Transformational Change: “exploratory, experimental, imaginative and integrated”
This paper arises from the discussion at a recent SWF colloquium on change and is an attempt to summarise the approach taken by the Foundation to church and change. We want to start a conversation about the notion of “transformational change” ahead of our Annual Conference entitled “Changing Church” being held on 6 September. We invite you to join in the conversation by making comments on our Facebook page or via Twitter or via email (see our contact page). We will add the comments of others from the colloquium below along with yours. Click here for more information on the conference. You will find the most recent comments first and the original paper at the bottom.
A final reflection – on “top down” and “bottom up” change and on the possibility of managing change at all – by Keith Elford
The discussion at the conference covered many aspects of “transformational change”. Two that stay with me include the degree to which change can be “managed” and whether change should be managed “top down” or “bottom up”. Let me start with the second of those two questions. The view that change should be managed bottom up rather than top down is popular at the moment and seemed to be favoured in remarks made at the conference. People are suspicious of top down approaches. They seem, perhaps, old-fashioned, hierarchical, patronising. Bottom up approaches seem more democratic, more egalitarian, more respectful of the knowledge of the people who “do the work”. They may also be held to be more effective because change that people choose is more likely to “stick” than change that has been imposed.
I’m not so sure. I think we are dealing with a false dichotomy here. I think we have no choice, in fact, but to embrace elements of both top down and bottom up approaches if we want to see significant, lasting and appropriate change.
In the first place, we might distinguish between types of change. If we mean the improvement of operational processes then I fully agree that there is no need for senior management to be involved and that managers should empower those with the direct knowledge of the issues (staff at the “frontline”) to handle them routinely. But our conversation at the conference was about “transformational change” which I take to mean a much more significant, perhaps even fundamental, change in what the organisation is doing to respond to the changing world. Here the picture is more complicated.
When it comes to transformational change do those who “do the work” really have the information or the vantage point or the resources from which they can be expected to recognise the need for change and then to take the lead on it? Can organisations really wait around for an act of spontaneous or unplanned change to break out? But, it might be protested, this is not what we mean by bottom up change. Bottom up change is about involving staff/members in decision-making about change, not expecting them to lead it. But if that is so, the term is somewhat misleading because this is still change orchestrated and managed – and, in the end, authorised, or not – by senior decision-makers, or, at least, through formal organisational decision-making processes. In other words, it is still essentially top down.
I suggest it would be better to think of change as something in in which everyone should be involved and in a way which recognises the particular contribution which the various parties might be expected to make. Let’s suppose we are talking about a company for a moment. What might an account of the parties and contributions look like?
|Stakeholder||Type of “stake'”||Contribution||Risk|
|Shareholders||Legal/financial||Focus on bottom-line||Short-termism|
|Senior management||Responsibility||Overview/big picture||Covering their backs|
|Employees||Dependency – both ways||Operational knowledge||Change threatens|
|Customers||Choice||Market knowledge||May not know what they want|
You may not agree with these characterisations and they are rather roughly put together. My point is that if you want change that makes the right difference and can be sustained then you need to hear from all of these stakeholders and enable them to make the contribution only they can make and, at the same time, avoid the risk that the process is skewed by being overly influenced by one of the parties. But the process is likely to remain top down in a sense because only those in management roles can create and authorise the process that enables all this to happen. At the same time, the role of those actively “managing change” must be to ensure that the process is as inclusive and genuinely participatory as possible. This is the prime responsibility, perhaps, of those in leadership roles – to create the environment in which these positive processes can happen.
I accept that the structures and the parties are different in the church, of course. It would be interesting to analyse the stakeholders in the terms like those attempted for companies in my table. How much difference does the particular nature of the church make? Are the structures so much more democratic and flexible that a different approach could be taken? I remain to be convinced!
All this leaves me with the question of whether change can be managed. As the foregoing suggests I think change can and must be managed in the sense that the processes designed to create positive change can and should be managed. But if the question really means, can we prescribe outcomes, then the answer must be no. In the first place, a process that involves all the parties that need to be involved only works if everybody’s voice is really heard and if the process allows unanticipated insights to emerge – if it does not, management might as well just decide. No, as soon as you embark on the process things will happen that you did not expect and may not welcome and the likelihood of this happening will only increase as planning turns to implementation and the concept captured in the plan interacts with reality. To change is to sacrifice control and to take a risk. But what’s the alternative?
