Frozen in Time: The Key to Understanding and Unfreezing Congregations that Refuse to Change

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Pastor Joe leaned forward to confide in me, “I feel so so stuck; I just don’t understand.”

He recounted the previous evenings’ meeting with the board of his church along with the boards of two other small congregations.  He outlined a plan that the district wanted him to enact if possible. He believed the plan showed great promise for all three tiny congregations: merge them and develop an organized outreach into the subdivisions and small communities of the area with a focus on families and children.

Anyone could see that the apart from some kind of new plan, the prognosis for all three of the churches looked, well, downhill. Everyone knew this.

Joe laid out his articulate, detailed plan.

He looked around the room. Blank faces. Dead pan stares. No one spoke. The silence seemed to last an eternity.

Finally, one leader spoke up with a tone of dismay, “That would change everything!”

Another replied, “I don’t see where we have the money.”

A third seemed to sum it up for the group in a matter-of-fact tone, “That’s never going to happen.”

The remainder of the members present nodded slightly in timid yet unanimous agreement.

Pastor Joe sat in my office, still dumbfounded, bewildered and disheartened. How could they see not see that this was a lifeline? The district was throwing them a lifeline and offering support to implement this plan. Yet they seem frozen, blind and stuck.  

You may lead a dynamically growing church. If you do, congratulations. However, many pastors lead established congregations that seem frozen in time.  

Why is it so easy to cling to what we know rather than to stay fluid and find new ways of being, growing, changing as staying relevant as a church?   

Ever wonder why people refuse to let go of even the smallest tradition?

Do you ever feel as though people latch onto the past with a death grip when you’re simply trying to lead them towards a greater vision?  After all what difference does it really make if we change the music up? Or turn a coat rack area into a welcome center?

Here’s the one key that will help you best understand such phenomena: fear.

Fear of: 

  • Loss of security

  • Loss of ties to the past

  • Loss of tradition

  • Loss of role or position which is also tied to identity

All people fear losing what they know, value and hold dear. Potential loss of nostalgic memories, our sense of identity or belonging, meaning and involvement threaten us humans at a very fundamental level.

When people lose control and fall into panic they grip the past like a drowning non-swimmer flails for any rescue.

People have grown up in church; their families led the church. Their time-honored family traditions and memories have become intertwined and interlaced with that congregation and location. 

Many have formed their sense of identity around a particular role or leadership position. It’s not just a role, not just a position. It’s a part of who they are. And they don’t want to lose it!

I realize this may sound like a very simple concept. In fact, it is. However, the emotionally intelligent pastor, the pastor who excels in relational insights, knows this key understanding will make or break their ability to lead change.

Pastor Joe should not feel shocked by the reaction he received. Instead, he must empathize with the fear and anxiety those board members feel. Only then can he construct an approach that will help them unfreeze their stuck positions, loosen their death grips and launch into a better future.

What about you? Have you experienced any situations like the one facing Pastor Joe? How did you respond?


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