By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments
  • Having trouble introducing change in your congregation?
  • Do you find that people tend to be resistant to certain ideas?
  • Having trouble dealing with the frustration that things just aren’t getting anywhere?

Studies in facilitating change, and introducing innovation, such as Everett Rogers’, have demonstrated that there are five principles of innovation which can be used to help facilitate a smoother adoption of change. These principles are…

1. The Principle Of Relative Advantage

The degree to which a change or innovation is perceived by the members of an organization to be better than the present state of operation is positively related to its rate of adoption.
As common sensical as the principle of “Relative Advantage” may sound, one cannot be “sloppy” or non-chalant about communicating the relative advantages of any proposed changes.
From the very beginning it is important that specific, positive, and credible information be provided to the congregation which very simply states how the proposed change is superior to the current conditions.
The information must be as believable as possible; don’t give the appearance of selling out your integrity by making grandiose statements promising more that what can reasonable be delivered. Church leaders may be wise to follow the investment world when promoting change: “past results do not predict future returns.”
Don’t undersell the benefits, either. Communicate a visionary baseline…then let God’s people ponder how God might be able to use it in even more powerful ways than we can possibly imagine.
2. The Principle Of Compatibility
The degree to which an innovation is perceived as consistent and in harmony with the existing values, past experiences, and needs of the potential adopters is positively related to its rate of adoption.
Of the five factors of innovation, I believe this one may be the most critical to examine. Tradition, time-tried denominational practices (not related to doctrine), “what do other churches do,” and of course “We’ve never done it that way before” are typically very strong in churches. Ironically, these attitudes are strongest in the churches that may need it most!
Churches can be as tenacious as they are enduring.
The strength and impact of tradition in congregational life and function cannot be ignored…especially in change processes. Without a continued renewal of tradition, the tenacious hyper-vigilant guardianship of tradition can strangle a church’s mission and ministry potential. No matter how good their intentions, those who ignore or disrespect these deeply-entrenched traditions may become martyrs.
Because tradition is such a formidable roadblock to change, pastors and other change agents are often tempted to “plow through,” “buffalo,” and stubbornly “bulldoze” their way through the mire and resistance. The harder they push, the greater the pull caused by later adopters and laggards who become even more determined guarantors of tradition…whether the tradition be a building, a way of worship, a way of doing ministry, the constitution, or an understanding of the church’s teaching.
It is here where conflict may escalate and intensify. At this point it is typical for highly sensitive and emotionally charged traditionalists to seek out and support a key antagonist as their “hero” to gather the troops and defend their “cause.”
Generally the “hero” is all-too-willing to take on the role. Experienced and having successfully offered resistance in the past, the head antagonist will proceed to undermine the proposed change…sometimes at all costs. The demonstration of how the change is contrary to the best interests of the congregation and destructive of the congregation’s values often involves the devaluation of those forces promoting the change.
In worse case scenarios, opposition metastasizes the change issue into a personality clash. Name calling, scape-goating, victimizing, and other destructive behaviors arise, often directed against the integrity of the pastor and those who have the church’s best interest at heart. The damage which occurs to the Kingdom in these “worst-case scenarios” is, to say the least, heartbreaking and painful. Sometimes congregations never recover from the damage. If they do, the scars may still remain for years…or decades.
If the pastor is to survive during change processes, he must have what John Maxwell calls “currency.” Because antagonists typically—albeit unfairly–will call the pastor’s integrity, trust and performance into question, the pastor has to depend on his “currency.”
If the pastor has been in a congregation long enough, has earned (or, in the beginning of a new pastorate, has been given) enough good will among the majority of the people, has enough successes under his belt, and has a perceived strong track record of integrity, he can use this “credibility currency” to weather the change process.
If the pastor doesn’t have this currency, but still insists on pushing forward, he is almost certainly guaranteeing himself a future in another setting. Positive change, I believe, is almost always preceded by a positively perceived planning effort and well-executed pastoral ministry.
Healthy churches which have a long history of trust and positive regard of worthy pastors who have repeatedly demonstrated their faithfulness are accustomed to being generous—and not frugal—in doling out “credibility currency.”
Conflicted or dysfunctional churches who have a deep history of pastoral distrust may find that no matter how beneficial the change might be, those promoting the change will become unfairly targeted, mistreated, slandered and, after being tarred, feathered, humiliated, and finally, removed.
Having been burned once, those innovators and early adopters who had fostered the change will likely be less motivated to be burned again. The results: the traditional values of the congregation become even more entrenched and even more difficult to make similar changes in the future without a greater degree of disruption.
In severely conflicted churches, pastoral efforts toward earning credibility currency will be ignored or twisted so that whatever good had been done is of no worth or, at best, dubious in value. I believe the only ways that these churches can be cleansed are by direct denominational action, congregational split (in which the pastor and the change agents remain), closing the congregation, or Divine intervention.
Whatever happens, the bottom line is this: if the values and traditions of a congregation perceive the change as contrary to what they currently value, cherish and believe, the change will face almost certain death and the change agent will get burned.
When dealing with the Principle of Compatibility, perhaps the best groundwork for heading off opposition is to initiate a congregational-wide process to define, promote, and celebrate the purpose, vision, philosophy of ministry, etc. of that congregation.
Outside consultants—especially trusted denominational consultants—are often the best ones to give the assurance to the doubting, suspicious, and potentially antagonistic that the values and directions desired by the leaders of the congregation are consistent—and fully supported—by the denomination. Use of trusted and competent denominational consultants also helps diffuse the focus of antagonistic disagreement from away from the pastor and causes it to be deflected toward the denominational consultant…giving an “out” to the pastor in the case of significant, unexpected congregational backlash.
Having re-stated the church’s purpose and values, it is easier to promote a change primarily because is not perceived so much as another one of “pastor’s ideas” as the change is an important and essential effort to conform the congregation’s ministry in a greater way to its traditions and values as well as the denomination’s leadership, values, goals, and overall philosophy of ministry.
3. Principle Of Complexity
  1. The degree to which an innovation is perceived as relatively difficult to understand and to use is negatively related to its rate of adoption.