The conference also contained discussion of the degree to which we live in times in which change in the world is highly disruptive of our norms and expectations. John Moxon spoke of how Christian experience has often been like that of a person standing on the shore as the Tsunami comes in, or of Peter faced with something completely antithetical to everything he understood his identity to require when commanded to eat the unclean foods. All this adds up to an even more significant limitation on the degree to which we can design or predict outcomes with real confidence.
But, to my mind, it only reinforces an aspect of the change process that can be understood in organisational or religious/theological terms. When I work with clients in secular organisations we don’t usually start off with a clear idea of where the process will lead. The intervention is based on the conviction that the right outcome will emerge from the process, and that the key is to trust in the process, which will take the people involved on a journey of discovery. You could call it a process of discernment.
In the church I would see it similarly, except here the thinking rests far more explicitly on the belief that the church is God’s and that the whole enterprise is in his hands, and that our job is to discern the leading and action of the Spirit and follow it. And the wind blows where it wills.
Further thoughts from Keith Elford, who drafted the original paper
Below Ermal Kirby suggests that the term “transforming communities” might have advantages over the term “transforming change”. This is an idea I thought I might explore further. Ermal highlights the ambiguity of the reference to “transforming communities”. Are these communities that are being transformed? Or communities that act as agents of transformation? Are members of the community being transformed – or people or entities outside it? Or, perhaps, all of the above?
Before addressing these questions I’ll step back a bit. The idea of transforming change arose (I think) out of the perception that this is what churches need if they are to respond to the challenges of the times and find ways of reversing the decline in attendances, membership and influence that have affected all the mainstream denominations in the UK. The situation requires more than adjustments to the current ‘model’ but a change that recognises the nature of the disruption we are living through. It comes to us as both a profound challenge and opportunity. In another comment on our paper, John Moxon (Senior Lecturer in Theology at Roehampton University) observes: “The failure of normal processes is not necessarily to do with having ‘got something wrong’. Our once good processes are quickly overcome by change – and not all change is easy to see. Disruption is thus central to a living theology. I am reasonably sure, too, that theology cannot easily recognise a seamless/smooth developmental model. Some things can only be properly understood when the ‘heavens and earth are shaken and the stars fall from the skies’.” The situation that faces us requires, perhaps, a willingness to make a big change, not only to preserve the organisation of the church, but to respond to the opportunity God presents to us in the crisis – to learn and grow.
Our first thought, then, was what the church might need to do to better fulfil its mission today and take the opportunity offered by the time. But Ermal’s remark sets the issue in the context of the church’s mission and purpose. It raises another question: is this how we see the role of the church – to transform? Here what Ermal sees as the “happy” ambiguity of his description comes into play. If the church is here to continue Christ’s mission in the world, to be (explicitly) Christ in the world, then it seems hard to see how that could not involve being an agent of change in the world. But how can we effect change without being communities that embrace change inside as well as outside ourselves? How can we offer others new possibilities if we cannot embrace them ourselves, individually and corporately? Gandhi is credited with advising us that we must be the change we seek.
This is partly about the call to conversion and to sanctification but it is also about what we do, how we understand and express who we are. Perhaps, understandably, some people want to emphasise the church as a community charged with presenting to the world the unchanging message of Christ. And we should, indeed, be careful to distinguish between what is eternal and unchanging and what is not. The distinction is necessary because the eternal always exists (for us) in embodied, contextual form. Which means that what we do and think now can never capture or exhaust the truth of God, nor can our thinking and practice remain unchanged. There is a constant temptation to confuse what we have become used to thinking and doing with the eternal gospel.
Here what Anna Ruddick has to say in her comment below is very helpful: she refers to the challenge to remake meaning for communities and individuals. I interpret this to imply that processes that allow us to change our thinking, without betraying our identity is a key part of transformational change – and that this further involves an ability to distinguish between the unchanging and the transient, between what is really us and what we have got used to thinking and doing.
I want to argue that transformational change in the church can only be achieved on the basis of a rediscovery of the church’s essential nature and purpose. I would say this of all organisations but in the church this must include the part played by the concept and experience of transformation itself in the very nature of the church. If we see that we are called to be “transformational communities” (in the multi-faceted sense implied above) we will be more motivated and better equipped to meet the challenge that faces us. If we see ourselves as static bearers of a message about how everyone else needs to change (in need of better tactics or techniques) we will continue to struggle.
