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Leadership in the Reactive Zone
by Tom Goodman
May 28, 2009

"Ultimately, one of the key tasks of leadership that has been entrusted to us is this -- helping churches move beyond what they may WANT to be and do so that they can become all that they NEED to be in Christ.  That's leadership."

That's an important word that Hillcrest leaders need to hear.  About a year ago, Ed Stetzer posted an article from Rev! magazine about how to lead churches through necessary change.  "Many times, churches must face the reality of not living up to their God-given potential," he wrote.  "They may need to feel the pain of having children who no longer come to their parents' church or friends and neighbors who want nothing to do with the church.  In a loving way, we may need to help them see that staying the same will not lead to making a Great Commission impact.  Change is not only important but necessary."

But leading a church through change will inevitably mean a sojourn in what Stetzer calls the "Reactive Zone."

"When faced with the reality of needing to change, many established congregations will function in… the Reactive Zone," he wrote.  "People will react to change by adopting the attitude that, 'We don't really need to change.  We just need to work harder at what we are already doing….'  They try to regulate their way out of the situation rather than really dealing with the change process that is needed."

While the biblical objectives of a church should never change, the way in which we fulfill those objectives must always be reviewed.  When the review finds changes that need to be made, however, many people will fall into a Reactive Zone where they insist that the church's effectiveness lies in simply working harder at (or reinstituting) a particular program, schedule, or music style that was in place many years ago.

And the longer a church has been around, the more likely that church will fall into the Reactive Zone when changes are proposed.  Stetzer wrote:

One of the challenges in changing a church is its history.  Not because its history is bad but because it provides an idealized memory of what things once were rather than a path into a future that must be.  And, the more successful a past was, the more likely people want to return to it -- which is why those who were most successful in a past paradigm have the most difficulty transitioning to the next.

When you're leading people who are in this Reactive Zone, "attention needs to be given to developing people's awareness and understanding of the situation, not to strategic plans or organization."  In other words, leaders can't just proceed with program changes without helping their people understand the need for change.  This requires patience, listening, and continual relationship building.

"This is usually not the first instinct of reactive zone leaders in crisis," Stetzer observed, "who often address their own anxiety by coming up with some form of bold plan."

This urgency by church leaders is understandable even if it is misguided.  "As pastors and leaders, we often see the need for change long before those we are leading," Stetzer admitted.  "Remember, as you observe the need for change and spend hours or days at a time contemplating and wrestling with needed changes, the people in your congregation have not had the benefit of all that reflection and thought process that has already gone on in your heart and mind.  Often, it will be helpful for you to 'unpack' change more slowly than you desire to unpack it.  This will give people time to think through the impact of needed changes and adjust."

Bottom Line:  It takes time and trust to move people through the Reactive Zone into much needed changes.  It's a good reminder to all of us who lead.


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