30 Years, 50 Elders, 2 Lessons
Which of these two lessons, if fully learned, could most help the elders at your church do their job more effectively and bring the greatest glory to God?
Lesson 1: The RATS Formula
One of the first elders I worked with said the life of a church is full of change, which is challenging because change changes things, and changing things can cause people to feel like they’re losing something, and when people lose something they grieve, and grief is not a widely celebrated emotion. That is why a congregation may look askance at change, even when it’s for its own good. The elder drew this formula on a blackboard in our church building’s basement:
He began to explain. The “R” (resistance to change) is directly proportional to the “A” (amount of change). For the most part, little changes incur little resistance. If leaders want to change something minor in the congregation’s life—wicker baskets instead of golden plates for offerings, upgrading the padding on the pews—no big deal. (It may have been a Barna study that concluded, “If you took all the people who fall asleep in Sunday morning worship assemblies and laid them end to end . . . they’d be much more comfortable!”) Small change is mostly small change.
However, when it comes to big-ticket items in the life of your group—the place a church meets or the time it meets for weekly gatherings—that can engender some serious resistance. Major change typically results in major problems. The “A” (amount of change), large or small, is directly proportional to the “R” (resistance to change) that the elders should expect.
This elder then explained that the “R” (resistance to change) in the congregation is inversely proportional to the “T” (time before the change). If you announce a real deviation in the way you do life together, and you tell the church it’s going to happen next week—watch out! Short time prior to the change—big resistance! But if you announce plans months in advance, a year ahead of time, people can deal with it much more easily, no matter how big the change that’s coming. Bringing on a new staff member, changing the scope of the elders’ leadership, sending your preaching minister to Hawaii for six weeks of physical refreshment and spiritual renewal each year (what?)—the resistance to such ideas will be inversely proportional to the amount of time you give people before the idea becomes reality.
My elder friend put down the chalk, as though the lesson were finished. I spoke up immediately, “What’s the plus or minus “S” mean?” He smiled and said, “The ‘S’ stands for ‘salesmanship.’ The resistance to the change will be determined not only by the amount of change and the timing of the change, but on our salesmanship, on our credibility in the eyes of the church, on our ability to help them understand the value of the particular change.”
Long after this session, this managerial genius would often remind us, “Change is inevitable, but resistance to change is largely up to us.” It’s directly proportional to the amount of change being advocated; it’s inversely proportional to the time you allow before the change; and its severity is plus or minus our salesmanship. I thought the RATS formula was helpful when I first heard it, and in the instances since—when our elders have failed to take its truth into account—we discovered why it’s called what it’s called.
Lesson 2—The Broken Principle
Working with a church means constantly dealing with things that are broken. Friendships, finances, bodies, buildings, printers, promises—when you put people together, you end up with broken stuff.
Over the years, our elders have been made aware of the following things that people in our church have been involved in: abuse, addiction, adultery, drunkenness, embezzlement, neglect, pedophilia, revenge-seeking, and voyeurism—and that’s just our leaders. (If you’ve been working with a church for a while and you can’t come up with a similar list, you’re not really trying, because on this side of the great day, brokenness is the coin of the realm.)
In an elders’ meeting one night, after lamenting yet another complicated situation that we all knew demanded our involvement, one of the guys said, “If a window in a church building gets broken, in every church I’ve ever been part of, before the day is done, somehow, some way, they’ll get that window taken care of.”
We said, “Right, we live in New York; you gotta fix broken windows!”
He said, “One of the best things about being part of this group of elders is that when we find out somebody’s life is broken, we take immediate action. We don’t avoid it because it’s going to be messy—we help because it needs to be tended. And not next meeting, not next month; we start the process the day we see it. I like that we help people fix what’s broken!”
I do too. I think every group of elders that dares to lead, feed, and intercede on behalf of people following Jesus should treat those in their care at least as well as they treat the windows in their church buildings. And if that’s not true of what you do right now—if that’s different than where you are as elders—if that would require change . . . I refer you back to Lesson 1.
Jon Walker serves as senior minister with Willowbrook Christian Church in Victor, New York.