Anthony B. Robinson: Motivating change

Trying to scare or force organizations to change doesn’t work. What does?

Not long ago I was the guest speaker for an annual meeting of my denomination. Between three and four hundred of the faithful, representing 150 churches, were gathered for the usual array of worship, semi-inspiring talks (like mine), debates on the budget, news about the church camping program and recent mission trips. It was church people doing what we do.

And yet there was, as a child in one of John Irving’s novels, put it, “the undertoad” (the child’s understanding of what adults said when they spoke of the “undertow” at the beach). The “undertoad” was the dismal litany of facts. In the last ten years the conference churches have declined by nearly 50% in numbers of members and in mission giving.

Conference leaders said, “Folks, we just have to face the facts.” But it wasn’t clear what the folks were to do after they had faced “the facts.” I guess they were to give more and get more members.

I thought of the recent book on leading change by Alan Deutschman, “Change or Die.” Deutschman says people generally try to motivate change by using, “The Three F’s: Facts, Fear and Force.” The grim facts are related. If that doesn’t work we try to generate fear. “With numbers like these, we’ll be dead in another ten years.” Force is final strategy. “We’re forced to close these churches, to sell the church camp,” and so on. Despite their popularity, the three F’s don’t work.

Deutschman offers an alternative set of approaches, handily dubbed, “The Three R’s: Relate, Repeat and Reframe.” He derives these strategies for motivating and leading change from three extended case studies, one from the world of medicine (patients with heart disease), one from penal institutions (convicted felons) and a third from business (an auto production and assembly plant).

“Relate” is something most capable pastors understand. It means building trust and relationship. The key step is establishing a bond. We learn from teachers we love and who love us. Sometimes I run into congregations that have been down but are newly vital and alive. When they speak of their pastor they say, “She’s got us believing in ourselves again,” or “She’s helping us have some fun.” Or simply, “She loves us.”

By “repeat,” Deutschman means that change involves learning new skills and behaviors and repeating them until they become part of who we are. People with heart disease learn changes in diet and new habits like yoga and exercise. What’s the parallel in the church?

For some congregations, it’s learning practices of hospitality. For others it may be learning the skills for faith sharing, what some call testimony. For others it may be training lay leaders. One congregation I know has learned a set of skills around small group Bible study that have permeated the congregation.

I find particularly interesting that “reframe” comes last in Deutschman’s scheme. Reframing offers new ways of understanding. In the church it might be something like the concepts involved in a shift from “institutional” to “missional church.” In Deutschman’s case studies you don’t start with a whole new set of ideas. You start with new behaviors. The ideas come later after behaviors have changed.

The facts facing many denominations and congregations aren’t encouraging. Sometimes, faced with grim facts and real fears, we fall into fault and blame. The pastor blames the congregation and the congregation blames the pastor. Both of them blame the denomination. The Three F’s become our default moves.

But we know better don’t we? Look at the way Paul begins almost all of his letters. He starts with words of thanksgiving and encouragement. He builds the relationship. He tells people how important they are to God and to him.

As Dr. Johnson said, “Never be afraid to remind people of the obvious; it is what they have most forgotten.”

Tony Robinson is a United Church of Christ minister and consultant to congregations and their leaders. His most recent book is “Changing the Conversation: A Third Way for Congregations” (Eerdmans). You can catch his comments on the weekly lectionary texts here .