Dynamics of Change: Paradigm Shifts

It isn’t only individuals that have a hard time with change; congregations have their hard times, too. Any institution develops systems and patterns of behavior that seem to endure even as the individuals within the organization change. Roles are created and filled, and both written and unwritten rules are created for how those roles are carried out, regardless of who fills them. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and the congregation itself develops an emotional component. It tends toward stability and balance, and a sense that “we’ve always done it this way.”

The "doing it this way” is the current paradigm of the congregational system. Paradigms have their own rules and regulations, mostly unwritten, and they shape and form the way we view the world and what is possible. Often the paradigm itself limits or shades what we can see; if something doesn’t fit within our understanding of the world, we often can’t see it at all, or we discard it out of hand. Just like we say that fish can’t “see” the water they swim in, institutions can’t see the “water” they live in, either. Yet the individuals in the institutions can feel the anxiety rise as the unwritten assumptions are challenged. People, often unconsciously, act to reduce the anxiety and attempt to bring the system back into balance by restoring the old, familiar ways. This resistance is always encountered when changing any paradigm.

William Chris Hobgood, in his book Welcoming Resistance: a Path to Faithful Ministry, outlines seven stages of resistance to changing a paradigm that are helpful to know as you work through the process of change within your congregation:

  1. Maintaining. People act in their “ordinary” ways to keep the system the same.
  2. Reinforcing. People take deliberate interventions to maintain the system (the congregation) as it has been.
  3. Adapting. People halfheartedly cooperate with change, but there is not yet an internal valuing of the changes.
  4. Re-visioning. People start to look again, and they get fixed on the vision. They may need other people to become involved at this point to carry on the change.
  5. Retooling. People start looking for tools for the new processes and system, and they gain the ability to be accountable toward the change.
  6. Restructuring. People begin to change, and they begin to see differently as new structures or ways of behaving appear more clearly.
  7. Transforming. People finally “get it” and move to the new place, embracing the changes in the system.

Educating people and reminding them of these stages can be a helpful tool; recognizing where you are on the journey is often part of the battle. It helps people realize that others have been there before, and that they can get through it.

Of course, stage theories are rarely purely linear, and also that at any point, individuals within the congregation may be at different stages of resistance. Using this material as a guideline, though, will help at least the leaders know that they are on the path.

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UUA Congregational Life Staff Group

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Blue and Green Fractal Spirals


A set of rules and regulations, written or unwritten, that establishes or defines conceptual and behavioral boundaries and that tells one how to behave inside the boundaries in order to be successful. Adam Smith, in Powers of the Mind, states that a paradigm is “a shared set of assumptions. The paradigm is the way we perceive the world; water to the fish. The paradigm explains the world to us and helps us to predict its behavior.” (quoted in Paradigms: the Business of Discovering the Future, by Joel Arthur Baker, page 31).