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Motivating change: In conversation about congregations.

Rev. Peter Coutts is the general presbyter, or congregational consultant, for the Presbytery of Calgary. He is also the author of Choosing Change: How to Motivate Churches to Face the Future. Rev. John-Peter Smit is also a congregational consultant, for the Synod of Central, Northeastern Ontario and Bermuda. The Record met them on Skype to talk about the book.

PETER COUTTS: Two months before I arrived at St. Andrew's, Calgary, they had made a decision to put on a $1.2-million addition. I came ready to run a financial campaign to raise money for this and I quickly discovered that the majority of people in the congregation were not keen on doing the addition even though there were all sorts of good reasons to do it.

And so I spent some time trying to understand the motives of the congregation for not pursuing it and I actually came up with a dozen. Including things like the congregation was in its fourth year of deficit budgets and it was building a larger and larger debt. A lot of the congregation thought, well, if we can't pay our own bills, how can we possibly pay for a mortgage?

I talked to the building committee about this. We decided to take 18 months off from pursuing the building program in order to address the motives of the congregants. And so we got our financial house in order. We paid off the debt, which gave the congregation confidence that, well, we really can raise money if we want to.

And so we addressed almost all those concerns. And at the same time reshaped how we spoke about the need for the building and created more urgency for that. And so, when we brought the issue back a year and a half later, had another congregational meeting, and people were far more enthused and felt far more confident that they could do this. And so it was taking seriously the mind of the congregation in its motives for and against doing the project. They raised $350,000 in short order and put up the building, and paid that off in less than 10 years.

J.P. SMIT: What you're describing is a difference between change that at its worst, could be described as manipulative, and change that ought to be pastoral and holy and really an act of discipleship.

COUTTS: When you begin with people in mind, its talking about what is the experience people have navigating the turbulent waters of change. What do people need as they go through change? And if there are certain things that we know about that, then leadership is about helping people experience that change well. You're still moving towards a goal. But > the emphasis is really different. [H]ow do I help as a leader move these people through that experience? The emphasis is not on the aspiration as much as it is on meeting the needs of people enroute.

SMIT: One of the things that I appreciated so much about your book, Peter, is this sense that it isn't about how do I as a leader get the people to do what I want. It's how do we as those chosen to Christ move towards what Christ has in mind for us in a way that is helpful, in a way that is nurturing and in a way that is ultimately joyful.

COUTTS: A lot of our sense of being a congregation is wrapped up in our identity and a lot of what we do as churches helps to reaffirm and reinforce that identity. So often when you promote the idea of change, [what people hear you say is], 'So you're telling me I was wrong or what we are doing was bad,' and it does become a challenge to identity.

And so you have to kind of re-story, this is the language I use. You have to re-story the congregation so that there's a narrative thread in the congregation's story, i.e. identity so that people can see that the way forward is strongly connected to their past, to their identity.

SMIT: It's not so much that people don't mind change, they just want to keep on doing what they're doing as well. And by the time they're finished doing what they've been doing, they're out of time, money and energy to do anything new. And this comes back to the book--about holding up habits, holding up patterns, holding up things that no longer make sense. Part of the reason that we let those things go is so that we will free up the time and the energy that's needed to explore change.

For a video and extended interview visit
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Title Annotation:interview with Peter Coutts
Author:Faiz, Andrew
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Apr 1, 2014
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