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  • Writer's pictureJeffrey Kjellberg

It’s About Your Change Agency NOT Your Tolerance of Change

My wife and I are currently binge watching the Downton Abby series in preparation for watching the recently released movie. It is our second time through the series, so it is a refresher course of sorts. We are currently in Season 5, which in some subtle and not so subtle ways, deals with the disruptions that happened to the culture of England’s monarchy following WW I. Long standing customs and traditions were coming under scrutiny as being outdated and archaic in their purpose and value.

The character that we love the most is Granny. She is the mother of Lord Grantham, who rules over the Downton Abby estate. She is a true loyalist to the Monarchy, loves living the life of nobility and very disturbed by the disregard that is being shown to those most important of traditions and values. In many ways, Granny fights the impending change with severe sarcasm (quite brilliant and funny I might add) and disdain. However, as the season progresses, and the years pass, Granny becomes more cunning in her handling of this historical transformation. She moves from constant sarcasm towards anything new, or different, to eventually saying, “All life is a series of problems which we must try and solve, first one and then the next and then the next, until at last we die.” For Granny, that is quite the move.

This movement wasn’t about her ability to accept change, but about developing her own change agency. We all know change is inevitable. It has been happening since the beginning of the created universe. What’s most important in dealing with change is not our tolerance of it, but our ability to leverage it. I call this our change agency. Our capacity to use change as an opportunity for growing and moving from what is to what can become. Granny’s initial loathing of the changes surrounding her evolved into a more crafty approach that showed wisdom, seeing the moment as opportunity, not loss. Her movement wasn’t from intolerance to tolerance, but from disdain to discovery.

As church leaders face the flood of changes that come from all directions, the critical factor is not in how these leaders accept or tolerate change, but in how they leverage it. Simply accepting change as inevitable doesn’t position you to learn from it, or utilize it for growth or expanded impact. Understanding your own change agency better positions you to take advantage of the moment. It becomes a time to learn, grow, discover and strategize where this change can be helpful and productive to use.

We hear the term “be a change agent” quite often these days. There is a difference between being a change agent and knowing your change agency. A change agent is one who is instrumental in advancing decisions and actions that help bring about a needed change. Change agency is the capacity one brings to the experience of change and utilizing it for a greater good.

There are a few important components to understand about effective change agency. The first is that it isn’t about resistance, or the ability to fix what has happened. If energy is expended trying to prevent the change that is happening the opportunity to learn from it is lost. Instead of attempting preventative measures, which are never successful, change agency looks to see what there is to learn from this change. What is influencing the change? What does it reveal about us? Does it provide a new, or different lens, in how we see or experience the world? If we are free from trying to fix, or prevent, we open ourselves up to a whole wave of possibilities for learning and growing.

The second component of change agency is that it is not formulaic. There is no single way in which one deploys their change agency. Each person is molded in a unique way that brings different capacities and abilities to leverage the changes being faced. That is the beauty of being in community. It truly takes a village to navigate change and utilize the moment for good.

This brings me to what I see as the most significant of changes that church leaders are facing today. That is, the world has become very small and accessible. Gone, and never to return, are the days where a faith community can live in isolation from other ways of thinking, believing and acting. Cultural traditions are getting comingled in nearly every community in this country. Small rural communities for the first time are seeing 10, 20 or even 30 different languages being spoken in their schools. 30 years ago that was unheard of. Street corners are now filled with a variety of worshiping centers, or faith community gathering spaces. And these aren’t just different forms of Christian practice, these are different forms of belief practice. Children have access to the entire universe of knowledge at the touch of a finger. YouTube, Ted Talks, Podcasts, Social Media and all other forms of communication are readily available and full of different ways of thinking, believing, acting and practicing.

For some, this is a call to arms. It must be fixed. We must get back to the way things were, where Christendom informed cultural norms and dictated what was right and wrong. For others, it is a time of great sadness and despair. A time of complete helplessness because the world they have known is coming to an end. However, for some, it is an exciting time of tremendous growth and discovery. It is a time to embrace one’s change agency and leverage the moment for greater things to come.

Instead of trying to be a change agent that gets us back to where we were, it’s time to embrace our change agency that allows us to grow and become even more than what we have been. Cultural, religious and ethnic diversity make our communities more vibrant, expanding our world views and expose us to different ways of seeing and experiencing life. Simply trying to tolerate this change brings little to no opportunity for evolving who we are as people and as faith communities. Bringing into play our change agency suddenly moves us from protecting our turf to exploring new landscapes and how we might become better through the experience.

My encouragement is that church leaders stop trying to change the change, fend off its affects, or learn how to tolerate the times. Instead, embrace your change agency, look to these moments as opportunity. It is time to grow, time to become more, time to see in a new way what is happening and what is to come. This is the beauty of these moments and the gift that change agency can bring.

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