Transformed or Tweaked?

Everyone wants transformational change. Congregations, the church at large, companies, public schools, the government, colleges and seminaries… The list could go on.

Two reasons, I think, explain this desire. First, we know that a lot of the ways “we’ve always done it” aren’t working anymore. Whether it’s the way our congregations are run, our seminaries educate leaders, our companies make a profit in a way that serves customers and is environmentally sustainable, our government functions, etc. – we have this deep sense and suspicion that just enough has changed in our world that we also need to change – really change – to be effective.

The second reason is simpler: transformation sounds nice. It’s both fancier (promising more) and nicer (requiring less) than a phrase like complete change. Transformation, that is, sounds wonderful whereas complete change sounds more difficult and painful.

But here’s the thing: if we don’t realize that transformation actually requires substantial (and therefore disruptive) change, than we don’t end up with transformation. Instead, we end up with tweaking the status quo. That is, we make modest (what we call “appropriate”) or realistic (by that we mean not too painful) changes to the larger intact system and then are both surprised and disappointed when not much actually changes.

Still not sure what I mean? Then pay attention to the typical actions of groups that say they want transformational change but in reality only want to tweak the status quo. You’ll notice a few common strategies.

1) Rationalize the problem. We study the issue – the decline in membership, sales, productivity, whatever – and conclude that while the current numbers are depressing, if we cut back a little now and redouble our efforts (that is, do what we’ve always done, just a little better), we should be fine.

2) Commission a study. Rather than do anything different, we channel responsibility for change to a committee that will study the issue and, more likely than not, end up with modest recommendations that tweak (rather than call into question) existing structures and mostly continue what we’ve always done.

3) Seek new leadership and/or fresh faces. While new leaders may indeed effect significant change, and while a fresh perspective can provide new insights, neither guarantees substantial change. Indeed, often we seek the fresh face – whether a new leader brought from the outside or a set of consultants – because we romantically (or tragically?) believe that having a new leader can actually substitute for developing new patterns of being and acting. That is, we overestimate what a new leader can do in an unchanged system and delegate the responsibility for change away from the body and onto the new leader. (Although if the new leader insists on wholesale change, then we complain that because he/she is an outsider, he/she doesn’t really know us!)

Why the resistance to the substantial change that is necessary for transformation. Because substantial change is always disruptive change. It threatens the status quo and because we greatly prefer homeostasis (stability) to change (instability), we’ll do almost anything to avoid disruption. And so we substitute rationalization, study, and a preference for fresh faces – all relatively easy to do but time-consuming enough that we believe we’re actually doing something – for the much harder work of taking our changed and changing context seriously, putting everything on the table, and engaging in change that we hope will be transformative but will most certainly be disruptive.