“The Messy Art of Leading Change” featuring Mike Bonem

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
“The Messy Art of Leading Change” featuring Mike Bonem

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Podcast Episode 110

How can you lead effectively given the inherent messiness of congregational life? Leadership expert Mike Bonem speaks about the art of leading change, responding to those who resist change, and how leading well depends on having the courage to allow yourself to be changed.

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How can you lead effectively given the inherent messiness of congregational life? In this episode, leadership expert Mike Bonem speaks about the art of leading change, responding to those who resist change, and how leading well depends on having the courage to allow yourself to be changed.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel. I’m a senior consultant with the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary. I’m also one of the editors of Leading Ideas e-newsletter, and I’m so pleased to be the host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. I’m talking today with Mike Bonem who’s a consultant and a coach and an author who’s worked with churches and church leaders for over two decades. Earlier in his career, Mike worked with McKinsey and Company, and he holds an MBA from Harvard Business School. He’s the author of several books. One of his classics, which has been a huge help to me, is Leading from the Second Chair. But his most recent book is The Art of Leading Change: 10 Perspectives on the Messiness of Ministry. And that’s the focus of our time together today, Mike. So, welcome to you.

Mike Bonem: Thanks so much, Ann. I’m pleased to be here. And I really appreciate your work with the podcast and Leading Ideas. I’m looking forward to our conversation.

Ann Michel: Early in your book, you state that “the work of leading change in the church is always messy.” And that’s really the premise of your book. I wanted to give you a chance to elaborate on that theme.

Mike Bonem: Yeah, it is messy. And I think the readers will all immediately identify with that idea because leadership is all about people, and people come into our lives in the church in all sorts of different ways. Some of them are ready for change. Some of them are reluctant to change. Some of them are deeply invested in the work of the church. Some are not. Some are very mature believers. Some are not. They bring all of that and whatever past experiences they may have had with the church into the current context, and that just makes for a pretty messy leadership equation particularly when we’re talking about change. Frankly, there’s not a church in the country right now that is not looking at some sort of change — sometimes dramatic, sometimes small. But we’re all faced with change right now.

Ann Michel: One of the things that struck me, thinking about this issue of the messiness of change, is that you begin with the assumption that leadership is almost inherently messy. But at the same time, you really outline a perspective on change that’s quite thoughtful and deliberate and planned. At some level, that’s struck me as paradoxical because we think of messiness as the antithesis of orderly purposeful change. But I think your book helped me see that something can be both orderly and purposeful and messy at the same time. Do you agree with that?

Mike Bonem: Yeah, I think so. The book does not suggest that we can just eliminate messiness. I’m just trying to give us some tools to make it a bit more orderly, a bit less messy, and to allow leaders to see ways to make progress through the mess. So, yes, I think it can be both.

Ann Michel: Throughout the book you use the metaphor of art — painting and sculpting — and describe how those arts necessarily involve mess, even though they are creative and constructive and follow their own norms in terms of how things happen. I thought that was really helpful to think about how something can be both messy and purposefully directed at the same time.

Mike Bonem: Yeah. One of my favorite art examples relates to sculpting. If you are a sculptor, especially if you are working with any kind of stone, it is inherently messy. You’re chipping away. You’re creating dust. You can’t do that work without ending up at the end of a workday just covered in what you chipped away. And I think that imagery is also instructive for leaders in that there is the potential that we chip away too much. So, knowing exactly when and how to chip away, what to work on, what not to work on, when to step back and say the work is finished, at least for now. I think it’s all instructive from a leadership standpoint.

Ann Michel: One of the other key metaphors in the book is that change is an art and not a science.

Mike Bonem: Exactly. Part of the backstory on that is that the very first book that I had the opportunity to co-author with a couple of friends was Leading Congregational Change. When I had opportunities to speak on the content of that book, I almost always started my presentation by saying I’m going to talk mostly about the “science” of leading change today, which is more about process, and it can give the appearance of being very straightforward and very linear and very clean and nice and neat and orderly. And really my reason for coming back and writing this book on The Art of Leading Change was to just recognize how messy that leadership task is and to step away from some of that “science” and delve into the complexities that are always involved in leading change.

Ann Michel. A lot of the books that I’ve read on church leadership over the years make the point that conflict isn’t necessarily bad but can be generative, that leadership is messy, and that chaos is the medium of creation — at least if you’re God, right? And I’ve also experienced leaders that seem to think that the best way to promote change is to just kind of stir the pot and upset the equilibrium of a system. So, my question is this: Is there a tipping point? A point at which messiness becomes sort of irredeemable or insurmountable rather than being an expected part of the process? I think we’ve all been in situations where a mess is just a mess and not a good thing. Since you’re working with this idea of the inherent messiness of leadership, when does messiness become bad?

