This article is part of a series on major issues that leaders may encounter in the life cycle of mission networks and partnerships. This article looks at how to manage change in the network or partnership context.


Operational Issues In Partnerships: Change

We live in a fast changing environment. Nothing is static any more. Modern communication methods have drastically changed the way we live and work. Events abroad have lead to a dramatically changed political and economic atmosphere all over the world. Change is simply part of our lives.

Working in partnership also involves change. Just working together in partnership is a different way of going about things. Instead of members putting their own organisation’s needs first, they will need to consider other people’s needs. A member of the partnership may be a leader in his or her own organisation and accustomed to making the decisions. But within the partnership they will not be the final decision maker. Others may have an equal say. The projects or work the partnership engages in may well be in new areas of ministry and this involves change too.

The Facilitator has a key role in helping people make the necessary changes to work effectively together in the partnership. The Facilitator has no authority to impose any change. They can only encourage, enable, and facilitate the change process. Their ability to do this is based on relationship. That is why understanding how people react to change and how to help people through a change process is important to a Facilitator. This very way of working – without any line management or organisational authority – may be a new way of working for the Facilitator too.

Resistance to Change

Some of us by nature like change and find it exciting, while others of us may find change threatening and difficult to embrace. Generally speaking, when any change is introduced about 20 percent of people will view the change positively. They are clear advocates and will embrace the change and encourage others to do so. Another 50 percent sit on the fence. They are not necessarily hostile to the change but will not help the process. They may be trying to decide which way to go and will be influenced by others to move in either direction – positive or negative. The remaining 30 percent are resistant (and perhaps even antagonistic) to the change.

Which group do you think makes the most noise? To whom do you think you need to pay the most attention? It is true that we need to pay attention to the resisters (it is hard to ignore them), but resisters will give you least return on your efforts. Giving them the most attention sometimes reinforces their position.

Where to Focus Your Efforts

We must remember that we can never tell people to change! If people are told to change they will almost always react negatively. That is the case even if the person telling you is your boss! In fact we can never make people change, whatever method we use. We can only encourage other people and try to provide the environment and support they need to see and respond to the change more positively.

It therefore makes more sense, initially, to spend your time trying to influence the fence sitters and to devote generous attention to the 20 percent who are accepting and advocating the change. This way you can influence the undecided in a positive way and support those who are for the change.

Here are several common constraints in the change process, and positive responses a change agent can make:


Traditional, in-built conservatism. Lack of inner drive to innovate or take risks.

Emphasize what is the likely result of NO change.

The claim that what you are suggesting is “wrong” (morally, theologically, spiritually) or simply “won’t work” (practically).

Must be addressed ON THOSE GROUNDS and requires study, research, evidence, expert opinion, etc.

Inability to see the future outcome.

Describe it with clarity.

Sense of personal loss (similar to bereavement).

Let it be expressed – Ezra 3:10-13.

Possibility of actual material loss.

Do you need to provide some form of compensation?

Fear – of making mistakes, looking foolish, losing face etc.

Provide coaching, mentoring, and/or training.

Reaction to a sense of being “driven” (powerlessness).

Involve people affected in the decision-making process.

Four Key Factors

The people most open to innovation and change and those in real need who have nothing to lose. It is difficult for the comfortable to change. The influential and rich have a lot at stake – the spiritually secure have not. So if you are introducing or dealing with major change, you need to be aware that different people view change differently. Here are four factors that can influence how we feel about and react to change:

1. The speed of change

Move too fast and you have crisis, because neither the individuals nor the organisation can cope with the stresses involved. In the story of the Exodus, change was extremely fast. One day the Children of Israel were slaves, the next day they were free. But they had not learned how to act as free men and women. At the first sign of difficulty they were thrown into confusion as they faced the Red Sea – with the Egyptian army at their heels! When you are promoting change, do not be afraid of moving slowly! Although there are times when you’ve got to make changes quickly – as with Moses and the Israelites!

2. Our past experience of change

Those organisations that have been open to change for a number of years will find change easier to embrace change, while those for whom change is a new concept may struggle. After 40 years in the desert, the Israelites were ready for anything. When they left Egypt, the thought of going to war created one of the greatest crises of Moses’ leadership. Forty years on, they were ready to attack Jericho – possibly the most fortified and dangerous of the cities in the Promised Land! Time is needed to get used to the idea of change – so don’t necessarily abandon the idea of change – let people get used to the idea! How has your past experience of change, both positive and negative, influenced the way you regard and respond to change now?

3. How much control we have over the change

The more people can be involved in the speed, direction and content of the change, the more likely they will be to accept the change. Give as much control as possible to the people involved. That helps them to respond more positively to change. Sometimes change is imposed by factors beyond our control or, for other reasons, we cannot give the other people involved control over the change. However the important factor is to get them involved and participating in the change process as far as you can. The more people are involved, the more they will be committed to the outcome of the change.

4. How well people are kept informed about the change

People are more likely to be able to cope with change if they are kept informed. Throughout the wilderness journey the children of Israel had to be kept informed and reminded of their progress. They needed the perspective of the past – and of the future – in order to be able to cope with the changes they were facing each day.
Remember the three Cs of successful change: Communicate! Communicate! Communicate!

Different Help at Different Stages

People need different forms of help at different stages of a change process. A common mistake is to give help at the wrong stage or in the wrong way and then wonder why things do not work. Helping people move through change is rather like getting a car to move forward. A car is sitting at rest, engine idling, with the brakes on. How do you get it to move? Put it into gear, remove the brake, press the accelerator, and steer. If you only remove the brake, it may move but be out of control, move too quickly or slowly, and have no direction. This could result in a disaster. If you put it in gear, accelerate and steer, but leave the brakes on, it will move with difficulty and much resistance but also do a great deal of damage to the car. Similarly, when we help people through change, if we ignore an important component in
moving through change we can cause a considerable amount of damage.

Five Key Questions

Different kinds of change naturally raise different kinds of questions, whether that is introducing new structures or procedures, re-ordering the inside of a church building, introducing new software into the office, or proposing to work in partnership with other churches and ministries. Regardless of the kind of change at hand, there are five common questions people frequently ask:

  1. What’s wrong with the way we’re doing it now?
  2. What new effort will it require of me?
  3. Will I be able to cope?
  4. What will it cost me? (Not just money)
  5. If we don’t like it, can we go back to what we had before?

As a Facilitator, you need to be aware that these five questions will be in people’s minds in the Partnership and will need to be addressed to help them forward. The more you can help people discover the answers to these questions the more likely they are to embrace the change. The answer they get may not be what they want to hear and you may have to return to the questions time and again before some people are ready to move forward.

If possible change should be presented as:

  1. Producing more or better for less;
  2. Not too difficult to come to terms with; and
  3. Not in conflict with existing culture & preference.

People will be less resistant to change if they are part of the decision – through discussion, consultation, public meeting, voting, etc. – even if they do not agree. When promoting change, it is important to make a clear distinction between the Ends (i.e. what the change is designed to achieve) and the Means (i.e. the steps needed to achieve the change). The Destination may not be negotiable, but the Route almost certainly is.