By Charles Stone
Healthy change is essential for any church or ministry to thrive. Lasting change requires individuals to change first before an organization will change.
The changes won’t last or will disrupt your church unless those on your team personally embrace them, at least at some level. So it’s vital we understand why most people initially resist change.
Brain insight helps us understand the hidden processes around which we can design our change initiatives. Being aware of how the brain responds to change can help you craft lasting change and overcome barriers that stifle healthy change.
Here are eight reasons why change is hard:
1. People naturally assume the worst. Our brain is wired to pick up threats. Two-thirds of the brain cells in the flight-or-fight part of our brain, the amygdala, are wired to pick up on the negative. Most people’s initial response to change comes from these emotional centers rather than from rational thinking.
2. People usually fill in knowledge gaps with fear instead of faith. Uncertainty about the future (and change) breeds this fear. The less information and the more holes people have to fill in the knowledge gaps, the greater the fear and resistance to change. To avoid fear of the unknown, communicate as much and as early as possible about changes.
3. We don’t have a second chance to make a good first impression. That’s not simply a quaint saying. Neuroscientists have shown it to be true. Starting off on the wrong foot when introducing change makes it harder for it to stick.
4. Emotions influence receptivity to change. Presenting facts without engaging positive and hopeful emotions will seldom move people forward. Although we may prefer it not to be so, most people make decisions based on emotion. Help church members focus on opportunities rather than problems.
5. The brain can only handle so much change at once. Creating too much change too quickly can engage the brain’s fear center and cause people to resist, thus hindering change. Consider making major changes in phases to give people time to adjust.
6. Old habits die hard. The longer a habit or tradition has been practiced, the harder it is to change. It’s like a river that for many years has cut a deep gorge in the earth. It would be hard to change its course. It’s like a tug-of-war between the familiar and easy—what we’re used to—and the unfamiliar and difficult.
7. Resistance to change often increases the closer you get to the change. People’s response to change adjusts over time. Let’s say you announce plans to add an early service within the next year. Initially, your staff and church leaders will see the benefits an early service can provide, such as more space and more service options.
The negatives such as more work, recruiting more volunteers, and a longer day won’t loom very large at this point. Neuroscientists have discovered when the change is far away, the positives usually outweigh the negatives.
However, as the change gets closer, the more fearful people tend to become. Suddenly the implications of the change, such as “Now, I have to arrive at church two hours earlier each Sunday,” become reality. The cost becomes more concrete and the benefits seem less substantial.
The closer your church gets to beginning the new service, the more it can feel like a threat as uninformed optimism gives way to informed pessimism. Help your team focus on the benefits and the vision for starting the new service as you make the transition.
8. The brain often interprets change as a threat, which in turn creates resistance. The brain is organized around a fundamental principle: minimize threat/maximize reward.
This results in either resistance or openness. Change seems like a threat, which often breeds resistance from others. Change brings uncertainty and the brain doesn’t like uncertainty.
You can alleviate fears by setting realistic, yet hopeful, expectations for staff and church members. Invite people to give input into how the change will look.
Regularly include conversations about change into staff meetings, retreats, and leadership training. And celebrate small wins along the way. All of these actions will allow people to take ownership of the changes and will help create lasting change.
The next time you begin to think about change, keep these brain insights in mind as you craft your plan.
CHARLES STONE (@CharlesStone) is the author of People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership. His new book, Brain-Savvy Leaders: The Science of Significant Ministry released in April, 2015. Adapted from an article at CharlesStone.com.