Comment from Ermal Kirby, who was part of the colloquium
Keith’s account of the Colloquy discussion captures the complexity and the importance of the theme. I wonder, though, whether the process would be helped if, instead of using the abstract concept ‘Transformational Change’, we adopted the (happily) ambiguous term ‘Transforming Communities’? I am convinced that the changes we seek can be brought about only through action in and by communities, and the urgent task is to discover how such communities can come into being, and be nurtured and sustained so that they can be truly transforming.
Comment from Anna Ruddick, Community Engagement Associate, Liveability
- ‘Transformation’ language is a discourse. It’s particularly present in the church, especially more evangelical forms of church. As a discourse it has a particular function. It allows diverse groups or individuals to talk about their hopes and aspirations for action and its outcomes in a positive way. In doing this it masks the differences that may exist in each of those groups/individuals, their ideas of what a ‘transformed’ situation might look like may be vastly different. This vagueness can be useful – it gets people round a table and brings positive energy and hope; it also allows for the unknown in the outcomes of change. However, when it is used uncritically, and the actual substance of looked for change is not articulated it can lead to confusion, disappointment and a sense of failure for those involved in the change process. A diverse group may begin feeling that they have a shared purpose in their action but as work progresses and outcomes begin to emerge some begin to feel disenfranchised, they begin to realise that they were looking for different outcomes and this undermines the relationship of trust that had previously been built.
- What kind of theology can help with this task? The paper mentions the importance of integrating theology with sociology. Practical Theology provides exactly this framework. Practical Theology’s acknowledgment that our theology arises from our experience can be extremely helpful in change processes. It allows for ‘the way things are’ to be seen as culturally constructed rather than simply ‘given’ and therefore a more nuanced process of discernment and navigation of God’s guidance in experiences of church and ministry can unfold.
- Transformational change is meaning making. What is described in the paper as a ‘step change’ or ‘transformational change’ I would understand as a breaking apart and remaking of meaning systems or worldviews. This kind of change is usually prompted by dissonance and discomfort and necessarily involves loss as previously held understandings of how the world works have to be surrendered. In order to support this kind of change a challenge to perspective has to be accompanied by an affirmation of the self. This allows individuals and groups to feel safe to explore their existing meaning systems (worldviews) and experiment with new possible understandings of God, themselves and the world. It also enables a coherent narrative of the self to be continued through considerable life change. Without this coherent narrative individuals and groups can struggle to sustain life change, feeling that they are no longer ‘themselves’.
- What is God’s role in change? And can this be understood as mission?
Malcolm Torry makes further comment on the use of organisational insights in the church.
The paper claims the following in relation to organisational insights:
the church has not usually been good at this, and has tended to use organisational insights somewhat piecemeal, somewhat pragmatically, and not always to the best effect.
This leaves the point as a negative one, and the positive then doesn’t appear. It might be helpful to stress that, if sufficient care is taken, then management theory from the private, public and voluntary sectors can be useful to the Church. First of all, the characteristics of the Church need to be understood; and then each element of management theory needs to be evaluated against those characteristics in order to decide whether and how it should be used. There will be some elements of management theory entirely inappropriate to the Church; other aspects can be fairly easily transferred from another sector; and some aspects will need to be adapted in order to make them appropriate.
(This is the method employed in Malcolm Torry’s Managing Religion, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)
Keith Elford, who drafted the “Transformational change” paper adds some further thoughts in response to comments on the paper by Megan Seneque. You can read her comment below Keith’s piece.
Megan Seneque emphasises the degree to which organisational change necessitates a significant experience of personal change for the individuals involved: “order>disorder>reorder, or disorientation and radical reorientation”. She suggests that “the arc of this journey, with endings, letting go and death of the ‘small self’/ego [is] a necessary part of crossing thresholds and allowing the new to emerge. This involves letting go of illusions and being present to an unfolding reality in order to allow a future to emerge which is not a repetition of the past.”
