It is much easier for people to “live their way into a new way thinking” than to “think their way into a new way of living.” Yet church leaders almost invariably ask people to think their way into something new. Instead of asking people to do something new or to change a certain practice, consider suggesting that “we try something for a while.” Instead of simply making a change and hoping no one complains, consider telling people “we are trying this for a time,” and invite their feedback.
Jasmine Smothers, a United Methodist pastor in Georgia, describes how a congregation she served used trial periods when trying new things. “Trial periods allowed everyone involved to be heard, and they fostered an atmosphere of collaborative decision-making.” Her church used 30-60-90- or 100-day trial periods to evaluate the impact of a new idea or ministry. She says it allowed for multiple and dissenting voices to be heard and provided a space in which new people and seasoned leaders engaged. Ideas that previously would have been voted down or created a fight were given an opportunity, with many of them becoming, as she puts it, “wildly successful ministries because we gave them a chance even though we were not sure that it was worth it.”
Molly Phinney Baskette, a United Church of Christ pastor in Massachusetts, reports that her church has many “big, crazy ideas.” One way they give the Holy Spirit a chance to inform their ministry is to “widely socialize” a new idea for a program or change. While socializing the idea and discerning God’s spirit in the matter, they try it for six weeks, six months, or a year, depending on what makes most sense for the ministry. After the trial period, everyone knows there will be an evaluation, necessary changes will be made, or they will stop the effort. “Just the simple act of articulating that every change, ultimately, is temporary,” she says, “does a lot to lower anxiety and grant permission.”
Sometimes a short-term trial can be a non-threatening way to try something before committing to it long term. Trying two worship services during Advent or Lent, for example, should add energy and also give clues as to how such a worship pattern might work all the time. If a different worship time seems attractive, trying it for a distinct season should tell a great deal about the pros and cons of the new time.
You need to be prepared for any experiment not to work, at least not at the present time and in your context. Not every idea, even yours, always works. But another advantage of “trial periods” is that they provide an easy way to move back from such missteps.
The citations come from the following books: Not Safe for Church: The Ten Commandments for Reaching New Generations (Abingdon, 2014) by Jasmine Smothers and F. Douglas Powe, available at Amazon and Cokesbury and Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can, Too, (Pilgrim Press, 2014) by Molly Phinney Baskette, available at Amazon and Cokesbury.
- If Churches Can Change, They Can Grow by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
- Continuity and Change: Two Tunes All Leaders Must Know by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.
- Take the Next Step: Leading Lasting Change in the Church by Lovett H. Weems, Jr.