Mike Bonem: I think that’s a great observation. Yeah, I agree with the premise that we can go too far and that it can become too messy, that sometimes it is just a mess. The very first of the ten perspectives in the book is about trust. The title of the chapter is “Lead with Trust.” And I think that’s part of the answer to the question you’re asking, Ann. Our ability to lead and even stir things up is highly dependent on how much people trust us or at least our ability to lead well in those situations. And so, someone who just comes in and stirs the pot but doesn’t have that relational capital is very likely to create what is, in your words, an irredeemable mess. You know you look around and people aren’t following. You have a great idea, but you wonder why people are not excited about it. And a lot of times it’s because you haven’t invested in the relational capital or because you’ve drawn down the relational capital too much. Tod Bolsinger, in his book Canoeing the Mountains, says “without trust there is no travel.” And I think that’s a really helpful phrase. If people don’t trust you enough, they’re not going to go on this change journey with you.

Ann Michel: And they’re not going to tolerate mess, right? I think people are willing to tolerate disorder when they believe that it’s purposeful as opposed to just chaotic. Sometimes I’ve used the saying “when the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, sometimes it means that the Spirit of God is at work.” But sometimes, it just means that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. But I do think that sometimes it means that something new is happening. And that can be generative.

There are a couple of chapters in your book that deal with the subject of how to deal with people who oppose or resist change. I think you’ve got some really great advice on that subject, so I wanted to give you the opportunity to speak about that.

Mike Bonem: The title of one of those chapters is “Resisters Are Not the Enemy.” And it was probably this idea, as much as anything, that compelled me to develop all of this into a book.

Our society in general is so polarized. And I deeply believe that the church ought to be an example of how we can act differently, how we can sit in pews and sit in classes and in small groups with people who think differently, and not immediately label them as the enemy. And yet, unfortunately, a lot of those societal trends have crept into the church.

And I think the idea that we need to hang onto, especially in leadership, is that just because someone asks a question about a new idea or maybe even registers some kind of resistance it does not make them our enemy. My experience with churches is that the vast majority of the time when someone is voicing some level of opposition it’s not because they’re an inherently evil person. I mean we’re all fallen. We’re all sinful. But they’re not voicing that opposition because their goal is to tear down the church. They’re voicing that opposition because they really aren’t convinced of the rightness of the idea or maybe sometimes out of fear. Sometimes they’re voicing that opposition because they see something very different than the leader sees it that is important to be considered. But none of those things make them an enemy. If we can really listen to those opposing ideas and embrace the human being behind them, we have a much better chance of forging a great path forward that will include them rather than starting to exclude them and potentially even divide the church in the process.

Ann Michel: Yeah, I sometimes use the motto in my work that when someone is objecting to something or standing in the way of something I’m trying to accomplish, I’ll use the saying “that person has just become my new best friend.” Because rather than try to push them away or vilify them, I need to figure out how to work with that person whose support I need. And I’ve really trained myself to think that way. And it’s really important because otherwise you may vilify somebody who’s essential to what you’re trying to do. And that’s counterproductive.

Mike Bonem: Yeah, I agree.

Ann Michel: You also talk about how leaders can fall into the trap of trying to please everybody. And that’s another perspective to keep in mind when dealing with people who oppose change, as well. Do you want to speak to that?

Mike Bonem: Yeah. It’s two sides of the same coin, isn’t it? I’m well aware, from two decades of work with ministries and ministry leaders, that there seems to be a disproportionate share of people in ministry leadership roles who fall on the side of being “people pleasers” who want to keep everybody happy. And I get that in terms of the kinds of people who are called into ministry and the kind of training they receive. But it’s important to point out the dangers of waiting to get everybody onboard. If we wait to get a 100 percent support for a significant change in a church or a ministry, what we will tend to do is wait an inordinately long time and/or really water down the idea to try to get to a lowest common denominator. And, ultimately, I don’t think that either one of those in many cases is what God would want us to do. It sets us up for a lot of disappointment and very little progress if we wait to get everybody onboard.

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Ann Michel: Yeah, one of the other mottos I use a lot is that “consensus doesn’t require unanimity.” I think there are a lot of people who are paralyzed by the idea that in order to have a consensus around a decision, one hundred percent of the people in the church need to agree with it. And that’s really paralyzing, often, because it’s often an unrealistic idea.

Mike Bonem: In my consulting work, I often have that exact conversation because I’m surprised at how often people equate consensus and unanimity, right? I mean from a dictionary standpoint they do not mean the same thing, and consensus I think bothers some people because it’s sort of a mushy term. It’s not just majority, so what is it? But I also think it’s a great spiritual concept, right? I mean you look at the Council at Jerusalem in Acts, chapter 15; ultimately they say it seemed right to the Holy Spirit and to us to not require the gentile believers to adhere to all of Jewish practices. It doesn’t say it was unanimous. It doesn’t say we took a vote. It says it seems right. And I think that’s a model of consensus really. We didn’t vote. We didn’t necessarily wait for unanimity. But ultimately it seemed right to the Holy Spirit and to us. And that’s a little bit mushy. That is a little bit unclear. What percentage of people is that? Is it a two-thirds supermajority? No, it’s consensus. Right?

