Managing Change -- Transforming Christian Theology, ch. 7

Transforming Theology Project

Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology, Fortress Press, 2010.

Managing Change
Chapter 7

Saying that “everything must change,” is a bit of an exaggeration. Some things change, but not everything! Philip Clayton acknowledges this – but for churches of our era, many of whom resist any amount of change, maybe we need to hear this bit of exaggeration. Having said that, the change that comes our way must be addressed – and even embraced. What is required of us at the moment of great transition is learning to “manage change.” But how? And, by whom? Whether we want the job or not – Clayton suggests that this is a task that pastors will have placed in their laps. Now, not all pastors will want to pick up this task, resisting to the last bone and change, but he suggests that others learn to manage the “upheavals and the transformations” that impact their congregations.

This calling to manage change is being faced not just be congregational leaders, but leaders of religious organizations at every level – especially denominations. Denominational leaders, perhaps even more so than congregational ones, are facing the challenges of inherited traditions that can be hundreds of years old, and the reality that these traditions are essentially under attack – perhaps becoming increasingly irrelevant.

The idea of managed change may seem like an oxymoron, for how do you manage change? This is a good question, but according to our author, there is a whole branch of management theory that addresses just this issue. And the key to doing this is staying out in front of the changes – by “getting others to look it in the face and to begin preparing their organizations and groups for what’s coming down the pike (p. 50). In this new world, leader and managers are more like hosts than CEOs. Such people are “geniuses at building and maintaining networks and at creating positive links with other networks” (pp. 50-51). If this seems ominous, you are on the same wave length as me. We pastors weren’t trained for such ministries – so we have to learn on the job.

Still this word “manage” is important, because it signals to us that we can’t control change, but we can respond to them in appropriate ways through “innovation, courage and farsightedness.” And here is the key:

Instead of seeking to preserve the past at any cost, we need a commitment to adapting what we have been as church to what we need to be as church in the future. (p. 51).

And here is the rub – how do we do this? Many of us pastor churches with long histories and legacies. Moving ahead means not hanging on to all of that, but does it mean casting it all away? Here is, I think, where this management issue kicks in, and it takes a lot of discernment, and discernment is something that comes with experience. Our job, however, is not preserving institutions but managing the changes that come our way.

In light of our need to take on this new calling, Clayton offers several suggestions as to how we might move forward:

1. Denominational leaders need to talk with each other about common challenges, and come forward with a common voice and vision.

2. Program leaders under these folks, need to do the same, and cease worrying about protecting market share.

3. Use “sound principles of change management” – doing this by doing such things as dividing resources between traditional congregations and developing new outside the box ones; use best practices; empower and release young seminarians to develop new and innovative forms of ministry – like theology pubs and the like. This last suggestion is a good one – too often we send young seminary grads into traditional congregations full of exciting new ideas, only to find congregations not ready to move in that direction – so maybe we need to be more innovative here with our young leaders.

4. Move from focusing on brand to big tent Christianity. Now, hearing this, I also hear in it voices out of my own tradition, because, at least in the beginning, that was supposed to be our reason for existence. But hear this from Clayton:

We, the ordinary people in churches, do not need a new Creed or manifesto. We need to hear in visionary terms how the core message of the Christian tradition can still speak powerfully to our world. (p. 53).

That is, rather than arguing about doctrinal minutiae, there is a need for a message that is relevant to the times. But to do this, means more than simply repackaging contemporary cultural values.

5. Not surprisingly, he calls for the rekindling of our theological imagination. He is calling for denominational leaders and seminaries to help pastors and lay people learn to tell their stories using their theological language – something that requires that those in responsible leadership facilitate the production of materials and encourage the use of new technology to do this.

6. Finally, he asks that denominational leaders not “underestimate us.” We know, he says when the statements from on high are the same old thing, with new wording.

Much of the conversation in this chapter emerged out of a conference he sponsored for denominational executives. From what I’ve heard, there was a lot of hemming and hawing in that meeting, but what Clayton is doing is asking those in leadership, to get out front and lead us to those risky places where God is already at work.


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