The senior minister of a large church asserted that the most trying, heated conflict he had experienced in more than two decades as that church's pastor was about changing the light fixtures in the sanctuary.

That large, vital congregation was not known to be quarrelsome. It was comprised of people considerably above average in educational background, breadth of experience, and economic status who often relied on their outstanding staff and lay leadership in decision making. However, they would not allow changes in their traditional décor.

Pope, in his Essay on Criticism, wrote: Be not the first by whom the new are tried. Nor yet the last to lay the old aside.

In your church you will likely have those who seem determined to be the last to lay the old aside. On the other hand, there may be some who, although not avant-garde, are out front in their willingness to change when they feel change is for the better. The issue at which these two groups find themselves at odds may be no more crucial than moving a picture on the wall of the narthex or slightly altering the order of worship; yet such trivia may produce serious discord and strife and may even result in alienation and schism if left unchecked.

Difficult Changes

To be sure, some changes are extremely difficult to bring about in almost any setting. Church leaders should be conscious of the magnitude and ramifications of such changes before attempting them, however essential and justified they may be.

Moving a church from one location to another. Many members will be attached to the old building and site, regardless of the rationale for moving. Memorials, stained-glass windows, and other objects about which people are particularly sentimental only compound the problem. Members sentimentally attached to an edifice have been known to stick with the building even though their own congregation had moved out and a congregation affiliated with a radically different denomination had occupied the old building.

Merging with another congregation. A merger is difficult to accomplish even if it involves two congregations of the same denomination; it is particularly intricate and exacting if congregations of different denominations are considering union. Mergers may involve radical changes in name, location, building, organizational structure, leadership, and program.

A building program. Any building program by a congregation requires consummate management skill to avoid disruptive conflicts. The decision to build, the method of financing, the choice of the architect and the architecture, the letting of contracts, and the selection of furnishings and colors are just some of the decisions that may cause serious problems if not handled skillfully.

Redecorating or refurbishing the sanctuary. Redecorating an existing sanctuary may pose as many problems as building a new church. The acceptance of a change in the color of the walls may be trying enough, but the rearrangement of chancel furniture or changes in the pews can be traumatic for many.

One church changed the color of the walls in spite of strenuous objections; later when they changed the walls back to the original color, the same people objected again. Such objectors may simply find it difficult to accept change in almost any form.

Displacing a volunteer who has served in one spot for many years. Removing from office a volunteer of long standing can be a perilous action. The worker may be a greeter, a Sunday school superintendent, or a Sunday school teacher. One dare not assume that a volunteer worker, particularly of long tenure, wants to be replaced, even if she or he volunteers to step aside.

Changing the schedule of the worship services or the Sunday school hour. Any change in the Sunday morning schedule will prove disruptive for some. One proposed change may be advantageous for parents and disadvantageous for couples without children, or vice versa. Another proposed change may be attractive for those interested only in worship on Sunday morning. Some families may prefer Sunday school and worship scheduled simultaneously so that the parents can be in church while their children are in Sunday school, but others may find such a schedule objectionable because the parents want to attend Sunday school as well as worship, and they want their children to do both.

Revising the liturgy of the worship service. People grow accustomed to an order of worship. One church in my city hasn't made a perceptible change in its liturgy for twenty-five years. Another congregation, seeking to "get with it" a few years ago, decided to overhaul its order of worship to achieve freshness and make it more appealing, but after a short time it went back to the old way because the congregation felt uncomfortable with the changes. Innovative happenings can make worship more exciting. Nevertheless, worshipers tend to feel more secure when surrounded by the familiar, and changes in liturgy are usually hard to bring about without unrest and strenuous opposition.

Replacing any items that have been given by particular families in the church. Items such as an organ, piano, cross, picture, communion trays, or paraments are difficult to replace without destructive conflict if they have been donated by particular church members or families, even if replacement is badly needed. The donors, their families, and their friends are likely to oppose any change that would replace any article with which they are historically or emotionally identified.

The list could be almost endless, but the above changes are among those most difficult to make. I list them not to discourage you from seeking change if change is needed, but to emphasize how difficult such changes are to bring about. If you try, do it with your eyes wide open and with every skill you can command.

Here are several things you can do that might help facilitate change:

Know the Local Tradition

Whenever a new minister is called to a pulpit, traditions are inevitably upset. Even if the new minister resolves to make no changes in the church for some time, members may sense the uprooting of tradition because the new leader differs from previous ministers. For this reason it is vitally important for a minister to be informed about his or her predecessors.

