Lately I’ve been re-reading The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People by David Niven, Ph.D.  Each “secret” is about two pages long and includes a brief exposition of a principle, a real life example, and a statistic backing up the point.  I read only one secret each day so I can reflect on it and it doesn’t get lost among a number of others.

In secret 37, Niven quotes University of Pittsburgh Law School dean Peter Shane, “There is no change so small that it threatens no one.”  Though the book focuses primarily on business success, I imagine this quote will resonate with leaders and members of congregations and other non-profit organizations.

Perhaps, changes in attendance indicate that an increase or decrease in the number of Sunday services is in order.  Or the music director starts including one piece of rock or jazz music in each service.  Or the minister changes her office hours.  Some people seem to react as if the very foundations of their existence have been shaken.  Yet the leaders know that there are good reasons for the change.  It offers some type of important advantage, and may even be necessary.

Dean Shane suggests courage for the leader who wishes to advocate change.  I would add the consensus skill of asking open (not yes-or-no) questions (see Bridges to Consensus, Chapter 10), then listening attentively and compassionately.

  • How will the addition [or elimination] of a Sunday service affect you?
  • How do you feel when you hear the rock music?
  • Which of the new office hours present difficulties for you?

Ask follow-up questions.  Keep asking and listening until you can restate all the other person’s concerns in such a way that they feel you fully understand them (see Bridges to Consensus, Chapter 11).  This, in itself, goes a long way toward dispelling his sense of threat and the resulting fear and resistance.

Then, rather than presenting arguments for the change, ask the other person(s) about your concerns.

  • How can we help those members who find it difficult to enter a spirit of worship when they feel crowded in the pews?
  • What sorts of people do you think like the rock and jazz?  Why do you think they like it?  Why might they dislike classical organ music?
  • How can I make myself available for the stay-at-home parents and the retirees as well as for the nine-to-fivers?

You might not convert the antis into advocates for change, but you’ll find them more calm and tolerant, willing to hang in there and give the change a try.  And that can make all the difference in the health of the group as a whole.