Ann Michel: That’s actually one of the things that I teach in some of my leadership classes. How do you drive a consensus? What can a leader do? Because it is mushy. But there are skills that people can use in driving consensus, and I think making clear what the objective is and how to get there is a really helpful tool set.

I want to move on to another subject. As I read your book, I was very aware that underlying your discussion of leading change is a particular model of change that begins with a leader; and then the leader gets the approval of other key leaders; and then they communicate the change more broadly; and they recruit other people to implement the change. In fact, it led me to pull off my bookshelf John Kotter’s book Leading Change because your change process really echoed that to me, and it’s a very classic change theory. It’s a very good change theory. But it also struck me that it’s kind of a top-down model of leadership. It assumes one leader and many followers.

In my experience, at least, a lot of the more significant changes that I have seen happen in churches don’t necessarily start with one key leader. Sometimes change bubbles up in more decentralized, organic, bottom-up ways. I’ve written and thought quite a bit about the subject of how the church might embrace a more decentralized, inclusive, bottom-up understanding of congregational leadership. So, I wanted to give you a chance to speak to that.

Mike Bonem: I appreciate your observation. And what I’m going to say may sound like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, so bear with me. I do think that pastors are in a unique role in their leadership of the church. You know, years ago, George Barna, in one of his books, talked about how many pastors did not have the gift of leadership. So, he proposed letting them use the gifts they have and letting other people lead. And I thought that that was a fairly insufficient and shortsighted observation because people do look to the pastor to provide some significant leadership. Having said that, I do not believe in a kind of “Moses model” of pastor who goes to the mountaintop, hears what God’s vision is, comes down to tell all the people, and expects them to follow. That’s not at all what I’m trying to communicate in the book. So, I do think that pastors spend a lot more time thinking about the issues in the church and have some unique insights about how to lead it.

One of the chapters in the book is titled “Heavy Loads Require Strong Teams,” and that was really geared towards the question of how we have a more collaborative style of leadership that involves the input of other leaders in the church in deciding what the right steps to take are and where we’re headed and that enlists their support in making that happen. So, I do think pastors are in a unique role, but I don’t believe in that purely top-down model of leadership at all.

Ann Michel: I can’t agree with you more that pastors need to be leaders. That’s what we’re all about at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership. But alongside that is an understanding that in a sense everyone is a leader, everyone has some gift to contribute to the work. I think finding a balance between those different leadership perspectives is challenging in part because our cultural models of leadership tend to be so top-down and frankly so is much of our polity, depending on your tradition. It’s just always a question that I think about because I do think change often happens in more organic ways, as well, and that may be part of the messiness of it, too.

I wanted to shift gears a bit and talk about the post-pandemic reality. I know you wrote this book during the pandemic. The pandemic was a great time to write a book. I wrote a book during the pandemic, too. But I wanted to ask you about the experience of the pandemic and this period in which so many churches were really forced to adopt new practices almost overnight. Has that changed your understanding of how change happens in churches?

Mike Bonem: I thought in the first year or so of the pandemic that we were going to have this great opportunity to do some pretty fundamental rethinking of leadership in churches and how we would be church and what that would look like going forward. What I’ve sensed over the last 12 months is that a lot of that energy and creativity around “let’s do things really differently” has been overwhelmed by the concerns about the people who aren’t coming back or what does our budget look like or the people that are coming back just asking us to go back to the way it was before the pandemic. So, my fear is that we’re missing or have missed an opportunity to do some deeper rethinking. We proved that we could be nimble at a tactical level in those first few months of the pandemic. Small churches that I never would have thought could do something online proved that large and small churches adapted in that respect really well. But the deeper kinds of changes that I think would ultimately help them to engage more effectively with their community — thinking differently about how we reach people that are not coming to church, thinking about how do we connect with people for whom the pandemic was really a deep soul-shaking experience but who don’t identify as Christian — I don’t see a lot of churches doing that deeper work right now. And I wish they would.

Ann Michel: Yeah. I share your view that churches have been very quick to try to get back to the “old normal” as opposed to trying to think about what the “new normal” is. I guess really at the heart of the question I asked was this idea of disruptive change. The pandemic probably was a pretty good example of change being initiated by disruption. Perhaps the fact that a pandemic eventually runs its course means that it wasn’t a true disruptor. But I kind of wanted to think about that idea in relation to your ideas. How much real change can happen through disruption, as opposed to the kind of the kind of processes that you’ve outlined?