If the proposed program has a too-detailed program manual, if it has overly complex timetables, agendas, requirements, multiple manuals, etc., that you can’t figure out in five minutes of less, don’t give it a second look. It’s not worth your time or your trouble. According to the Principle of Complexity, it probably won’t work either.
Though detailed materials may be needed in the backroom planning sessions, the church and its leaders need to have the change presented in the most simple, concrete terms possible. People are generally curious about change—whether they are disposed to adopt it or oppose it. The more simple the information, the more clear-cut the proposal, the easier the change and its benefits can be communicated, imagined, experienced, and implemented, the greater the chance of adoption.
Avoid fancy, indirect and circumlocutionary terminology which masks, hides, complicates, or clouds the primary objective and purpose of the change. Communicate the proposed change simply, concretely, and repeatedly through multiple communication channels.
Second, publicize the change as one change, not multiple changes. Though laggards may never adopt the change, the majority of people can handle a simple change at a time.
Third, don’t rush the change. Remember, as Schaller often pointed out, that older people (and, I would add, “laggards”) view time as passing quickly while younger people (and, I add, “innovators”) see time passing very slowly. Put another way, the perception of time is relative to one’s age. It is also related to the degree of fear or ease one feels. The greater the fear, the slower the perceived passage of time.
This variance in the perception of time is, perhaps, one reason that innovators and early adopters will become quickly impatient that things aren’t happening fast enough while older people and laggards will thing things are going too quickly. The pace at which things ought to proceed ought to be relative to the pace most comfortable for all groups, but especially the group that has the greatest likelihood of derailing the proposed change at that given time. To ease their pain, keep the pace of change at such a rate that will evoke the least amount of fear to the greatest amount of people while still conveying adequate excitement and momentum.
To be sure, this is no easy task. Considerations such as timing and readiness require the change agent, like the poker player, to “know when to hold…and know when to fold.” Such information is gathered on the basis of personal observation, task force recommendations, feedback from others, the response of the organization, the will of God, and, of course, “gut feelings” and intuition…not necessarily in that order.
4. Principle of Trialability
The degree to which an innovation may be experimented with on a limited basis is positively related to its rate of adoption.
Of the five principles to facilitate change, I believe the “Principle of Trialability” is the most effective and helpful one for facilitating congregational change. This principle recognized that people tend to be more likely to give fair judgment to a proposed change if they can see, touch, smell, feel, and experience it first.
Most fear in change may be due to the fear of the unknown. When people feeling they can’t go back to the security of the previous state of ministry if things don’t work, they become insecure, wary, suspicious, and distrustful. The Principle of Trialability addresses this fear by offering a simple antidote of security: just try it!
In my ministry, I’ve probably relied on the Principle of Trialability the most. Before introducing change, before planning out pages of well-thought-out strategy, before developing any fancy programs, the first thing I do is to take an idea and ask some trusted early adopters to try it. If it fails, it’s not ready. If it succeeds, the process of preparing the organization for the change using the other four principles begins. I find it immensely effective and satisfying. Most of all, it can save a lot of unnecessary grief.
Trial periods need to be well-publicized opportunities for a wide spectrum of congregational members to try, experience, and evaluate the proposed change. Publicize well in advance what is going to happen, which people will experience it, what they will likely experience, and the purpose for the trial period.
