirit
- Telling stories of how God has worked across the centuries and is working across the world and across the street through ordinary people like us
Discontented with the present and hopeful for a better future, people and organisations may still come unstuck if they over-reach, attempting change for which they are not equipped. Consider how the Israelites had to strengthen their capacity before they could embrace the change God had in mind for them to occupy the promised land. God tells Moses in Ex 23:29-30
‘I will not drive them out in a single year, because the land would become desolate and the wild animals too numerous for you. Little by little I will drive them out before you, until you have increased enough to take possession of the land.’
Change can falter because too much is attempted at once, or the process is rushed, or the intended change is unrealistic. It is the leaders’ task to:
- assess the correct pace of change
- encourage steadiness, patience and perseverance
- identify resource gaps
- secure appropriate external support
- help refocus the direction of change if capacity simply cannot match intentions
The final element essential to any effective change process is a thoughtfully considered strategic plan. I wrote a short piece on the Seventy-Two site a while back about strategic planning, so I won’t repeat that material here. I’ll just mention a few key points for leaders to bear in mind when seeking to facilitate change:
- be sure to anchor change in regular routines, policies and procedures;
- think ahead, considering the knock-on effects – the shock of unintended consequences can easily undermine changes that have not had time to take root;
- set a schedule for regular review and evaluation so that the change process can be tweaked in the light of ongoing developments.
Facilitating change can get complicated, but I hope giving attention to these four elements will provide a simple structure for finding a way forward.