By Adam Gray
William Bridges said, “It’s not that we don’t like change, it’s that we don’t like being changed.”
During a Thursday afternoon workshop at the 2016 CBF General Assembly in Greensboro, N.C., Ircel Harrison and Beth Kennett presented a workshop called Coaching for Congregational Change. Ircel is the coaching coordinator for Central Seminary, and Beth is the CBF Coaching Network Coordinator.
While churches approach change with different feelings and levels of health, every church has to deal with the change both within their congregations and in their communities. As society changes the context of every church, congregations have the opportunity to not only respond to this change, but to allow the new environment to enable brand new models of ministry.
While congregational change is often a recipe for conflict, learning to navigate that change and even welcome it can be transformational. Beth and Ircel offered a way to navigate that change while avoiding some of the pitfalls that can damage a congregation: coaching.
What is coaching?
Coaching is about moving from one place to another place. It’s like being a guide, listening to stakeholders to help them find the path and gently encouraging them to walk the path they find. Congregations sometimes want change, but being able to coach them through the necessary growing pains of that change makes the change easier to bear. Too often, church leaders begin with the assumption that their congregation doesn’t want to change, but maybe they’re just afraid of what they could lose. Walking with them through that process is key to effective coaching. Coaches take on the posture of a counselor more than a director.
Learning to ask the right questions and listen carefully to the answers is a key first part of this process. Let people explore both their perceived needs and their feelings about the change. The struggles are real, and peoples’ fear of losing a community that has been life giving to them should not be underestimated.
Coaching is listening. What is the motivation, feeling, or need behind a statement? Are you curious about the people in your church community? Can you listen without judgement? Coaching is encouraging and affirming. Even when listening to the story of someone with whom you disagree, can you find something in their story to affirm or encourage?
What from our coaching practice can we use to help congregations think about change?
Coaching works to develop a culture of trust. No one will follow a leader that they don’t also trust. Trust is built through relational engagement. If every conversation is adversarial, there’s no space to establish trust.
Beth and Ircel encourage congregational leaders to have “low stakes conversations” with their members – exploring options, sharing hopes and fears, imagining possibilities – long before they come to a motion in a business meeting. Have a conversation where there’s no decision to make at the end. The chief temptation is to jump to answers too soon; there’s probably not as big a rush to make a decision as it seems.
The coaching process makes us aware of one another. Quite often, the giftedness, the passion and the leadership to find the right path forward for a congregation already exist within the congregation. Churches don’t need outside heroes, they need a way to empower the people who are already in their midst. Change is a spiritual issue, not a systemic issue.
Beth and Ircel encourage us that the problem is not, most often, with the vision, it’s with the relationships. Make the space to listen, learn, engage, and explore with your congregation and get ready to be surprised by what God does in your midst.
Adam Gray is a CBF Leadership Scholar and student at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, Ga.