Remind people that after the trial, evaluation will be done before the change is adopted. This continued reminder gives a sense of security to those who might otherwise reject the change. It also conveys leadership empathy, a feeling that the leader is not just going to do what he wants to do regardless of others’ feelings. Perhaps most important, it helps to convey that the pastor is open to other opinions and input. Thus people feel freer to express their “voice” to the pastor, leaders, and others.
The unique input which trialability encourages is essential feedback to help leaders strengthen the adoption process. It enables them to evaluate in a first-hand manner the members’ actual perceptions of the relative advantage(s), complexity, compatibility, trialability, and overall response to the change. Those included in trial often suggest areas of possible “re-invention” the pastor and leaders might consider to increase the chances of adoption (cf. Principle of Reinvention, below).
Other benefits of a “trial period’ is that those who would oppose the change loose much of the opportunity to create major opposition momentum. Especially when new innovations are timed so as not to fall on the heels of previous changes, organizers of the opposition will sense that it’s not practical to take the time and energy necessary to muster up troops up to oppose the change because by the time such organization is completed, the “trial period” will have passed.
Another result of the “trial period” is that it gives all potential adopters—including laggards—a chance to feel the change, experience the benefits, vent, voice their opinions, and offer their suggestions for improvement if necessary. Or, perhaps, they may bring to light necessary insight and information which had not been before considered. Nothing helps to sell a car like a “test drive.” Give people in your organization many opportunities to take the new change “for a spin.”
Another result of trialability is that as more and more people get “hands on” experience with the proposed change, the level of fear and sensitivity will either increase or decrease, giving leaders a barometer of how—or whether—to proceed as planned. Heeding the signs, change proponents (including the pastor) gain opportunities to build a greater degree of trust, respect, and credibility. This extra degree of credibility may very well be needed during the fine-tuning stages of the innovation.
Of course, the more people who “sign on” to accept the proposed change, the greater the potential force to help stall and dismantle any significant organized opposition. If successful, other people (including the laggards and antagonists) may parade the innovation as “their” idea. Ultimate success is all but guaranteed when the lead antagonist(s) who originally opposed the proposed change circulates widely among members of the congregation saying, “How do you like MY idea?”
I call this phenomenon “innovation amnesia.” Though incredulous at the claim, leaders, I believe, are best left letting others think it really was their idea and using their energies—albeit unappreciated—to carry the innovation process forward toward final consideration and implementation. Be patient! Proper credit will come in its time; and what goes around will come around. Bank on it!
5. Principle of Re-invention
The degree to which an innovation is adopted is positively related to the ability of an organization to adapt and re-invent it for its unique situation.
Though frowned upon by consultants and others who promote their ministry programs in congregations, an important part of the process of adoption of innovation is to recognize that organizations and individuals will almost universally change and reinvent the proposed innovation somehow.
Various studies (e.g. Emrick, et al) found that as many as 56 percent of adopters implemented only selected parts of the innovation, 20 percent of adopters made large changes to the innovation, and the remaining made relatively minor changes. Another government study (Rogers, 178) found that at least half of the innovations proposed were re-invented immediately before full adoption. The lesson here is this: you may get what you want, but it may not look like what you asked for.

