Leading the Smaller Congregation – Part 11

Before we leave the subject of leading change, let’s talk for a bit about the pace of change. One mistake many pastors make is to misperceive those who resist change. Because the pastor feels passion for change and has worked through the necessity of pursuing a new direction, he can mislabel those who embrace change more slowly as resistors or even enemies of change. That may not be what is really happening.

For example, think about Moses leading the children of Israel across the wilderness. Now I’ve discovered that this wilderness trek didn’t really look like my childhood Sunday school papers pictured. A while back, a friend with a passion for mathematics told me that if 1.5 – 2 million people traveled together, marching ten abreast like the British army during the Revolutionary War, the line would stretch across 50-70 miles. Now, I’m guessing they weren’t quite that organized with all their possessions and animals, so imagine what the Exodus really looked like.

And if you could travel 12-15 miles each day, that means those near the back of the group might be 4-5 days behind Moses and those at the front of this journey. When I thought about that, I realized that the journey would feel VERY different, depending on where you were on the line.

You see, if you were up front with Moses…well, think about what that would be like. You could see Moses and hear his voice. You could see the cloud of fire that provided God’s guidance. You’d wake up every day, wondering if you’ll find the Promised Land just over the next hill of sand. Being up front would be exciting. My guess is that these people were easy for Moses to lead. They believed in the journey and when Moses called them to move forward, they were quick to respond.

It works the same for us. Those who embrace change quickly could be called Early Adopters. They are close to us as we move the church forward. These people tend to come from four groups: those who designed the change, those who have nothing to lose in the change, those who are accustomed to change, and those who thrive on change (usually younger people).

But not everyone will be an Early Adopter. In fact, only about 20% will respond to change like this. If the pastor expects everyone to respond to change with the enthusiasm of an Early Adopter, he will likely be disappointed.

Now imagine those who might be a day or two behind Moses or somewhere near the middle of the pack. What’s the journey like back there? Well, you overhear the enthusiasm of the group up front, but you probably don’t see Moses as much. You get most of your info second-hand. And when do you move forward? Only when those ahead of you have started moving, right? These people are called Mid-Adopters, and they are the largest group in the journey—usually around 60% of those we lead. They don’t respond immediately to change opportunities, but usually need to see the changes succeed before getting fully on board. Mid-Adopters do not despise change, but they can be wary of moving too quickly. They might also have more invested in the status quo or have seen previous changes that failed, making them more cautious. Frankly, most people dislike change that is made for them so a less than immediate response isn’t surprising. But if the pastor views these slower movers as resistors, he sets himself up for conflict.

Three or four days back we find Late Adopters. For Moses, these were likely the people who moved slower because it was harder for them to move. Maybe they were older, had more possessions, or seemed more attached to “where we’ve been.” For these friends, the call to “move out” isn’t exciting because it’s a lot more work for them to pull up the tent stakes and begin to move forward.

Late Adopters make up about 15% of the people and typically are more attached to the status quo than others. They are usually those who cannot see how they will benefit from the change and they won’t enthusiasically embrace the change until they feel they are being left behind. Late Adopters are often older members or those who have been in leadership for a long time. They have grown comfortable with the way things are and see change as a lot more work.

They move slower, but they will go forward if we treat them with patience and understanding. Sadly, in many change journeys, we see them as enemies of change and we “draw lines in the sand” that send them off on their own in the wilderness.

Yes, there will be some Non-Adopters—people who choose not to go with us. For Moses, there were people who wanted to go back to Egypt or choose another leader and another destination. Sadly, such a choice usually meant death in the desert.

When it comes to change, some people won’t go with us into the new direction. They will either slow their participation, pulling back from previous levels of involvement or they may leave the church altogether. A pastor should be prepared for the potential of loss when changes occur, but he can limit the size of this last group with patience, understanding, and a listening ear. If change is managed carefully, we can usually keep non-Adopters to about 5% of the people.

Now, keep in mind that Moses led a journey toward an amazing Promised Land, punctuated with remarkable miracles and a cloud that symbolized God’s daily presence and direction—and even he had people that wanted to return to the slavery of Egypt!

The point here is to avoid mislabeling those who don’t respond to the first opportunities to embrace change. Most ultimately will if they are treated with respect and understanding.

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