Elaine returned from a fabulous conference with tons of new ideas. She called her children’s department coordinators together and laid out her new strategy.
With each new idea, the nursery leader thought, “Oh no, not another big idea! Things are fine just the way they are.” The elementary supervisor was excited but unsure whether Elaine’s plan would work. But the preschool coordinator bluntly asked, “Why is it that when you go away to one of those conferences, we always end up chasing a new rabbit for the next year?”
Like many children’s ministers, Elaine didn’t understand how to introduce change in a way that leads to successful results.
James Belasco, in his book Teaching the Elephant to Dance: The Manager’s Guide to Empowering Change, contends that most organizations and leaders are conditioned to resist change—in much the same way elephants are.
He writes, “Trainers shackle young elephants with heavy chains to deeply embedded stakes. In this way, the elephant learns to stay in its place. Older elephants never try to leave even though they have the strength to pull the stake and move beyond. Their conditioning limits their movements with only a small metal bracelet around their foot, attached to nothing.” The only thing that’ll break the conditioned response is a fire or something that threatens the elephants’ very survival.
There are a lot of “elephants” in churches. But if we’re going to reach children we must set some fires under those elephants.
Belasco offers fundamental business principles that, if used properly, can generate a creative environment where change is welcomed rather than feared. The following eight steps will enable you to affect change in your church:
1. Prepare for change.
Build a sense of urgency. If people don’t recognize a need for change, the change will never happen. Help your volunteers see the problem clearly by surveying disgruntled parents or children, videotaping and critiquing the program in question, or revealing a decline in attendance or quality.
2. Create a clear tomorrow.
Don’t just leave people discouraged. Lead from your strengths and present your vision of the “promised land.” If Sunday school is your strongest program, and all other programs are limping along, put them out of their misery. Figure out how you can make Sunday school a life-changing, exciting place for kids. Then impart that vision to your volunteers.
Vision guides the decision-making process. It keeps us from being tyrannized by the urgent and drives us to what’s important. When asked why we don’t have a traditional vacation Bible school, I always say God has given us a different outreach method. Our vision drives us to creatively seek ways of reaching out—beyond VBS.
3. Think through the obstacles.
According to Belasco, there are five potential blockades to change. But you can bust through these blockades:
- It’s taking longer than I thought. It may take a long, long time. Remember your vision and hang in there over the long term.
- These people want an instant cure. Once people get excited about the vision, they may expect too much from it. Be honest about what can and can’t be done with your vision.
- I’ve got too many critics. Confront critics and take their concerns seriously-you may learn something. Then drown unwarranted criticism by celebrating short-term progress.
- I’ll do it tomorrow. Break large tasks into manageable small pieces. And get people started on those small pieces.
- We’ve made a lot of mistakes. If you’re trying something new, you will fail at some point. But failure isn’t fatal. Prepare yourself to fail and learn from it.
4. Develop your vision.
Get input from three different sources as you craft your vision. Pull together your children’s ministry leaders and bounce your vision off them. What do they think? What changes would they make? Then take your refashioned vision informally to parents, volunteers, and children. Get their input. Next, ask the professionals: co-staff members or other children’s ministers. Stay flexible and be willing to change your vision based on the input.
To accomplish this, I laid out what I believed were the biblical imperatives for children’s ministry. We held several parent forums and leader vision-casting sessions, asking adults how they felt about children’s ministry. Surprisingly, we found adults very willing to talk about their vision for children.
5. Focus your resources.
Put your top-notch people in positions of influence. For example, if you’re introducing new, innovative curriculum, have your best teachers demonstrate it. Also, cut nonessential expenditures to ensure adequate funding for new programs. As I mentioned in step 2, cut second-rate programs. Then focus all your resources on the main thrust of your vision. Afterward, work on the other areas.
6. Model the change.
Present a clear picture of what it’ll take to reach the vision. Model the desired behavior or program you envision. If it’s introducing active learning into the classroom, use active learning-not lecture-in your teacher-training meetings. If it’s visiting your children’s homes weekly, take a different teacher with you each week to visit children. Encourage your volunteers to try the new behavior and give them permission to fail.
7. Expect change.
Set specific expectations and then check on progress. Give immediate feedback to reinforce the behavior. Belasco says, “What gets rewarded, gets produced again.” Heartfelt thank yous and affirmations will let your volunteers know they’re on track. Periodic evaluations will also help your volunteers stay focused.
8. Empower people.
Give volunteers decision-making authority related to the vision. If volunteers have to clear everything with you, they’ll never own the vision. Celebrate individual contributions that affect the vision. If someone tweaks a program well, use “good gossip” to talk it up to other volunteers: “Wow, Jean had the greatest idea for children’s church!” You’ll encourage others to contribute, also.
Once the change has taken hold, mark the passing of the old. Keep promising a better tomorrow. Celebrate when the new way is the only way. Use the vision God has given you to guide your ministry.
A very wise pastor once told me if I ever wanted my ministry to have an eternal impact, I would have to set it on fire. Because when a church is on fire, people come from all around to watch it burn. He was right!
Steve Hopper is a children’s minister in North Carolina.
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