Three keys to making dramatic changes

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship recently adopted a new governance structure with no dissent. How did the denomination do that?

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of blog posts about leading change. The second installment is on the questions your people are asking. The third post is about designing a good process.

With few questions and no dissent, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) adopted a new governance structure during its June annual meeting. How does a 20-plus-year-old denomination shift to an entirely new system, given the fact that congregations and faith-based institutions are often so slow in deciding anything?

Three of the keys to this dramatic change were:

  • aligning the questions on people’s minds;
  • developing a process that provides feedback at multiple points; and
  • tending to the relationships that hold the organization together.

The fastest way to short-circuit a group developing agreement about change is to provide answers to questions that folks are not asking.

More than 10 years ago, the top leaders of CBF realized that its governance system had serious flaws, including such basics as the size of the governing body and the process by which members were selected. They proposed changes that failed to be adopted because the majority of people did not have questions about the governance on their minds. They were much more worried about external threats to their then-fragile organization.

The first step in John Kotter's eight-step process for leading change is “establishing a sense of urgency.” It took years of struggling with the governance system before enough people in CBF began to ask questions about the structure. Only when a critical mass felt the difficulty did the questions swell and what Kotter named as “urgency” was created.

When the leaders were willing to risk opening the governance “can of worms,” a clear process was outlined. Listening to people, integrating the feedback and reporting on what was learned and what can be done are keys to an effective process.

At CBF, a task force spent a year listening, six months drafting proposals, and six months getting feedback and revising. The task force laid out the basic framework and principles. After CBF’s annual meeting adopted the report of the task force, the elected leaders were charged with figuring out how to implement the report. The revised constitution, bylaws and leadership nominations adopted in June were the final steps in a three-year process needed to set up the structure.

The first phase of listening helps to refine the questions to be addressed. The next phase is to test potential answers. In CBF’s case, the “solutions” to the questions of governance were acceptable. They also tested solutions about problems with the economic model of the denomination. Those tests were inconclusive; therefore no proposals were made in that area. Following a well-developed process provides everyone a chance to say “yes,” “no” and “not yet” along the way.

Any change process strains relationships.

Starting with appreciation for each other and doing things all along the way to nurture the connections between people and systems is critical. Clear, open and well-timed communication that is motivated by transparency is critical. Following through on commitments builds the foundation for trust. Extending interpretive charity means being willing to have faith in the best intentions of the people around us.

CBF’s vote came after three years of careful work and more than 10 years after initial change efforts failed. Change requires that leaders take a long view and have a resilience that empowers them to move through discouragement and rejection with the ultimate aim in mind.