I read this at the same time as I was thinking about the content for a proposal intended to suggest how an Anglican parish in Surrey could engage positively with change. I had also been reflecting on previous experience of working on strategy and change with churches and comparing it with my experience of working with a range of secular organisations. Although there are many similarities between the church and other organisations there is a big difference that stands out.
The process I usually employ involves attending at an early stage to the question of the organisation’s identity: this is to allow the organisation to be clear on what is essential and lasting and distinguish it from timebound habit and custom and therefore to go forward without fears for the organisation’s integrity. The organisation then gives attention to the question of what a better future could or should look like and captures it in a series of statements we usually call a vision. It is nearly always about how the future will differ from the past and present. Its purpose is not to articulate a collection of targets, but to create new possibilities and set a new direction.
When I do this with businesses, the people involved can sometimes be in too much of a hurry, but they usually engage with the questions and can describe their purpose and values and think differently about the future relatively easily. In public sector bodies, I am often disappointed with the early results. In my experience, these organisations (the NHS for instance) often struggle to get past the bureaucratic language that dominates their discourse. This has the effect of creating a distance from the human realities of the organisation and its challenges, as well as from the values and motivations that brought the individuals to the work in the first place. But with persistence, the groups I work with start to engage productively with the issues.
My experience of churches is that this part of the process is noticeably problematic. Church groups find it difficult to think about what the church is for. And when you ask them to describe a different and better future, what you get frequently, is a picture of the church much as it is today, only (mysteriously) more successful – and this can be summed up as “more, especially younger people, coming to church”.
Reflecting on this I can identity three possible reasons why these questions present such difficulties. The first is that the question of purpose is harder to answer for churches. A business can describe its purpose accurately and easily in comparison. A law firm (for example) might describe its purpose as “supporting access to the law” and its vision will describe how the firm will reach more clients, perhaps diversify its offer, recruit the best talent and so forth. It is much less clear what a church is for and even when you posit answers, it is hard to turn those answers into achievable operational goals and many will think it wrong to even try.
A second reason is that when asked to consider a different future, church groups struggle to imagine anything other than they have been used to. I do worry that church life has become, in many places, a set of routines which are carried out with diligence but with little understanding of why they are being carried out, of what their significance is. Now, I do not at all mean to imply that these are places where people lack faith, or real Christian devotion – on the contrary. But there does appear to me to be a lack of imagination, perhaps of theological imagination, which may be rooted in a failure, over many years, to give lay people (and sometimes clergy!) the tools to think different theological thoughts.
But my third reason is, I think, the most important. In situations where organisations are relatively in tune with their environments and operate with short time horizons (two or three years is an age for a business – in some 24 hours is seen as a long time) then it is relatively easy to talk confidently and creatively about the future. The church embodies long-term and deeper concerns and thinks over much longer periods of time. This (in human terms) partly explains its longevity. But I suspect it also means that when the world changes relatively fast (as it has over the last fifty years), the church is not well placed to deal with it. The result is that there is a big gap between the assumptions and habits that prevail in the church and the reality of life and attitudes in the world around. This rift is found within church people as well as between the church and the wider world. So much is uncertain and confusing about both the present and the years ahead. The result is that there is no simple or quick route to creating a vision of the future. Nor is it obvious what the church is for. In a society experiencing profound discontinuities with its past (e.g. Christendom to post Christian, monoculture to pluralism and so forth) the questions of identity and future are inherently extremely difficult to answer
So, this brings me back to the quotation from Megan. In any organisation, real change requires a more profound and personally challenging process than many would prefer or are willing to undertake. But in the church in particular, for all the reasons set out above, I see no alternative to a profound and personally engaged journey of exploration in which the eternal gospel is rediscovered and expressed anew and in which currently unimagined ways of being church are allowed to emerge. It will take time and patience, but I see no alternative to the discovery and creation of new models of being and doing church, models that allow life and growth for those (formally) in and those (formally) outside of the church. It requires both an organisational change process and a process of spiritual growth and discernment, in tandem.
Response to the original paper from Megan Seneque, who was part of the colloquium.
