Is Transformation Possible?

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.

6 replies on “Is Transformation Possible?

  • Margaret Marcuson

    Thanks for these thoughts. I’m wondering how we respond to a situation which is urgent in a less-anxious way. Perhaps “tools” become “gimmicks” when they are used anxiously, rather than taking the time to be thoughtful about what our situation truly is, what our unique call is, and how we might live it out in the context where we find ourselves.

  • Jim McConnell

    Yes, transformation is possible. To qualify my comments, I will be honest, and tell you that before I joined the Presbyterian Church, and became an Elder, and started my studies to become a Commissioned Lay Pastor (CLP), I was a member of the Methodist Church, and traveled all over the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean Islands, singing gospel music, and occasionaly preaching. Thus, the “revival meeting” mindset ! I believe that too much emphasis today, in the large denominations, especially, is being placed on programs invented by committees ! The main reason that we go to church, is that our lives have been transformed by Christ, our Lord and Savior, and we continue to go to church out of our love of God, and a desire to go deeper in our faith. One of the last replies, touched on my sentiments, also when they mentioned the word “gimmicks”. I agree that most of the time, “gimmicks” are short term fixes. However, what some may see as a “gimmick”, may really be an effective “tool”, for stirring up some interest in the community, but it needs to be spiritually based, for if someone is looking for entertainment, they can go many different places in the world and find it. The church cannot compete with Disney World. Mankind has never changed: under all of the false fronts and laughter at life, there is a need to worship; a need for some one and some thing to give deeper meaning to their lives, to be there in tradgedies, sickness or despair. Probably 99% of all people when faced with some tradgedy in life, their first words out of their mouth is, “Oh my God !” Our churches need to offer the life-changing message to the multitudes, and seek new conversions to Christ, and especially among the youth of our nation. 75% of all Presbyterian Churches are made up of 100 members or less. Many of those, like the two that I pastor, are probably 75-90% Senior citizens or late middle age. If we do not get their children, their grandchildren, and pick up some from the community,,,then in the next few years, we can put a pad lock on the front door, and close it up. Many have already become victims of this scenario. The non-denominational churches, TV churches, and independent groups are proof, that “transformation” can happen quickly and “explode”, because: 1. They are evangelizing and preaching the old message that mankind is lost and needs a Savior, and: 2. Providing a place of more freedom of worship which is not laden down with polity, committees, and old traditions. So, my question remains, “how much time do we have?” Your article is great, and has so much solid truth. My intent is just to “add” a little to your excellent article. I shared this with my congregations last Sunday (6-24-07), that a young preacher had a sign on his desk the first 5 years of his ministry that read: Win the world for Christ ! The second 5 years, he changed the sign to read: Win one or two for Christ ! After the second 5 year period passed, he replaced that sign with one that read: “Try not to lose any” !! I close with some scripture as a reminder to myself and all who might read this. Rom. 12:2 And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God. And then, the thing that makes people want to “stick”, is the welcome change that takes place in their lives, that the world cannot give. 2 Cor.5:17 Whoever is a believer in Christ is a new creation. The old way of living has disappeared. A new way of living has come into existence. (God’s Word translation) Changed lives are brought about by the blood of Christ. I’m thinking that when a “new family member” is born, then, they will want to hang around their “family members”. May God Bless you all.

  • IGalindo

    Good article, Margaret. I think transformation is possible, but not in the willful and anxious ways I see so many clergy attempt to bring it about. One sad pattern I think I see related to this is clergy giving in to denominational or popular hype about “change” and “transformation” and “growth” in congregations, engaging in manic programs, methods, and gimmicks to “make it happen,” and then giving up in two or three years when it’s not happening fast or big enough to satisfy what they imagine SHOULD be happening. They’ll typically move on to a more promising church and do it all again, only to leave in three years again.

    Transformation takes a looong time and in congregations has a life of its own that rarely can be engineered or programmed by any johnny-come-lately leader with messianic aspirations. But, I rant….

  • Margaret Marcuson

    I do think denominational leaders can get in the same bind that pastors do. It’s a challenge to have a bigger vision and to have significant goals, without trying to willfully convince congregations to get on board.

  • Glynis LaBarre

    This article “hit the spot” as I began my ministry work this week. It helped me clarify the struggle between anxiety related performance and relationship building time. Thanks for raising the question. It was very helpful.

    With you in Christ’s adventure, gl

  • Jan Nesse

    I like that statement that transformation is a by-product. We’ve been talking about growth as a by product and focusing on “getting healthy” (that is, being a place of purpose and spiritual growth). Maybe I should think about a different way to categorize congregations that we now put in the “transformational” bin. I would hope that every congregation would be transforming… good things to think about. Thanks.


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