The term “change agent” has been around for a while. We all want to be agents of change. Our faith perspective is full of “change” words, like repentance, conversion, growth, formation, transformation. But being a “change agent” is tricky, even down right dangerous.
I was talking with a pastor about the difference between two congregational experiences. The earlier one ended in disappointment and early resignation. The current pastoral relationship seems to be thriving. I asked about the difference.
He noted that in the earlier experience he came to the congregation with changes in mind. The search committee thought that they knew what the church needed and persuaded my friend to join them in reforming their system. End result? Disaster, as you might have guessed.
I thought of Menken’s comment: “Every third American devotes himself to improving and lifting up his fellow citizens, usually by force; this messianic delusion is our national disease.” You and I know this delusional disease. We have “caught that cold” more than once, believing by willful force lasting change can occur.
This pastor approached his current congregation with a different stance. He assumed that church members had within them, though not yet named, the best sense of their direction. So the first year he listened and listened and listened, including listening to his own responses as well. In it all—and this is the faith part—he assumed that the Spirit was nudging, ever trying to give birth to something new. Some patterns and possibilities emerged to which he, along with lay leaders, could align themselves.
Let me linger for a moment with the “birthing” metaphor. It’s obviously a gift from feminine consciousness and experience. I find it provocative to think of leaders as midwives who assist in the new life wanting to be born.
Back to the phrase, “change agent.” Maybe we should retire the phrase. It implies we can make change happen. But we learn, sooner or later, in every relationship that pushing for change only, and inevitably, invites a push back. Oh, we may be able to force the “rubber band” to stretch a bit, but as soon as the pressure is released, it goes back to where it was.
We are left with a paradox, one I learned from family systems theory. And its so counter-intuitive. The best chance for meaningful change is working at staying in relationship while changing ourselves, The dynamics of change are much more than this, but not less. It’s true, whether we are talking about leadership of a congregation or surviving in a marriage or working on a staff. It’s our best chance for meaningful change.