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Leading Change, and Continuity Too

Leading Change, and Continuity Too

Changes are inevitable. Some things never change. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr refers to that reality in his famous Serenity Prayer in its petition that God would grant “the serenity to change the things I can, accept the things I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That particular serenity comes in mighty handy to leaders who face the challenge of generating change in their institutions.

I recently had lunch with a pastor who faces a turn-around church situation. He asked me a series of questions about my experience as a pastor and college president, and I enjoyed the opportunity to reflect on change leadership as I have experienced it. Perhaps some of what I told him might be worth putting in writing.

First, I said that change always hinges on the communication of vision. If people have not bought into the vision that makes the change favorable, justifiable, and logical, they will not do the hard work that change requires. People have to want to do the hard things required by the envisioned future more than they want to continue in the easy and well-worn patterns of the past. That requires great communication of vision! People not only have to believe in the vision, they have to believe that the changes a leader proposes will actually achieve the foreseen future. 

Most people are not natural visionaries. They need leaders to show them the future in advance, convince them of the benefits of that future, and teach them the new behaviors that will change the preferred future into a vibrant reality. As they gain faith in the new future, leaders must marshal them into visionary teams, with all of the dignity and worth and power that visionary status confers. Once they have become visionaries along with the leader, they will embrace the hard work of change.

As I continued to pontificate—a bad habit, I know—I explained that no one can embrace a world of total change. It costs too much.  Continuity must be part of any change program. As the prayer says, we change the things we can, but there are things that will never change. Yet a third category carries equal importance: things that could change but should not change. People join institutions—whether churches, colleges, voluntary organizations, service clubs, foundations, even businesses—because they believe in their values and goals. Often, members or employees have spent decades supporting the organization with gifts of money or labor or creativity or other forms of support. Although loving an organization necessarily implies emotional dangers (since institutions cannot love in return), people take the risk of investing love in their participation. They need to know that the beloved things they have valued and sacrificed for will continue into the future.

Leaders should create or preserve language that is constantly repeated in an institution’s life and work—things like mission statements, vision statements, institutional stories and lore, stock phrases, slogans, liturgies (both sacred and secular), and regular sayings (as in “like the boss always says, ….” One of the things I always say is “Northwest University is a college with the soul of a church.”  I also frequently say, “Northwest University will become a great 21st Century University when it is located at the intersection of liberal arts avenue, technology street, and spiritual way.” I am always reciting our mission statement and particular phrases from it. Such language should always be present when changes are discussed. It provides security and comfort in the midst of the challenges and even threats that change initiatives imply.

In summary, when communicating changes to churches or businesses or other institutions, leaders do well to remember that along with the communication of change, followers also need to hear—over and over again—about the core things that have not changed and will never change.