A minister may find out what style of leadership has been embraced and employed in the church. Did any predecessors have a personality cult, relying largely upon charisma and charm? Were they guardians of traditions and preservers of the status quo? Were they autocratic, insistent upon calling the signals and "running" the church? Did they involve staff and laypeople in the decision-making process?

Of course a new minister can give too much attention to a church's history. One should not evaluate people on the basis of how they related to previous ministers. The vigorous opponents of one minister may be staunch supporters of another. The peripheral members of one administration may become a part of the church's nucleus under different leadership. One should never allow oneself to be victimized into inaction by old feuds, old scars, and old problems.

Because traditions are difficult to break without stubborn resistance and travail, ministers and laypersons are sometimes attracted to embryonic congregations in order to avoid the idolatry of sacred cows and the stifling words "We've never done it that way before." It is true that starting from scratch can more likely satisfy the itch of pioneer spirits to be daring and innovative. But even though churches with virtually no history are not as bound by the past as old ones, the new churches are far from entirely free from the restraints of tradition. Members can bring prejudices and traditions into the newly created fellowship. Some will want to do it the way it was done in their old home church, however inept that church may have been.

Evaluate the Congregation

Make the church aware through an educational process that other churches do it differently (if this is the case) and that a change, therefore, would not be as radical as some might surmise. To accomplish this, one might survey other churches by means of a questionnaire. Or one might suggest that members visit other churches to see for themselves how well new approaches have worked. The educational approach will not work in every instance. Sometimes the reluctance to change has such an emotional basis that members will not even be open to an educational process. Nevertheless, it can prove helpful in some circumstances or in concert with other strategies.

Change in Stages

If possible, make the change slowly or on a temporary basis at first. For example, if a church has been accustomed to having business suits in the pulpit, and the new minister prefers to wear a robe, the minister is likely to provoke substantial opposition if he or she simply begins wearing a robe at each worship service. However, if the minister begins wearing a robe at weddings and funerals held in the church's chapel, and then wears it in the sanctuary only at the worship service on Higher Education Sunday, the changes may produce little opposition or controversy. The minister may be able to make the transition so gradually that the congregation is scarcely aware. Business firms under new management often use such a strategy. The old name of the firm gets smaller and smaller as time passes while the new name looms ever larger. The public may be scarcely aware that a change in ownership and name is being made until it is a fait accompli. By then the public may have thoroughly accepted the new name.

Cultivate the Traditionalists

Be sure to give special attention to those whose egos are wrapped up in the status quo or who are particularly resistant to change. If your church has an old organ that needs to be replaced, don't assume that the donation of a new organ by some generous family or group will cause all the faithful to rise and sing the doxology as one. Some may be offended, even if changing from a small electronic organ to a four-manual pipe organ. They would be offended because they gave some or all of the money that bought the old organ in honor of their late husband.

If someone in your church wants to give a large sum of money for a cross to be designed by an outstanding artist to replace a wooden cross made by a retired carpenter, don't assume that the congregation will welcome that change. The retired carpenter may be much beloved, and many may have grown accustomed to the simplicity and starkness of that wooden cross.

A thoughtful visit may cause those who would otherwise oppose a change to be cooperative and supportive because their feelings were considered and heard prior to a decision. At the least such a visit may prevent their vigorous opposition; it may even elicit their enthusiastic support by involving them in the process for change.

If those who are likely to object to a change are persuaded in advance of the vote to support it, who then will block or oppose the change?

A minister became convinced that additional educational space was essential to the continued growth of the church he was serving. He felt that the congregation would for the most part enthusiastically support the program. He could think of only two board members who would be likely to oppose the building project. He did not foresee their opposition as hard-line or intransigent, but he did believe that the immediate reaction of these two conservatives in board meeting, when the building committee made its report, would be "I'm against it; we can't afford it. "

The minister decided to call on the two men to brief them on developments to that point. The two viewed the plans with keen interest. When the board meeting was held to vote on the question of erecting additional educational space, these two men vied for the floor to make a motion to approve the building project.

The longer a church goes without making any changes in policy, program, facilities, accouterments, or tradition, the more difficult it is to make changes. It's like creasing a hat. When a hat is relatively new, it is easy to change the location of the crease, but after that crease has been in place for months, it is difficult to create a new one.

If you are in a church that has not been innovative, concentrate at first on changes that are least likely to provoke heated opposition. Don't make changes just for change's sake, but recognize that the more you are able to change, the more you are likely to be able to change.