Managing Change

Stephen W. Hiemstra, Living in ChristBy Stephen W. Hiemstra

Probably the most difficult aspect of leadership is managing change. Often pain is involved which provides an important clue that the status quo has been or will soon be disrupted. Pain presents a Gethsemane moment (Matt 26:36) when a decision needs to be made—shall I turned into my pain and initiate negative self-talk or turn to God and give it over to him? The answer to the many times this question comes up defines our character both as Christians and as Christian leaders.

Seeking Guidance

As the Apostle James reminds us: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (Jas 1:5) A Gethsemane moment poses a need for pain relief, but the need for guidance is almost always a more pressing concern. Guidance is obviously needed to know how to proceed to solve possible problems, but also to know how to respond to the pain. Left to simmer, pain often turns into negative self-talk, depression, and anger.

Anger can be especially destructive. In copying with anger, Lester (2007, 62) presents a 6 step model:

  1. Recognize anger;
  2. Acknowledge anger;
  3. Calming our bodies;
  4. Understanding why we are threatened;
  5. Evaluating the validity of the threat; and
  6. Communicating anger appropriately.

This list sounds suspiciously like how other authors suggest speakers cope with hostile questions—anger is often suppressed and expressed in a devious manner. Lester notes that anger is often camouflaged as procrastination; actions that frustrate, embarrass or causes others pain; nasty humor; nagging; silence; sexual deviance; and passive-aggressive behavior (Lester 2007, 88-89). It is more productive to seek God’s advice—Lord, why have you brought me to this time and this place?

Tension between Stewardship and Theology 

The problems facing church leaders today seem endless, but one problem stands out: stewardship. Real wages have been flat for most workers in the United States since the early 1980s with most income gains accruing to the top earning ten percent (Desilver 2018). If one combines wage stagnation with declining church attendance, the stewardship problem becomes obvious. In many churches, every funeral is accompanied with a financial crisis.

While most people are familiar with the biblical concept of the tithe, relatively few people understand where it comes from. Historically each Jewish worship service requires at least ten Jewish men to be present—a minion. Jesus traveled with his twelve disciples which meant that everywhere he stopped to speak was an official Jewish worship service. Well, if a Rabbi had a minion and each of them contributed the title, then the Rabbi would enjoy the average standard of living of his minion. In the American church where the average congregant donates one percent of income, it basically takes a membership of one hundred congregants to support a pastor, which implies that an American minion is one hundred congregants.

The stewardship crisis facing American churches also poses a theological crisis because the pastors must keep their minions happy. If the pastor’s job is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable, a balance is obviously easier to maintain with a Jewish minion than an American minion. In other words, because of how churches are financed, the pastor today must be an expert in crowd control in a society focused more on media entertainment than biblical literacy. Maintaining faithful teaching in the midst of this framework is understandably difficult.

Change as Transition

Change seldom happens overnight. This makes it helpful to think of change as a transition with beginning, middle, and ending phases rather than single event. In pastoral care, the typical hospital visit is a transition—something prompted the visit, the patient requires a period of treatment, and, then, what will be different as they leave the hospital? This final question is inherently spiritual, especially when the patient passed through a near-death experience.

The Exodus experience poses the classical biblical transition. It took Moses maybe 40 days to get the people of Israel out of Egypt, but it took him 40 years in the desert to get the Egypt out of the people. Even then, Joshua, not Moses, was the one that led them into the Promised Land (Bridges 2003, 43). Interestingly, it was in the desert where the people of Israel learned to rely on God (Exod 7:16; Card 2005).

Rebooting a Program or Career

Whenever one invests heavily in a project, program, or career, it becomes like human capital, analogous to the purchase a specialized machine, like a harvester for picking only corn (Johnson and Quance 1972). Once this investment is made, it is fixed and cannot be easily changed. When market conditions change, the value of this investment declines and may become worthless. Still, for the manager making the investment, it may be easier pretending markets will come back than owning up to the loss.

Early in my economics career, I invested a lot of time and effort learning Spanish hoping to work in Latin American affairs. By the time I completed my degree, interest in Latin American development had subsided and everyone was taking about West Africa development, where the dominant language in French, not Spanish. Consequently, I found myself studying French, but before long I ended up going into finance where my language skills were pretty much irrelevant. My willingness to learn new things and switch fields paid off handsomely over the years and I retired with a salary about double that of colleagues who had started out with me in international affairs.

Churches are typically much smaller than government agencies, which intensifies the the need to learn new things. In this context, rebooting programs and careers is an ongoing battle. The need to go to the Lord in prayer is important both in knowing what to do and in managing the painful emotions that change can bring.


Bridge, William. 2003. Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Cambridge: Da Capo Press.

Card, Michael. 2005.  A Sacred Sorrow: Reaching Out to God in the Lost Language of Lament. [Also: Experience Guide]. Colorado Springs: NavPress.

Desilver, Drew. 2018. “For most U.S. workers, real wages have barely budged in decades” Pew Research Center. Accessed: 25 July 2019. Online: ( August 7.

Johnson, Glenn L. and C. Leroy Quance [editors]. 1972. The Overproduction Trap in U.S. Agriculture: A Study of Resource Allocation from World War I to the Late 1960’s. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lester, Andrew D. 2007. Anger: Discovering Your Spiritual Ally. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Managing Change

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