by Holly Inglis
Change – it’s part of everyday life in the 21st century (and actually has been for some time). But the rate of change in society, technology, the global economy and even in our denomination and our churches can be somewhat staggering. Add that onto change happening in our own lives – such as downsizing, moving, birth of children, death of a spouse, loss of a job or a home – and it’s easy to see how we can become overwhelmed with change. Sometimes just our awareness of all the change happening around us can trigger unexpected responses. Why is change so hard?
Perhaps when we ceased being nomadic people and began to settle into more agrarian lifestyles, we lost some of our ability to handle constant movement and change and became content with the more predictable transitions of seasons or growing cycles. Yet we know that humans continued to adapt to fluctuations in climate and shifts in culture and followed their desire to explore uncharted territories that took them on dramatic journeys of change. Writers like Phyllis Tickle (“The Great Emergence”) and M. Rex Miller (“The Millennium Matrix”) tell us that at key points in our human history, various influences – such as the Enlightenment or the printing press – dramatically shifted the way we view our world. We have adjusted to those changes, sometimes kicking and screaming and literally fighting, but nevertheless we have adapted. In fact, the foundation of our theology is built on change: Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda – the church reformed and always being reformed.
Change – whether through the action of the Holy Spirit or the action of the General Assembly, the session or the worship committee – is all around and unlikely to go away. Yet when we encounter change happening in our denomination and in our local churches, it may feel like the entire earth is shifting under our feet. It may feel uncertain and dangerous. It can feel like we are being personally attacked or threatened. In most circumstances when a change happens in our faith communities or structures, there is no evil intent, but the reactions can seem out of proportion, irrational or overly emotional to those who are attempting to lead the change. Again, we ask, “Why is change so hard?”
If you want to be a brain-savvy leader able to navigate transitions and facilitate change in church and in society, there are some important things you need to understand about how our brains deal with everyday life and how we cope with perceived threats. There are parts of our brain specifically designed to control daily, routine activities that involve repetitive, habitual tasks or behavior, primarily the cerebellum and the basal ganglia. Because our brain stores these tasks or behaviors, it takes less energy and effort for us to perform them because they have become part of our brain’s long-term storage system. You might say they have been hardwired into our brains. It’s the way we do things – our default mode. It can be come mentally comfortable to keep doing things they way we’ve always done it.
When something disrupts our default mode, the routine of our lives or our habitual behaviors, we experience that disruption as a threat, regardless of the intent or purpose. Change in the way we do things at church, the behaviors or habits we associate with aspects of church, or challenges to our deeply held beliefs about who God is, who we are, who others are and how the world is ordered can be perceived as a threat. So what happens in our brains when we feel the threat of change?
Brain-based learning pioneer Eric Jensen, author of “Brain-based Learning: The New Paradigm of Teaching,” says that anytime a person feels threatened, the brain “loses its ability to correctly interpret subtle clues from the environment … loses some of its ability to store, index and access information … loses some of its ability to perceive relationships and patterns … and is less able to use higher-order thinking skills.” Our brains are designed to make order and meaning out of our world, to assess whether something is a threat to our survival or merely an annoyance to be ignored, and then to respond based on our assessment by fighting, fleeing or freezing. This ancient part of our brain is still very much part of our response system. When something in our environment or situation changes, it not only triggers this primitive response system, but it also challenges the existing paradigms we’ve created about who we are, who others are and how things work.
Our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain located above our eyes in the front of the brain, evaluates visual and symbolic cues from the environment, seeks out patterns in information and evaluates cause-and-effect relationships. This is the part of the brain to which we appeal with a logical argument for change, based on a thorough evaluation of all the costs and benefits. However, when we feel threatened by change, our prefrontal cortex gets short-circuited by a small, but mighty, part of our brain, called the amygdala. Buried deep inside the brain, the amygdala is our emotional control center. When the prefrontal cortex cannot make sense of unfamiliar or new ideas, or when the new ideas disrupt the “way we’ve always done it” part of our brain, the amygdala steps up, derailing our logic and throwing us on an emotional roller coaster. We respond to the change not out of our well-thought out, logical conclusions about what would be best for the congregation or others, but out of emotions such as fear, anger, sadness.
