When people change

Duane KeldermanTransitions—All Things Made New

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Deep change is difficult. That’s why it’s fascinating to explore what motivates change, what pushes people to finally take the plunge.
The best literature indicates five factors that are usually present in deep change.

1. The status quo isn’t working anymore.
Things have to be pretty bad for people to embrace deep change. For starters, change is scary, and people (individuals and organizations) prefer the known to the unknown. Change also involves loss, and loss is painful. Put another way, change upsets our equilibrium. Even if one’s equilibrium is dysfunctional and makes everyone miserable, including the person resisting change, it’s still equilibrium. People cling to what they know.

Does this mean that leaders only can stand by and wait for things to get worse before people or organizations finally change? On bad days, some leaders might say yes. But effective leaders seek to create a sense of urgency about change before things actually come crashing down. However, leaders must do this carefully to avoid manipulation that undermines trust.

2. I get a vision of a better future.
Change is more likely to happen when I see new possibilities, a better way. I gain hope. I believe life can be better.

My brother was addicted to prescription pain medication for thirty years. Four years ago he took his last narcotic for pain. He called me on a Sunday morning to tell me about a post he received from the leader of an online support group for people with his (rare) type of pain. He said, “Finally someone understands my pain. And she believes I can have a better life. And for the first time, I believe I can have a better life, too.” My brother had gained hope. He believed a better future was possible.

3. An emotional relationship is formed.
There usually is a relational, social dimension to change. In my brother’s case, it was the leader of that support group. It may be Bishop Tutu who inspires you to change, a caring counselor, or a trusted friend.

A dynamic theory of change says that I am much more likely to risk even small steps of change if I feel unconditionally accepted and understood and safe—the key dynamic, of course, in all support groups. The apostle John says, “Perfect love casts out fear.”

This has huge implications for how leaders lead. One of Martin Luther King’s famous lines was, “Those whom you would change, you must first love.” People are not bludgeoned or made to feel guilty or manipulated into deep change. They are loved into it. Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Life Together says that one of the biggest destroyers of the community of the church is leaders who love their own wish dream for the church more than they love the church. “Those whom we would change, we must first love.”

4. The first steps of change are clear.
We begin to change when we actually start doing something differently. There is more and more consensus that we practice our way into change more than we think our way into change.

I broke my ankle six months ago. My insurance company delivered me into the hands of a nutritionist who tried to terrorize me into eating a more balanced diet–even though my calcium levels are perfect. She warned me that if I didn’t eat more fruit and vegetables, in twenty years, I will be three inches tall, a mere pile of bone dust . . . or worse. Her attempts to create a sense of urgency failed.

My wife responded with a better approach, a behavioral approach. “Duane, the only thing you drink is coffee, but you like water. Why don’t you start by drinking three big glasses of water a day, then six? Then add one thing to your diet that you like and that’s actually good for you.” I like that approach better. And I’m drinking more water today.

We usually behave our way into change more than we think our way into change.

In worship most people don’t like new songs and new worship practices right away. They practice new ways, and in time something changes inside.

5. I reframe my situation.
The cognitive dimension to change is the final phase, and it occurs when something changes in the way we frame our situation. After years of behavior change, rehabilitated criminals unwittingly replace a framework of determinism with a framework of choice. (I can make better decisions that determine my destiny.) They replace a framework of self-destruction with a framework of self-respect and self-control. After years of failure with labor, an auto manufacturer reframes its picture of employees. Instead of believing all people are basically lazy, dishonest, and must be bribed to work, it came to believe that people basically like to work if they feel respected, appreciated, and included in the decision-making.

These are changes in the way we frame life situations that make all the difference in sustaining significant change.

God and the Holy Spirit in change
What is the role of God and the Holy Spirit in change? To be sure, God is sovereign and can effect deep change whenever and wherever God chooses. The wind blows where it will. And God doesn’t need anyone’s five steps to change a person or organization.

But, fortunately, we don’t have to choose between an exclusively spiritual explanation of change and the more descriptive view of change I’ve offered in this brief article. My brother’s transformation four years ago was totally, I believe, a gift of God’s grace, empowered by the Holy Spirit. And these five factors were all present in his change. As with most things, it’s not either or. It’s both and.

This quote from John Maxwell doesn’t exactly line up with these five elements, but it’s close and pithy. And I think it’s particularly apt for Christians who understand the Spirit’s work in change: “People change when they hurt enough that they have to change; learn enough that they want to change; receive enough that they are able to change.”

Duane Kelderman serves as interim pastor at Faith Christian Reformed Church in Holland, MI, and independent consultant. From 2001 to 2011, Duane served as vice president for administration and associate professor of preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary. A native of Oskaloosa, IA, Duane graduated from Calvin College in 1973 and Calvin Theological Seminary in 1977. Over the next 24 years, Duane served three congregations: Community CRC in Lambertville, MI; Ridgeview Hills CRC in Denver, CO; and Neland Avenue CRC in Grand Rapids, MI. In 1990, Duane earned the Doctor of Ministry degree from Denver Seminary.