Some Final Considerations

  1. Remember and respect the five principles of change.
  2. When publicizing and promoting change proposals, remember that mass media channels are most effective with early adopters. Later adopters and laggards need more interpersonal, two-way media, especially from others most like themselves.
  3. Never use the word “change.” The word “change” is a “trigger” word that sets off negative emotions (e.g. fear, anxiety, insecurity, etc.). Instead, use synonyms for change such as “improvement,” “enhancement,” “expansion,” “modification,” “modernization,” “update,” and other more positive types of terminology which tend not to evoke fear-related responses as quickly.
  4. At all costs, respect timing. Implementation of any proposal, if pursued too quickly or at the wrong time, can quickly become divisive and out-of-control. If done too slowly, if can loose support and momentum. Timing is, as the old adage says, “everything.”
  5. Keep the level of observability of the proposed innovation as high as possible. Publicize and promote it through as many channels as possible. After all, you have nothing to hide!
  6. Change is best received when it is seen as consistent to a well-publicized, coherent plan of implementation consistent with the congregation’s vision. Thus, the first step (after prayer) is always to set the vision, share the vision, uphold the vision, promote the vision, repeat the vision, and communicate the vision at every single opportunity possible.
  7. Never expect unanimity. In some changes—and especially in the trialability stages—one must do as Lyle Schaller recommended: Count only the “yes” votes. Let those who want the change support it move ahead and try it. Through them and their experience with the change, God just may find a powerful way to use what many nay-sayers thought would other wise be unworkable, unsuccessful, ineffective, or just plain unnecessary.
  8. In severely conflicted churches, unanimous decisions may be symptomatic of a repressing a significant degree of hostile emotions. Continue monitoring responses to the change before, during and after adoption of the change…regardless of the strength of the decision.
  9. Dysfunctional or severely conflicted churches will almost universally resist change…until the pain is great enough. Many of these churches are quite adept at resisting change…and it’s representative messenger (i.e. the pastor). Sometimes the changes they resist may be the changes they need…or have needed for decades. Irrational as it may be, by definition dysfunctional churches would rather stick to their position and loose church than to do something that, though initially painful, might give a congregation new growth and vigor.
  10. The Pastor, in careful reflection before God’s throne, must humbly seek and respect God’s will and determine whether it is essential to his calling and ministry in that place to proceed with the proposed change or not. He must count the cost. If he decides to proceed, he must prepare himself and be ready to bear the consequences of what the decision to proceed entails–positive or negative–and strongly support the action through full implementation as far as possible.
  11. Sometimes the change, like emergency surgery, must occur; at other times it may be delayed; while for some churches those changes which absolutely must be made may be broken down into incremental steps and patiently implemented over a much longer timetable. We can’t always control change, But we can sometimes control the degree, magnitude, and timetable of change. But all in all, we must hand the process to God and trust Him to guide and lead where we cannot. He will build His church!
  12. Especially when going through the process of introducing change, maintain your churchmanship to the highest degree possible. Don’t get angry. Be patient in public; gentle in private, and always faithful in your ministry…even to the antagonists. Be professional, pastoral patient and genuine. Demonstrate character and integrity to all.
  13. At all costs keep all staff members informed of the changes, the progress, the importance, etc. of the changes. Include them in every way, even in the early stages. In some cases, the innovation may infringe on their area of ministry. In such cases, things can become very uncomfortable.When this occurs, it is important that the staff member be communicated with fairly, frequently, and very, very early in the brainstorming phase of consideration of the change. Seeking their positive input, giving them opportunity to voice possible reinventions, and giving them the best degree of honest support possible is, humanly speaking, your best first line of defense against possible staff rebellion.

    Thomas F. Fischer

    * Everett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovation, 3rd edition. New York: The Free Press, 1983.

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