Mike Bonem: Well, there’s no question that a disruption, whether it’s a global disruption like a pandemic or very localized disruption like something that happens in the community around the church or in the church itself, can be a great catalyst for change. I think what I’m grieving a bit is just what you said. I don’t know when we say the pandemic is officially over, but it’s not disrupting life in the church today the way it was two-and-a-half years ago, certainly. I think, because that disruption is mostly in the past, it’s created this opportunity for people to be asking questions more around “how do we get back to the way it was?” as opposed to “how do we embrace some sort of new normal?”

Ann Michel: But it’s probably not just the church that’s in that place, you know, because I think a lot of organizations are caught in that same mindset. I found the conclusion of your book very compelling where you wrote that the fact that someone can’t really lead change in an organization without the courage to open themselves up to the possibility of being personally changed as well — that corporate change goes hand in hand with personal change. Maybe I’m not summarizing that correctly. But that really rang true to me. And I found it to be a compelling way to end your discussion about change, so I wanted to give you a chance to speak to that.

Mike Bonem: Well, I think you summarized that quite accurately. Actually, that chapter was the start of the book in an earlier draft, but one of the people who reviewed it for me said, “What if you put that at the end?” And obviously that’s where I concluded that it belonged. You know, we can think about all these issues of leading change and congregational change and corporate change, however you want to say it. But ultimately it does come back to our willingness to change ourselves. And it’s a spiritual process. And that’s a big part of what I tried to describe in that chapter, that the change needs to begin with us and that our change needs to be driven by what God is doing in our lives. I just don’t have a theology that says that God works a change in us and then we’re done, right? And even though I’m not United Methodist, I think that’s a pretty Wesleyan concept of sanctification.

Back to your question about top-down leadership, the people in our churches are smart, and if they sense a leader is trying to dictate change from on high but he or she is not willing to change on their own, if they sense that kind of spiritual work is not going on in the life of the leader and that God is not shaping and changing them, they’re going to be much more resistant to whatever change that the leader is proposing. So, I think it’s critically important.

Ann Michel: Yes, it did occur to me that this does relate back to the question of inclusivity in leadership because when you talk about the ways that a leader opens him or herself up to personal change in the process of leading change, it’s through listening to others and really including people on the team who may have different views than they do, and so forth. You’re really talking about some of the collaborative aspects of leadership in thinking about how a leader makes themselves vulnerable and open to others in the process of change, so I really did appreciate that part of the book.

As we wrap this up, often when I talk with people, I ask them how people can get started or for one good piece of advice. So, if a new church leader were coming to you and, based on this book or your other work, if there’s one piece of advice you would give them or one first step they might take, what would it be?

Mike Bonem: I would probably ask a lot more questions before I would give advice, because that’s how I’m trained, right? I do think that the advice is always specific to who the leader is and the context in which they are serving. But having said that, the thing that immediately came to mind for me as you asked that question, Ann, is I would say to schedule some time away. Go to whatever your favorite retreat setting is and, if you don’t have one, find one. Get some time away and spend some time reflecting on your own leadership, listening to God, and getting as much clarity as you can. Some of this goes to that last chapter that we were talking about just a second ago. I think we have to ask the question, “God, what changes do I need to make to be able to lead well? I believe the change journey that I’m talking about in terms of the congregation need to be Spirit-led.

There are a whole lot of us, myself included, who had bought into this idea of just constant busyness, right? My worth is defined by how busy I am. How many times do we have a conversation with somebody and say, “How are you doing?” “I’m great. I’m just so busy right now.” I mean a badge of leadership success is to be incredibly busy, right? And what that means is we don’t have time to listen to God and to let God do the transforming work that God wants to do in our own lives and possibly if you have some real clarity about what the right next steps are for leadership.

Back to your question, I think the one piece of advice I might give to somebody is to spend that time away and then see where God takes you. And then the second is — this goes to your question about collaborative leadership — you start to get some people around you who do not always agree with you but who are at least equally open to where God might be leading the church and who would explore that with you.

Ann Michel: That’s great advice. Mike, I want to thank you for this conversation, for the book because I think it will be tremendously helpful to people, and really for your entire body of work, your other books as well as your other work in the field of church leadership. I’m just so appreciative for your witness and your work. Again, the book is The Art of Leading Change: 10 Perspectives on the Messiness of Ministry. I wish you luck with the launch of this book and appreciate your time today.

Mike Bonem: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed the conversation.

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About Author

Mike Bonem is a facilitator and consultant with Texas Methodist Foundation (TMF). Previously, he was Executive Pastor of West University Baptist Church in Houston. He is the author or coauthor of several books. He recently wrote The Art of Leading Change: Ten Perspectives on the Messiness of Ministry (Fortress Press, 2022), available from the publisher and at Cokesbury and Amazon. He blogs at mikebonem.com.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.