Many current theories and methodologies around transformational change (both at the level of the personal and at the level of the social & collective/institutional) suggest that what is required is a personal and collective journey of change. They see transformation and change happening in three stages: order>disorder>reorder, or disorientation and radical reorientation. The U process captures the arc of this journey, with endings, letting go and death of the ‘small self’/ego a necessary part of crossing thresholds and allowing the new to emerge. This involves letting go of illusions and being present to an unfolding reality in order to allow a future to emerge which is not a repetition of the past. For a more secular view of the role of presence in transformational change, see Presence: An Exploration of Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society. For a Christian perspective, see Richard Rohr’s The Naked Now. These methodologies and the practices that underpin them have radical implications for those leading transformational change, particularly in faith-based contexts.
The unwillingness to change is captured well by WH Auden in We would rather be ruined
“We would rather be ruined
than changed. We would
rather die in our dread
than climb the cross of the
moment and let our illusions
Transformational change (original paper)
Change is a part of life. It is not something we choose. The environment in which we live and work is always changing. We cannot stand still. We can consciously respond to, adapt to change positively or we can take the risk that change will leave us behind.
Ideally, we are able to adapt – to learn and grow – in pace with change so that our organisation is sustained without major disruption or pain. But sometimes, for reasons to do with the nature or pace of change or the capacity of our organisation, or both, our normal processes cannot cope with what is happening in our environment. The disruption we then experience may be a kind of “wake up call”. When that happens a more deliberate and ambitious effort may be required to catch up, to achieve what is sometimes called a “step change”. This is likely to involve significant alterations in what we do and how we do it. This is what we mean by transformational change.
It seems likely that we are in a period when the church needs to undergo a process of transformational change. The social, ethical and political changes of the last 50 plus years have had a major impact on how the church is seen by the public and has raised difficult questions for church members. It appears as if the nature and degree of these changes have exceeded the church’s historically considerable ability to adapt and reinvent itself. All the mainstream denominations in the UK face dramatic declines in attendance, and most indicators of public support tell a similar story. Church leaders and local ministers, who may well have been trained for, or have expected, pastoral or priestly ministries like those of their predecessors, find themselves under pressure (from church hierarchies, or local congregations or themselves) to address this alarming situation and often feel they lack the skills and resources to do so.
On the face of it, there is a significant need for the church to become better at achieving “transformational change”.
Theology and sociology (and organisational studies in particular) are different ways of viewing reality and can offer us different ways of understanding the same phenomena. The Susanna Wesley Foundation believes that these perspectives can be complementary and together offer a richer picture of the church and the situation it faces, and a complementary range of resources for addressing it. It is vital to keep these perspectives together, however, and to integrate them as much as possible. The church has not usually been good at this, and has tended to use organisational insights somewhat piecemeal, somewhat pragmatically and not always to the best effect.
The church is created by God and consists of those drawn together by a common participation in Christ – a concept captured in the familiar image of the church as “The Body of Christ”. It is sustained and led by the Holy Spirit. It exists to proclaim and support a mission that is not its own, but belongs to God and which depends on the initiative of God. This has implications for any consideration of the church in change.
- It suggests that leadership belongs not to the church but to God
- It at least puts a caution against characterising the church’s challenges as problems or a crisis and against responses that are dominated by anxiety.
- It might suggest that development or growth are better ways to characterise change
- It suggests that the concept of discernment should be seen as an important component of change management
- The Spirit is at work in the world, “the wind blows where it will”. We cannot see ourselves as having exclusive access to the voice or will of God: he may speak to us from outside the church
Other core Christian beliefs will also affect the way we see change. The doctrine of sin, for example, should prepare us for a constant engagement with the question of how things are and how they should or could be. It is also difficult to separate the question of the growth or development of the church from questions of the formation of individual Christians within any given Christian community.
One question that different churches answer differently is the extent to which the visible church is given by God, and to which, as a consequence, aspects of its form and practices are negotiable or otherwise. The Roman Catholic Church would, for example, see features of its polity as essential aspects of the church. The Church of England and, even more so, other protestant denominations, would see much of their form and order as matters of secondary importance. This means that the scope for change varies according to the particular ecclesiologies of the churches concerned.
But all the churches are embodied and experienced in human, social form. They look like and operate like organisations. They have employment, hierarchy, division of labour, rules, legal status. Organisation studies can offer a useful perspective for the church which, in fact, spends much time and energy in managing its activities.
