Resolving to Change

It’s January, and that means one thing: New Year’s Resolutions.

Eat better. Exercise more. Spend less. Make it through one of those read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year programs.

Whatever the goal, New Year’s Resolutions produce two contrasting impulses in me. The first is hope. January heralds the possibility of clean slates, better decisions, and new ways forward, all of which lead me to think that maybe this year will be different than last. The second is resignation. It’s often just weeks into January that my resolutions falter and fade.

I’m not alone. A study conducted by Scranton University finds that only 8% of us achieve our New Year’s Resolutions. Ouch. Clergy are hardly immune to these trends. Despite our best intentions, we find ourselves stuck back where we started, mired in a this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-things thinking and leading.

Why is it that our resolutions to change, whether at home or at church, so often fail? There’s no shortage of answers on the internet. The most common are:

  • A failure of resolve: We don’t have the discipline to see change through.
  • A failure of attitude: We lack the positive thinking needed to bring about change.
  • A failure of execution: We aren’t proactive enough when it comes to defining our goals and what it will take to achieve them.

A lack of discipline, positivity, and measurable goals might be part of the problem. But I think our inability to carry out significant, paradigm-shifting change in our pastoral leadership is rooted in a much deeper issue: Namely, we continue in the same old patterns because that’s exactly what we’ve been trained to do.

At seminary, most of us were equipped with a box of leadership tools that focus primarily on how to preach, offer pastoral care, lead worship services, and interpret Scripture. For effective leadership today, these tools are necessary, but not sufficient.

In his book, The History of Theological Education, Justo Gonzalez notes, “No matter how good the teaching and training in our seminaries and other theological education institutions, no teaching and training will be sufficient for those who are graduating today [let along yesterday] and will be serving as pastors until the middle of the century.”

If we want to effect change in our churches now and into the future, if we want to out-perform the general population when it comes to keeping our resolutions, we need to acquire some new tools. And by tools I don’t mean the ability to balance a budget or record a podcast. The sort of training that Gonzalez has in mind has to do with the ability to think deeply and theologically about the pressing challenges the church is facing today, and why it is that we so often find ourselves, and our churches, stuck in modes of institutional management and self-preservation rather than dynamic, adaptive, off-the-map thinking.

To borrow from Tod Bolsinger’s extraordinary book on leadership, we need to stop canoeing where the river ends and the mountains begin.

Over the next five weeks, my colleagues and I will be reflecting on aspects of adaptive leadership and how it relates to sparking and sustaining change in the churches we serve. The conversations we hope to spark won’t offer a how-to manual for leadership. What we hope they will do, however, is to explore the way in which paradigm-shifting institutional change is predicated on disruptive, ongoing personal change.

The latter involves coming to terms with what deep inside of us – our fears, our priorities, our privilege, and even our theologies – stand in the way of transformative leadership. Among other things, we will be talking about: the paralyzing fear of disappointing others; over relying on technical solutions when it comes to addressing complex problems; our desire to fix problems too quickly; our tendency to embrace strategic plans rather than strategic thinking; and our inclination to look to past successes as a reliable roadmap for the future.

Join us for these conversations as we lean into the hope that God is at work creating something new and vital in the world, our churches, and our own hearts and minds.

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