This article first appeared on churchhealth.wiki
In Staying Power: Why People Leave the Church Over Change (And What You Can do About It), Bob Whitesel dissects a framework for the change process in an organization. This framework is based on the work of Bruno Dyck and Frederick Starke in realm of business. However, Whitesel discovered that this framework could be overlaid over any organization, including the local church. This framework maps out how change occurs in an organization and how two groups of people, the “change proponents” and the “status quo” react to this change. Whitesel outlines six key stages to change in an organization: Relative harmony, idea development, change, resistance, intense conflict, and group exit. Whitesel also uncovers five triggers that act as catalysts to each of the six stages.
In Stage 1, Relative Harmony, churches are content, live in concord, and are able to handle some conflict. There is not total peace, but the church experiences overall harmony. In Stage 1, churches are faced with the issue of complacency. Many churches think they are successful or in a simple state of plateau. However, once outside factors are considered, such as population growth or a change in the generational or ethical culture of the area, it may discovered that the church is actually losing ground. It is at this point that a subgroup within the church will seek change.
Stage 2 is Idea Development and is triggered by a Conflicting Ideas event. It is this event that the subgroup makes its voice heard and begins to call for change within the church to address an issue of problem. A Conflicting Ideas event can be leadership books that are being passed out by the subgroup, having a guest speaker one Sunday, a private study by members of the subgroup, or attending worship seminars and conferences. In Stage 2, the change proponents begin to form new ideas, although at this point, it is still informal. Polarization of the change proponents and the status quo are beginning to take hold.
Change begins to take place in Stage 3. This stage is triggered by a Legitimizing Event. This event could either be a positive or negative event. This is a critical juncture in the change process as the Legitimizing Event will place the change process on one of two paths, one leading to a positive outcome with the other path leading to group exit. The negative Legitimizing Event usually takes place when a leader blesses the ideas of the change proponents, even unknowingly.
Once the change proponents begin to act on their ideas, the third trigger happens. This is the Alarm Event. The Alarm Event occurs when the status quo believes the change proponents are moving too quickly or down the wrong path. This trigger activates Stage 4, Resistance. There are two types of Resistance, one for path A and one for path B. On path A leading to group exit, the Resistance leads the status quo to form a subgroup and prepare to stand for their cause. On path B, Resistance is met with positive communication and is strategic and not hurried along. The status quo does not form a subgroup in path B.
On the negative path A, a Polarizing Event (trigger 4) leads to Stage 5, Intense Conflict. This polarizing event is usually a public event where one of the groups feels offended or attacked. This event has a permanent effect on the relationship and communication between the status quo and the change proponents. On the positive path B, there is a harmonizing event that elevates the unity and vision of the entire congregation. According to Whitesel, this leads to Dissonant Harmony, where each group is able to live with the other, even if some conflict exists.
Stage 6 has two options: Group exit for path A or group retention for path B. On path A, stage 6 is triggered by a Justifying Event. This event views unity as unreachable between the two factions. It justifies the motivation of the group that leaves. However, if time has been taken for the groups to be heard and unity to be achieved, no justifying event needs to take place and the result is group retention.
Whitesel does an excellent job of outlining the change process in a way anyone can understand. Staying Power takes the complicated situation of change in an organization and breaks it down into six stages and five triggering events.
What I found most interesting was that, even though there are six stages to change, the critical event happens all the way back at trigger 2: having a positive or negative legitimizing event. Based on Whitesel’s advice, a church is then able to back up and create a new legitimizing event, moving from negative to positive. By taking time and listening to both sides, the two groups of the status quo and the change proponents can live in harmony with little conflict. Change can take place with no group exit.