Is Transformation Possible?

By Margaret J. Marcuson

I’ve been hearing a lot about “church transformation” lately: many church denominations have transformational initiatives, to help turn around declining congregations. There’s a lot of pressure on clergy leaders to produce results, especially numerical growth. The pressure exists elsewhere, too: a recent survey of CEO turnover by Booz Allen Hamilton found that in 1995 one in eight departing CEOs was forced from office, but by 2006, nearly one in three left involuntarily. (The Oregonian, June 11, 2007). Booz Allen suggests this is performance-related turnover, as corporate boards want to see results in company sales and stock prices.

I’m starting to think these trends are part of the anxious, quick-fix mentality that pervades our society. “Transformation” puts unbelievable pressure on clergy to whip their congregations into shape, using methods that don’t benefit the leader-church relationship and that are unlikely to bear significant fruit in the long term. In the wider arena, all results are increasingly measured in short-term increments. These short-term gains are unsustainable, and quick fixes don’t promote the health of the congregation.

Many church transformation initiatives are anxiety-driven. Denominational leaders think, “Churches are declining, so we’ve got to do something.” Clergy think, “My church is declining, so I’ve got to do something.” But an anxious response to a problem rarely leads to a productive outcome. Pastors try to convince churches to join the transformational process offered by the denomination. Then they try to convince people to implement the suggested procedure. People resist, and then pastors try harder to persuade people to go along. Leaders get tired, and the initiative goes nowhere. Outside the church, the story gets repeated with different players in business, government and education.

What’s the answer? Setting clear goals and moving steadily toward them is qualitatively different from willfully pressuring people to move in a given direction. People resist being willed. Leadership involves you, the leader, being clear about where you are headed, and inviting others to follow, giving them room to make their own choices. Leading is a long-term process, not a short-term outcome.

Eleanor Roosevelt, among others, said, “Happiness is not a goal, it is a by-product.” I’m starting to wonder if transformation is not a goal but a by-product. The harder we seek happiness, the less likely we are to be happy. The harder we pursue transformation, the less likely we are to be transformed. The pressure to change can lead to the opposite effect. But when we calmly and clearly set some goals that arise out of who we are, and move toward them slowly but with determination, we can find new life emerging.

No clergy leader can transform a congregation. No CEO can transform a company. Change happens organically, in the relationship between leader and led, and it takes time. We live in an impatient society, a society that doesn’t give change the time it needs. But we as leaders can set our own goals, and work on our relationship with those we lead. That can lead to real results, if we allow time and space for them to appear.

Margaret Marcuson has been part of the Leadership In Ministry faculty since 1999. This article comes from her free newsletter, The Leadership Adventure. Sign up on her website and get the article “How to Avoid Burnout in Ministry.” Her books on clergy leadership include Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry, (Seabury) and Money and Your Ministry.

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