Change and Fear

We need to think with more clarity about change.

The fuzzy thinking came up again, as it does quite often, in a bible class that I regularly teach on Thursday mornings. The participants are all retired and range in age from about 70 to 90-something. One of our 90-something men was an executive with Sears and Roebuck, and has kept up with trends in corporate excellence and success. He is fond of sharing sound-bite phrases and aphorismic wisdom, relating them somehow to the particular passage we are studying for the day.

This week, I introduced a study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Honestly, I can’t even remember now how it came up, but my beloved bible study partner (and I really do have a great deal of respect and affection for this man) interrupted and interjected, “It seems like it always comes down to “change” and how much we dislike change and how hard change is.”

I would agree with my friend if what he means is that change is constant and often uncomfortable. What I would disagree with is that change is the root issue. People love to change if they perceive that change is beneficial. When Bob and Mary take two weeks of vacation in January and escape the harsh Chicago winter to spend some time on the beach in Aruba, that’s change. But it’s not difficult. In fact, that’s why they go — because they deeply want a change from the cold, snow, and disagreeable weather of Chicago in the winter. Millions of people play the lottery in hope of experiencing a deep change in their lifestyle; if they win, they will quit their job, travel, pay off all their bills, and give away ginormous amounts of money. And for most players, those aspirations represent change.That’s not how they are currently living.

So, it’s not change per se that we don’t like. This light bulb came on for me again a few weeks ago reading an early section of The Practice of Adaptive Leadership by Ron Heifitz, et. al. He makes the strong case that change is not the problem, it’s fear of loss.

That rings true to me, both theologically and practically. While change may indeed be hard in some instances, change is not what causes anxiety deep down. It’s the fear of what we might be losing.

At a very root level of our personal and corporate faith, it’s one of the reasons repentance is so hard. To repent is to turn around from the way we’ve been living before God. To do that, some things need to change. And with that change comes the fear of giving up sovereignty of our lives in the call to follow Christ. We fear that God may call us to do something that requires risk and to give up something that brings pleasure or satisfaction.

At a more practical level, I see that fear of loss happening all over congregational life. As communities and culture change, congregations can’t stay the same. We have to be constantly seeking ways to share the love of Christ and forming people in their faith in a meaningful way. What played in 1970 doesn’t necessarily play today. So, change becomes a constant. And with change comes the fear of what might be lost.

A few years ago, at the recommendation of our Director of Family Ministry, we shut down a long-standing tradition of a midweek after school program for children. The reality was that participation had been dwindling for some time. In our community there is simply a lot going on; many (can I say most?) parents want their children to experience a wide range of activities. So in contrast to a day when an after school activity at church may have been the only game in town, there is now significant competition in that midweek after school time slot. With respect to our particular program, families were making other choices about where their kids would go after school on Wednesdays.

There was a lot of anxiety about that change and some fairly strong resistance. As I reflect on that change, the greatest reaction came from two places: those who had been involved in the leadership of that program in its early years, and members who had participated in that program and who were now parents themselves (or a corollary: those whose kids had participated and wanted the opportunity available for grandkids).

In one case, the fear was losing their connection to and personal identity with a program that had been meaningful for many children and families over the years, and I suppose the fear that we would no longer be doing meaningful ministry with kids. In the other case, the fear was that their children would not have meaningful experiences at church like they had. Thankfully the leaders have gone on to other ministries which are meaningful and allow them to use their gifts. And we have birthed other opportunities for children to be formed in the faith and to have meaningful experiences at church.

Part of the art of pastoral and congregational leadership is to think and act more clearly when it comes to change. Change is inevitable; growth is an option. And for growth to happen as things change, leaders would do well to think about and anticipate what people might be losing in the process of change. Leaders would also do well to discover ways to articulate the possibility of loss and to articulate the good that is also possible or even likely in the new. That articulation has to include conversations where what is lost and what might be gained can be talked about honestly and safely. Effective leaders will discover ways to draw out the fear that people are experiencing as they walk through change. We can’t fully eliminate people’s fear of loss. But we can minimize it and help alleviate it by anticipating it and helping people talk about it.

And we can keep pointing to the Constant in a sea of change. In the church of my childhood, evening services were common in the seasons of Advent and Lent. And I remember that nearly every one of those services included the hymn Abide with Me. Even now, as I recall my childhood from the vantage point of someone past middle age, I can sing several verses of that hymn from memory. And one of the lines that so often pops into my head is this:

. . .Change and decay in all around I see;

Oh, Thou who changest not, abide with me.

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