It is a privilege to personally know – and to have interacted with – this week’s author, Diane Zemke. Diane writes a pragmatic text which is a helpful guide to not just the pastor, but also to lay leaders invested in congregational change. Having been a member of the United Methodist Church my entire life, a guidebook on navigating change is a welcome addition to my library and should be added to every United Methodists collection. Why is a guidebook on change so important in the life of a United Methodist? The United Methodist Church organizational structure is designed around change – frequent pastor changes, sequential organizational lay leadership changes, and (until the recent no vote on “A Way Forward” which proposed inclusivity to the LGBTQ+ population) progressive social changes. United Methodism was progressive in its efforts to advance the rights of women and African Americans to pastor. Even though the UMC is made up of members of diverse thought (conservative, moderate, and progressive) the denomination historically navigated inclusion efforts for oppressed and marginalized people successfully. “These two advancements made United Methodism the most inclusive denomination in America—it still is the largest denomination affirming women’s ordination. And all of Methodism, especially Methodism globally, has benefitted from these two acts of inclusion.”
As the founder of Methodism, “John Wesley believed that itinerant preachers who moved from place to place were more effective than those who settled in, grew comfortable, and wore out what they had to say,” United Methodist pastors are sent/appointed by their bishop to a church for an unspecified period of time. Sometimes this period of appointment is one short year, and sometimes it extends upwards of twenty years (a unique and rare timeframe in the UMC). Official “appointments” are typically for one year at a time, though the pastor may be moved any time based on need. The UMC aims to match the gifts and graces of the particular pastor with the ministry needs of a particular congregation or ministry setting.
Having shed light on the context of United Methodism, would it surprise you if I told you I have a lot of life experience connected to congregational change (notice I didn’t add a descriptor/adjective for the type of life experience)? I’m not sure if it’s my expectation that Christian congregations will interact at a higher spiritual, ethical and behavioral level than the secular population or that they are truly worse behaved? Perhaps the answer to my question lies somewhere in the middle…and it’s important to clarify that my experiences are from the perspective of the lay leader. I’m employed in the secular world but have always held a leadership position in my church – PPR Chair, Administrative Council Chair, lay leader, Sunday school teacher, Youth Leader, Shepherd’s Fund Director, et al. I also want to clarify that no matter the scenario, I have always supported the pastor’s leadership, spiritual maturity, and teaching. This is especially important in light of the United Methodist philosophy that the “church is the pastor” – the pastor reports to the congregation and most congregations take the liberty of each individual (especially those with “voice”) supervising the pastor to meet their own agenda. Congregations are responsible for supervising and evaluating pastors and the church is responsible for discipleship both within, and outside of, the church walls. While there have been some legitimate pastoral dispositional concerns in my twenty six years of lay leadership, the majority of change conflict comes from the congregation being challenged to think, pray, organize, and implement a “change” outside of their personal and spiritual comfort zone. And then watch out – holy hell breaks loose (or in LGP8 Mike’s terms…spiritual warfare). It has been a rare occasion when I have disagreed with a pastor’s teaching or challenge to make change – but what I can assess is that in each scenario there may have been a better way forward to address congregational adaptation, dissent, grief, and commitment. Zemke herself is wise in her acknowledgement that successful (or SMART) congregational change requires a wise approach (not just leadership and vision). Zemke provides the following parameters: “wise leaders develop a specific discipline of listening to dissent”; “wise leaders realize the need for negotiation”; “wise leaders work to tell the truth about all of the dissent in the Bible and Christian history”; “wise leaders make room for dissidents at the idea table and decision-making table”, “and wise leaders become adept at managing conflict and decision-making.” In my heart I have always wanted to believe that personal faith and infusion of the Holy Spirit organically develops these characteristics in leaders – but sadly that is just not the case. And then there’s the culture – which is unique to each congregation and unpredictable and ambiguous to the outsider. Which is exactly why I will advocate that pastors and lay leaders need advanced training in leadership, conflict, cultural humility, and social theory. Let’s face it, if faith were enough, the world would be a much better place and churches and congregations would be healthy. Kudos to Diane Zemke who has encouraged and empowered me to stay the course for congregational change.
 Diane Zemke. Being SMART about Congregational Change. (2014)