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The Next Faithful Step

People don't resist change; they resist loss.

A Pastor's Reflection

I love this phrase. It makes so much sense. And more, it’s one of those phrases that make particularly helpful sense. People don’t resist change; they resist loss. I wish I had had this phrase ringing in my ear throughout my first years of parish ministry. Instead, I was of the completely normative opinion that, for some reason, folks in the church just don’t like change. Even if it might bring them what they say they want, for some reason church people (and it’s usually the old ones, isn’t it?) simply won’t put up with things being otherwise than how they have always been. But this phrase tells a different story. And it brings with it a release from what I believe to be not only unhelpful, but in fact harmful and hurtful ways of understanding congregations.

The first harm done by the simplistic notion that people don’t like change is the inevitable generation bias. Of course it is the old folks that resist change. They are particularly stuck in their ways and have an especially hard crust around them that makes them somehow impenetrable by the movement of the Holy Spirit. The young people, however—oh, the young people are open to the new, open to taking chances, open to things being wonderfully different! But the sophisticated nuance the phrase brings makes better sense of realities. For example, as the solo pastor of a small congregation, I was not only the pastor, but also the youth leader. It happened that our congregation was in the same situation as several other congregations in our Presbytery in that our youth were not exactly numerous. And so it was proposed by some other local pastors to try something new. Instead of continuing as youth groups of particular congregations, we would combine and turn ourselves into a sort of Presbytery youth group. This gave us more kids, more leaders, more energy, more resources. I brought the idea to our youth and they were unreservedly up for it. Of course they were, right? They were young people, after all. And so we started on this new and exciting project of a local youth group where kids would benefit not only from more resources and leadership power, but also have the opportunity to meet other young Christians in their community.

The problem was our youth didn’t come. They actually stopped coming to youth group. We went from ten to one or two (the kids of one of our leaders). Every once in a while a couple of the older youth would show really just to be nice and supportive of me. But these young people, open to the possible and the new, just shut down. What happened to my small army of change?

So much for the generation bias. Our little youth group experiment showed that the young can be just as resistant as the old. Sure, they were open to change. They were ready to think outside the box and do things in ways that hadn’t been done before. But their openness to change didn’t mean much when it came to actual participation. You see where the wisdom of the phrase People don’t resist change; they resist loss reveals itself here. It’s not about change. Our youths’ philosophical inclination toward change did nothing for what they were actually willing to do. And it wasn’t hard to locate the problem. Our particular group of young people was close. We were so small that we combined junior high and high school and, whereas that may be a recipe for failure with other young folks, ours loved it. Of course, the junior highers loved being with the older high schoolers. But our high school students actually enjoyed the younger ones. And everyone relished the tight-knit intimacy our group created for itself. With the combining of various groups into one large local youth group, that intimacy was lost for our youth. It turns out they weren’t coming to youth group for the potential of the program but for the small community. Once that was lost, they became resistant.

Another harm done by simplistically assuming that people don’t like change is that it hinders good problem solving, or at least problem framing. You cannot successfully treat a disease with a wrong diagnosis. When many in our congregation grew increasingly tired of our facility-sharing relationship with another local congregation, it was easy to finger resistance to change as the culprit. Among the changes that had brought our relationship with this other congregation into being was the changing community demographic. The city was becoming less white, and quickly. Other ethnic groups were moving in and looking for places of worship as well. And with not a lot of room for building in town, churches began opening their facilities to these new communities. This was the easy answer. Behind the rising discontent with this congregation using our facilities was a resistance to the increasing changes in the city. Town used to look one way and the people who had been there for the last fort or fifty years simply didn’t like the new trend. Things were changing and, of course, people—especially older folks—just don’t like it.

I have often wondered how I might have handled the situation differently if I would have been thinking in terms of resistance to loss over resistance to change. I may not have been able to solve the issue and salvage the relationship, but the problem would have been framed completely differently for me. And this, in turn, could only have informed how I thought about and approached the tensions at this particular moment in the church’s life. Instead of inwardly blaming some members of the congregation for displaying the classic resistance to change, I could have started asking, for their sake, “What is being lost here?” I’m not sure my opinion as to what was right and just in this situation would have changed much if at all. But I certainly would have thought differently and more carefully.

People don’t resist change; they resist loss. The beauty of the phrase is that it does not make resistance necessarily right—people will and do resist things to their own detriment. Instead, it identifies with much greater accuracy the source of the trouble. And this is to start with a win from the beginning.