Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Resistance and Sabotage

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Peter Steinke speak on New Hope for Mainline Churches. Peter is an ELCA consultant who has done some of the best work in translating Family Systems into congregation life. His “Healthy Churches” is a very helpful book.

During the seminar, he pointed out that because most congregations today are in need of revitalization that, like it or not, most pastors are called to be agents of change. Then he observed, “Most pastors are poorly trained as leaders, and when they experience resistance, they seem baffled and confused. Further, when pastors experience sabotage, they seem completely surprised.” Peter’s experience matches mine, and all t his relates to my current series of blogs on revitalization.

First, in what way are we poorly trained? The theological education that most mainline clergy receives is heavily academic. There is nothing wrong with this in my opinion, but what is wrong is the model that seminary professors often offer. This model is that education and knowledge lead people to the right conclusions and my job as pastor is to simply inform them. I see this all the time with clergy. We come into a congregation that is stuck or in decline. We think we know what people need to do to bring creative change and we preach, teach and instruct them waiting for their behavior to change.

In my first parish, I did exactly this. I remember well my first Annual Meeting. Faced with stiffening resistance, I said to the members, “Some of you still don’t seem to understand that this parish must change or it will die.” Immediately, a long time member raised his hand and said, “Fr. Martin, you are the one who doesn’t seem to understand. Many of us would rather see this church die than change.” I was speechless. I thought leading change was a rational process where insight and information would lead to the right choices.

Even more so, I was not prepared at all for sabotage. This is the behavior where members of the parish, often leaders, do things to directly subvert actions of the leader. I remember a Diocese of Texas congregation that had asked the new Rector to help bring in younger families with children. He did, but when the families began to disappear, he found out that long time members were offering to pay the families for baby-sitting in their homes because their children were ruining the dignified and beautiful Episcopal Liturgy. Sabotage! The new Rector asked me, “How could people tell you one thing and then work to undermine it?

On the change issue, I refer folks back to the excellent work by John Kotter on why efforts at change fail. On resistance and sabotage, I have a bit more to say.

First, expect resistance! If change and revitalization were easy then everyone would be doing it. I think it is best to work with a coalition of lay leaders in the parish to build change and to help them respond (rather than react) to resistance.

Second, sabotage happens most when something is about to happen. Sabotage comes forward as the anxiety about change becomes overwhelming to those most invested in the status quo. Remember that what drives this sabotage isn’t rational and rational explanations won’t deal with it. What does deal with sabotage is truth telling and persistence. I often find clergy give up at just the moment when creative change is about to take effect.


  1. I'd written a more detailed response, but the vagaries of the interweb conspired to lose it. Here's the crux of it.

    Parishes will tend to reject change - even necessary change - unless the death of the community is imminent. It's rather like the overweight smoker. Education about the risks of obesity and smoking are unlikely to bring about a lifestyle change. A severe but not quite fatal heart attack is more likely to work.

    As long as parishes think that a minor tweak here or there will be sufficient, they won't accept anything more. It's usually only when death - imminent death, not slow decline and eventual death - is staring them in the face that they might be ready to move.

    I saw a YouTube clip of Bonnie Perry speaking when she was a candidate to be Bishop of Michigan. In the clip, speaking of parish revitalization, she says something like "Of course we believe in resurrection - but first you have to realize you're dead." I think that's the key.

  2. Amen. Bonnie Perry was, BTW, quoting a former Bishop of our Church. Some of our congregations are the walking dead, but at the same time many places need revitalization, but are not "dead" so I think too general of such a comment not helpful from a diagnostic point of view.
    Thanks for your thoughtful post.

  3. Kevin...

    From a recent post:

    "church as we have always done it, will find increasingly fewer participants."

    That's the challenge in TEC.

    Bill Easum ( wrote recently that survival depends on starting over. He outlines a "Hail Mary Strategy."

    Could most EC's execute a Hail Mary Strategy? It would be almost impossible for all but a very few.

    Any significant change, I believe, would have to come at the grassroots level, someone, somewhere willing to push the current parameters.

    My question: are there any places where this is taking place?

    Jim Baker
    Cary, NC

  4. Jim,
    Thanks for your interesting comment. While way too many Episcopal Churches are small and in decline, there is a healthy group of congregations willing to learn from outside our "mainline" world view to be more dynamic mission oriented congregations. We've several in Dallas and I've seen this all over TEC. In addition, there is every reason to believe that some fairly traditional congregations will survive with much health far into the future. The American Church scene is a complex situation. Bill Easum is a great guy with great insights but a bit prone, IMHO, to hyperbole. I don't think most churches need a "hail Mary" solution. They need good leadership that leads with vision and values.

  5. "Sabotage" reminds me of a story Louis Weil once told in Liturgics @ Nashotah. Let me see if I can remember...he had gone to an unnamed diocese and parish and was speaking to the issue of children being communicated before Confirmation. His audience appeared appreciative, thoughtful. There was a woman in the audience who gave no evidence of disagreement. But without any indication of anything, ratted--so to speak--on Fr. Weil to her bishop, as teaching (?) heresy (?) something new ( to her).

    Sabotage is often most difficult to deal with because it can come in the form of passive aggression. Open aggression and/or hostility would be honest, at least.