Even as change has become ever-present in our lives and those of our churches during the pandemic, our human struggle adapting to and learning from change persists. In our work consulting with congregations at ConvergenceUS.org, we see this in the conflicts and struggles that have heightened and sometimes exploded as congregations pivot from online to hybrid to in-person worship and back again, as leaders navigate setting safety provisions for gatherings, and as all of us grapple with how this pandemic may change the future of our congregations.
All of us have habits and in congregations those habits add up to a pervasive culture that can be hard to change, even when something big comes along to disrupt them. In my research with churches experiencing transitions, I saw this firsthand. Even in the face of new experiences and new information, the majority of church members simply dismissed or rationalized the change so they could maintain their existing ideas about their church and their faith.
In my new book, Church After: Finding Transformation in Unexpected Change, I take a look at some of the science and research that can help us understand this struggle.
In the field of neuroscience, brain imaging research has demonstrated that strongly-held beliefs are not only difficult to change, but that brain processes actively resist changing them. Parts of the brain that handle reasoning are less active when we are faced with information that challenges our strongly-held positions. We experience an emotional shock, almost as if we are a rat in a science experiment choosing the wrong path in the maze. The most active areas as we take in this challenging information are those dedicated to handling emotions and resolving conflict, followed by activity in the pleasure area when the conflict is believed to be resolved. To sum up – we feel good when we can dismiss conflicting information or make it fit our existing worldview.
In fact, our brains are designed to protect us from danger by flagging anything that conflicts with existing understanding. Organizational consultant Hilary Scarlett has reviewed the research and explains in her book on how organizations change that this alert happens through increased emotional brain activity in the amygdala and decreased rational brain activity in the prefrontal cortex. New information is harder to process than expected experiences which can exhaust our memory and processing, and we pay more attention to negative input than positive, amplifying the disorientation and discomfort of change.
To be clear, evaluating evidence and not changing one’s mind on a big issue is completely ok. Refusing to even engage new information, however, prevents a greater understanding of our world, our life, and our faith.
Our congregations will face change, whether we like it or not. Without some intervention, that change will rarely lead to learning that is healthy and beneficial for the congregation and its members.
The good news is that we can counteract natural change resistance. Researchers have shown the effectiveness of interventions such as making space for critical reflection in community and providing opportunities for rituals and centering practices. These intentional practices can promote change as an important part of any faith journey. In fact, research in the areas of transformational learning and brain science indicates that embodied communal practices have the greatest potential for increasing our capacity for flexible thinking, thus literally changing our minds.
Time for reflection, rituals and practices, embedded and embodied in community — that all sounds a lot like church! For this reason, congregations have great potential for supporting transformation in times of change. Yet such support requires intentionality and thoughtfulness in aligning all areas of congregational life with a positive attitude toward change. It is only when we provide such intentional and thoughtful support that we can ensure that change in our churches creates transformative learning in our members.
For more information and resources on how you can support your congregation during times of change, Church After: Finding Transformation in Unexpected Change is available to purchase on Amazon and anywhere books are sold. You can also access free bonus materials including a free pastor transition quick start and devotional journal on the book webpage: https://www.canemillpress.com/home/churchafter.
About the Author: Anna Hall is an ordained Baptist minister who has coordinated programs and conducted research in churches, nonprofits, and universities. In her work as Director of Research and Development for ConvergenceUS.org, she draws on the latest research from across the fields of religious practice, organizational development, and adult learning to inform product development and implementation that supports the needs of pastors and churches. She holds a Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology, Emory University, a Master of Public Administration from Valdosta State University, and a Ph.D. from the University of Georgia, where her research focused on congregations experiencing a change in pastors.