Any of us can become change-resisters in an instant, based on our perception of the threat of new ideas, new structures, new approaches, new ways of doing and being church together. In our heads, we can acknowledge that we must change or die, but no amount of logic or explanation seems to satisfy our need to avoid change. Is it just that we are such creatures of habit that we are unable to shift easily? Is there a way we can navigate change as brain-savvy leaders that does not minimize the resistance, acknowledges the reaction, but allows appropriate change to take place?
Here are some tips for navigating change as brain-savvy leaders.
Secure your own mask before helping others.
This advice from the airlines is worth our attention and relevant to navigating change. Note your own reactions when someone proposes a change to you that is not your own idea. Knowing your own predisposition to react is helpful as you begin to encounter others’ reactions. What triggers your fearful or angry response? If a proposed change did not originate with you, did you have any initial positive or negative reactions? Choose one or two key leaders with whom you have an honest relationship. Share the proposed change with them and ask for their initial emotional responses, both positive and negative. Help them understand the root of their responses and discuss what habits, behaviors or beliefs the change may disrupt for them. The key question to ask in an emotional response is: What are you afraid might happen?
Assess the threat level.
When you consider the proposed change, evaluate possible threats to comfort, security, sense of belonging, identity, vulnerability of those affected by the change, safety, familiarity or other issues that might arise. Is the threat level yellow, orange or red? Are there individuals or groups that might experience the change at different threat levels? The key question to assess level of threat is: What habit, behavior, system or worldview might be threatened?
Higher-level threat equals higher-level trust. The higher the level of threat suggested by the change, the higher the level of trust change leaders need to have with the affected group. This is why pastors entering a new call are encouraged to restrain themselves from making major changes in the first year. If broad- sweeping changes are needed, consider breaking the change down into incremental steps that may be slightly less threatening. The key question to ask is: How much trust collateral do I/we have?
Cultivate change partners.
Expand your key leader group to include the decision makers. Read and discuss a book on change management together, such as “Brain- Savvy Leaders” by Charles Stone, which is particularly oriented toward ministry. Secular change management books can offer helpful ideas, but they need to be translated into the context of the church. “Stacking the Deck” by David S. Pottruck, “Switch” by Chip and Dan Heath and “Our Iceberg is Melting” by John Kotter and Holger Rathgeber are easily applicable. The key point is to understand how change happens and factors that negatively or positively affect long-term change.
Engage the heart and head.
Engage the heart of key leaders as well as the head. Without sounding hokey, invite emotional reactions to significant decisions. Acknowledge positive and negative emotions. Build a collaborative team based more on relationships rather than solely on making decisions. When the time comes for the leaders to consider change, they may be more prepared to recognize the emotional response others may have to change by recognizing their own. Help them understand the key role emotions play in our response to potentially threatening situations. The key question to ask is: What are you feeling about our decision/choice/action?
Find change allies.
It is much easier to identify and listen to those who are struggling to understand and cope with change than it is to identify those who are able to accept or embrace the change with little difficulty. For some reason, we are wired to hone in on the negative rather than the positive. That said, when you encounter the negative emotional reaction to change (which you will), look for those who are not objecting and not expressing threat or reactivity, and invite them to share their response to the change with you. Help those who are more positively inclined to the change to understand the root of the more negative responses they may encounter and the way our brains respond to perceived threat. The key question to ask is: Who are we not hearing from?
Admit you are powerless to effect change.
At the end of the day, we are constantly being reformed through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives and not through our own efforts. The same principle applies to navigating change in the church. Ultimately, it is God who directs our change. We must begin by listening intently to the “still, small voice,” then continue to listen through prayer and Scripture as we plot a course forward, acknowledging that is God who has created us mind, body and soul, and gifted us with emotions as well as thoughts.
We will never be fully able to anticipate the reaction to change, but understanding how our brains process threat may help us defuse some reactivity, not only in others, but in ourselves as well.
HOLLY J. INGLIS is a PC(USA) pastor/educator serving at Palms Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, as associate pastor for nurture. She has been a member of the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators since 1993, has led many workshops at annual events and at regional events, and will become the president of the organization in 2017.