Paint tubes and brushes.

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Change, messiness, and leading: A review of “The Art of Leading Change”

May 22, 2023

In his new book The Art of Leading Change: Ten Perspectives on the Messiness of Ministry (Fortress Press, 2023), longtime church consultant and coach Mike Bonem observes,

“Leading congregational change is complex because it always involves people, and people are complex. Despite this complexity, leading change does not need to be based on uninformed guesses about how people might respond. Even the art of leading change involves science, but it’s the science of people—especially the hows and whys that explain the reactions of people to change. These are the perspectives every leader needs to develop.” (p. 3)

Bonem draws from religious and secular business leadership texts to inform his thoughts on church leadership and change. Then he turns to the conversations he has grown to appreciate with artists, those whose work operates more in imagination and aesthetics. The latter pursuits go less considered in the harried work of ministry, as we tend towards metrics (attendance and budgets) more than anything approaching the irenic.

(The Protestant work ethic is rarely known for its creativity. Anguish, yes. Beauty? Not so much…)

Bonem offers his readers ten insights, or perspectives, into the ways one can engage ministry with a better mindset. Change is inevitable, yet our approach to engaging change will determine how well we deal with “the messiness” of ministry, as Bonem terms it. One must lead oneself amid change. Bonem observes,

For me, the journey of personal change has meant slowing down and listening more. It has pushed me to be more transparent about my emotions, more honest about my mistakes, and more accepting of missteps by others” (p. 7)

With each perspective (“Leading with Trust” to “Heavy Loads Require Strong Teams” to “Who is not in the room?” to name a few), Bonem offers reflections on how leaders can more effectively lead along with brief examples of congregational moments where this perspective helps the leader navigate a challenging time.

In “The Art of Leading Change: Ten Perspectives on the Messiness of Ministry,” Mike Bonem learns from religious and secular business leadership–as well as from artists–to inform his thoughts on church leadership and change. Change is inevitable, yet our approach to engaging change will determine how well we deal with the “messiness” of ministry.

For all church leaders, a time for reflection is sorely needed, as we emerge from the common experience of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. For three years, we ran a racecourse ill- defined in length, with constantly changing terrain. Churches entered the time without warning, and therefore, we could only carry into the uncertainty the skills and experiences we had. For churches that already had conflict-prone habits and histories, the pandemic shutdowns and public health mandates stressed systems where the reservoir of trust was low, if not already in drought conditions. Working with colleagues around upstate New York, I empathized with those who felt this time of challenge just made some bad things worse in the lives of local congregations. Yet I also respected the willingness of colleagues to embrace experimentation, rethinking how worship could pivot to “virtual” when “in-person worship” became a phrase we had to learn, and something we could not do safely. Of course, now most congregations have remained “tech” friendly, providing options for hybrid participation.

On the other hand, I also knew colleagues for whom the pandemic was the proverbial last straw. Some pastors transitioned to other places of ministry as they could not continue with a particular congregation any longer. And some congregants departed churches, tired of the hyper-politicized time that COVID also turned into during 2020 and 2021 for congregations who had serious differences of opinion and conviction, with less awareness of how to engage in dialogue, let alone civility.

Eventually, I began calling COVID less of a pandemic (though it certainly has been such) and more of a series of disruptions. The virus did what a virus does: spreads, mutates, and spreads some more, until something lessens or slows its transmissibility. And local churches had to learn how to navigate ambiguity and anxiety at a scale not ordinarily experienced on a global level. The churches that were able to keep moving along (even if slower and less gracefully than we wanted) emerge from this time of disruptions with a sense of gratitude, yet we cannot forget to reflect on what we have learned. Foremost, each of us needs to reflect on what we have experienced and in turn, discover our capacity to take change and not to be overwhelmed by its curves and uncertainty.

In one of his conversations with artists, Bonem admits he and other church leaders are hesitant to get messy. We love keeping homeostasis and want order and control more than we like to admit. The artist inevitably has “mess” due to engaging in the creative process more fully. Keeping a set of “work clothes” is routine for artists and craftspeople, whereas church leaders worry about looking unkempt during ministry.

As we navigate the changes and disruptions that the past three years have brought to our churches, let us learn from artists and their willingness to embrace creativity, uncertainty, and mess, as Bonem counsels:

“The leader whose goal is to not get “dirty” will not be able to lead at all. If you’re called to lead, don’t be surprised and don’t run away when you encounter the messiness of conflict or skepticism. Put on your work clothes—the ones with the stains of past experience—and maybe even some protective gear and dive into the messy work that lies ahead.” (p. 23)

The Rev. Jerrod H. Hugenot is associate executive minister, American Baptist Churches of New York State.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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