Change Leaders Persevere

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Regularly we remind others and ourselves that resurrection never happens until after a death. Yet often in leading a significant change, we panic. When the smooth upward trajectory that we expected does not happen, we may blame ourselves for not being a better leader. We may even abandon the entire project. In graphing change, we tend to draw an arrow or stair steps that move upward in a logical manner to show what we expect to happen. However, secretly we are hoping that the change will come much more easily and rapidly.

When we catch a vision, our tendency is not to prepare for the long haul but to daydream of that miraculous, quick, and easy ascent.

William Bridges, in his book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (De Capo Press, 2009), reminds us that change rarely happens in a straightforward, upward trajectory. Instead, during our journey through change, it can feel like we are tossed all over the grid. It’s as if we bought a ticket for a nice, gentle ski lift ride, but instead discovered ourselves strapped in the lead car of a rollercoaster. During a change process, we experience days that feel like progress, and we have days that feel like regression. In fact, it’s not uncommon that even up to the very last moment before the change occurs, something tragic happens that threatens the entire process. The key for the leader is perseverance. Or as Paul put it, “Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5:3-5)

When Moses led the Israelites on that 40-year journey from slavery to freedom, they did not just experience hope, but they also experienced despair. When the Red Sea parts, when enemies fall, when manna first appears, those are inspiring days. But then the thirsty days, the days of the golden calf, the tediousness of a long, long journey all felt so depressing that many yearned to return to their life as slaves. They even blamed Moses for bringing them to the desert just for them to die. Yet Moses persevered and kept the dream alive.

Another example is the spiritual growth of Peter from obscure fisher to bold mission leader. His growth hardly looks like a smooth upward trajectory. He had some good days of progress such as when he walked on the water and when he saw the transfiguration. Yet, often he stumbled, looking like a totally hopeless case, drowning in the water and weeping with shame after denying his Lord.

Or consider the change journey of God giving us the messiah in Jesus. At Mary’s annunciation, with baby John leaping in his mother’s womb, at the stable with the star and the shepherds, it feels wonderful. Then the slaughtering of the innocents and the flight to Egypt feel devastating. The miracles, the crowds, and the booming voice from heaven feel powerful. But then the arrest, crucifixion, and burial extinguish all dreams. Holy Saturday feels as far away from having a messiah as any other point in history. Clearly, no one suspects that the long awaited moment is only a sunrise away.

The hard job of the leader is to keep hope alive, to keep the vision visible. Too often we give up if a change does not happen within six months, or a year, or two years, or three years. When we catch a vision, our tendency is not to prepare for the long haul but to daydream of that miraculous, quick, and easy ascent. Change did not come that way for Moses, or Peter, or Jesus. Usually, it’s not going to come that way for us.

So loudly proclaim the clarion call of a clear vision, even if it requires major change. Then, buckle down and endure the long, tedious slog. It is not easy for us to keep the vision, and sometimes we slip. Remember that God regularly takes detours and scenic routes. This is usually for our good, though often it is well disguised. Hence, the prophets sometimes look back on the wilderness experience not as a trial, but a honeymoon.


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Ken Owens is lead pastor of Lexington United Methodist Church in Lexington, South Carolina.


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