Losing the will to live is a rather common experience of pastors in transitional ministry. If not that extreme, living on the edge of “losing your mind” is a routine occurrence. Consequently, Diane Zemke’s book, Being SMART about Congregational Change, could easily be something of a godsend to church leaders, assuming they read it early in their ministry. The book is not an instruction manual, but rather emphasises being smart, astute and aware as a ministry leader.
Zemke implicitly points out the language is essential when working through transition, and if not considered carefully it can create unnecessary problems. Ultimately, transition in church life and ministry is about more than just renewal and change. It is about becoming more than we have merely settled to be.
“At its heart, renewal is about re-examining and updating congregational culture and narratives. It’s about sorting through all the pieces of the culture and narrative and deciding what can be kept and what must be adapted or left behind.”
Words have psychological attachments that are less nuanced than they should be. Change often interpreted as unwarranted, abrupt, and self-serving for the ministry leader and tends to draw battle lines. Church renewal should have spiritual, pastoral and theological shades that are understood on both sides before potential Christian conflict arises – and Christian leaders should equally comprehend it.
Zemke requires that leaders understand their people and take the time to do so. However, that understanding is more than superficial; it requires seeing the past, looking at community distinctives, engaging the shared historical narratives and knowing the lifecycles that got them to where they are. It is also understands who the gatekeeper and shareholders are; Zemke calls these groups ‘clans’ and ‘bureaucracies’;  none of which see eye-to-eye and tend to understand their role as protecting and defending the past and the story it tells.
With Harry Fritzenschaft, the word ‘adaptive’ stood out, not so much just for the leader, but to acknowledge that adaptation has already taken many forms. Churches adapt to decline, they adapt to leadership vacuums, and they adapt to conflict; none of which is always done well. Subsequently, new leaders who wish to engage with change must have the ability, confidence and leadership tools to adapt their own ministry to the new and complex human world they find themselves navigating. Moreover, to that end, the book is a handy tool.
The section on self-care was welcome, and the short chapter on the issues facing women in leadership and change management was equally welcome, though I can hardly make a comment on that front, excepting to say, women face resistance (passive and aggressive) that I do not face.
Yet, what is missing from the book is perhaps the most problematic issue church leaders face: there is no mention of the sociopaths, narcissists, and issues surrounding mental health that too often plague leadership groups in churches – or any organisation for that matter. Leadership books seem to assume that congregations are made up of well educated functioning human beings who, with the correct amount stunning leadership, will flourish. That is not the case. And perhaps that’s where adaptive leadership is most important.
While I was the senior leader at the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, I discovered that many of our congregants and church leaders suffered from varying degrees of Asperger’s syndrome. The question was why? Why such an imbalance? The reason was liturgical. Cathedrals have a worship style that follows a strict liturgical format, and that means predictability. The church calendar is fixed year to year, and indeed the lectionary means teaching is likewise determined week by week. For people on the Autistic spectrum, such worship reliability means security and safety for their mental health. However, it also meant that change was a threat that was not going to be navigated with speed or ease. Also, many of those people were on the leadership board of the church. Again, I have navigated church conflict with leadership groups infiltrated by marginally functioning sociopaths who were hell-bent on getting their way at the expense of community.
So, who trains pastoral leaders for situations where rationality, structure and good process do not result in good outcomes because of the people they work with? In most cases there is very little training, and there is very little support either. So, I am left wondering why such books are not written. Then again, leaders can be narcissistic sociopaths too. Maybe those books are not written just in case we recognise ourselves.
Another area missing from the book is the existence of multiculturalism in the change process. Zemke mentions it in passing by looking at feminism and women from other cultures when thinking about ‘debate’ as being very male and western, yet the topic is not covered directly. Perhaps that is an Americanism I am missing as a New Zealander? Books like The Culture Map that we reviewed earlier, indeed attended to that issue more directly, but not in the context of change. Multiculturalism is a ‘thing’ that is growing across the globe – and it is complicated.
If I were going to apply a biblical verse to the book it would be Matthew 10:16 “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” I’ll stop there, the following verses are bit depressing.
 Diane Zemke, Being Smart About Congregational Change, Kindle ed., 2014 (Create Space Independent Publishing, 2014).
 Ibid. loc 764
 Ibid. loc 47
 Ibid. loc 266
 Ibid. loc 1525
 Erin Meyer. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. (New York: PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Edition
Meyer, Erin. The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures. New York: PublicAffairs, 2016. Kindle Edition
Zemke, Diane. Being Smart About Congregational Change. Kindle ed. 2014, Create Space Independent Publishing, 2014.