SWF favours an approach to organisations that sees them systemically. This perspective on organisations emphasises the centrality of relationships both within organisations and across the boundaries that define organisations and mark them out. Some principles of this approach include:
- Seeing organisations holistically: processes, people, information, the wider environment and the interactions of all create the organisation
- Problems are solved (often dissolved) by situating them in the perspective created by looking at the whole organisation, its purpose and relation to its environment
- Recognition that organisations are complex, sensitive to starting points and local conditions
- Many features of organisations are “emergent”: the whole is greater than the sum of the parts
- Organisations do not only adapt to change pragmatically: they have the opportunity to grow and develop their potential
One way that organisations differ from other systems in the world is that they are composed of actors with conscious purposes of their own. This means that it is difficult to effect transformational change without co-creating it with the individuals concerned. Lasting organisational transformation cannot be achieved without a willingness to change from the individuals in the system.
Sustainable organisations change in such a way as to respond appropriately to new environmental conditions without sacrificing their essential identity, their purpose in the world. This is not only vital to the integrity of the system; it is the factor that creates or undermines stakeholder loyalty and motivation.
All this suggests the importance of actively managing change. But outcomes can neither be predicted with confidence, nor controlled. They could be described as probabilistic. They can be influenced, but not pre-determined to the degree assumed in some approaches to planning. Change involves risk and adventure.
SWF’s view of church and organisation informs its view of effective and appropriate processes of change in churches. Both ecclesiology and organisational perspectives emphasise:
- The need to recognise and safeguard the church’s identity. This involves distinguishing what is essential and lasting from what is timebound and changeable
- The limits of human agency and knowledge: we are not “in control” and we do not have wholly reliable or complete access to information about the situation
- The vital role of all with a stake, both in terms of “ownership” and in terms of maximising collective knowledge and wisdom
- Concepts such as growth and development, realisation of potential, confidence in God, are at the core of the approach: this puts a positive and hopeful frame around the process
- The role of emergent, unknown factors: we are wise to build in flexibility and to avoid overly prescribing our vision of the future
- Change involves learning and growth for all; this means a subjective experience of loss as well as gain. Transformation means change for everyone. This can be threatening
These ideas, in conjunction with practical experience of supporting churches and other organisations through change lead SWF to suggest that the following principles and practices are important if change is to be transformative:
- There needs to be a structured, purposeful process, but not one that pre-determines content – rather one that allows a good outcome to emerge.
- The process should be as inclusive as possible
- It is important to hold together the concepts, language and practices of organisational change with the concepts, language and practices of spiritual change, such as formation, conversion, prayer
- The focus should be on understanding and discernment. There needs to be deep consideration of the church’s identity and vocation (both in general terms and in terms of the local) and of what is happening in the world around. There needs to be sufficient courage to look at “what we think we are, do and believe” alongside “what we are, do and believe in fact” and work through the issues raised. The key question is “Where is God leading us?”
- The main focus should not be problem-solving, but seeing the opportunity for growth and learning
- Conclusions should not be reached prematurely
- The primary method is conversation; organised and purposeful, but authentic and honest
- The process must take place in an environment that is psychologically safe, encourages honesty, is characterised by transparency and builds trust
- The process must surface and test assumptions, reveal causes and not be content with treating symptoms. This implies rigour and thought
The role of leadership
SWF is sceptical of heroic and charismatic models of leadership. Leadership in change is important, but needs to be shared as widely as possible. The main role of formal leaders, of ministers, of priests, in transformational change is to create and help to sustain the process; not to have the answers or take on all the work. It is about creating the environment, about stressing the need, about keeping it going. Facilitative skills are useful, but they can be brought in from outside. It is about sticking with the process and being willing to change oneself.
The colloquium was attended by Chris Bond, Megan Seneque, Sue Miller, Clare Watkins, Janice Price, Ermal Kirby, Tim Harle and Keith Elford (who wrote up the paper)
 There are established frameworks which reflect all or some of these principles. These include “Theory U”, a methodology associated with the Presencing Institute at MIT; the “Swirl” developed by Telos Partners and described in Elford, K. A. (2013) Creating the Future of the Church: a practical guide to addressing whole system change, London, SPCK; Peter Checkland’s “Soft Systems Methodology” (see Checkland, P. (1981) Systems Thinking, Systems Practice, Chichester, Wiley).
 The idea of “good enough” leadership (a concept drawn from Winnicott’s idea of “Good enough parenting”) might be useful, and is being developed by Tim Harle.