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Navigate Change & Complexity

A Hybrid Approach to Navigating Change & Complexity

Change is ever-present. Church leaders in the U.S. face rapidly shifting contexts, issues, and complexities that can complicate their ability to navigate major change. Mass shootings have reached a critical high. Natural disasters have devastated communities. Political divides widen. Social media interrupts how people interact. Social injustices continue to impede progress.  Global tensions escalate. Expanding threats and acts of terrorism pervade. Various social movements have erupted. Are church leaders able to continuously process these changes in a dynamic way? Or is too overwhelming? Church leaders need a multi-faceted approach to deal with it all.
Church leaders must use a hybrid approach when navigating major change and complexity in their communities. Too often leaders rely solely on the traditional framework or planned approach. Make a plan and follow it. However, many plans fail.

A more dynamic hybrid approach to leading through change positions the church to provide better solutions to real needs and to deal with the various tensions in a healthier way.

Apostle Paul was masterful in advancing the Gospel of Jesus Christ in his areas of influence while considering differing views and perspectives to navigate change in the world around him. And church leaders must do the same. This hybrid approach can involve two or more of the following change approaches: (1) planned, (2) adaptive, (3) cultural, (4) life cycle, and (5) dialectical (Kezar 2001, 2014).[1]

Planned Approach

navigate changeThis “step-by-step” approach is generally structured, rational, and linear. Change occurs due to the involvement of leaders and change agents who see the need to change. Change is largely directed and guided.
Leaders use a popular tool like strategic planning to navigate change. The process is a logical approach, and a written document is generally created as a roadmap to capture the strategic work.  This framework tends to omit critical people and external environmental factors that influence the process of change. Too often, leaders stop here at “the plan” while missing the core issues that may be subtle or submerged in organizational life and the surrounding environment.

Adaptive Approach

This “strategy as emergent” approach tends to be unpredictable, dynamic and continuous. There are unforeseen events, disruptions, breakdowns, and opportunities that impact the course of action. Change is undirected and flexible.
Leaders suspend assumptions, control, and the desire to direct the change to a pre-determined outcome. They engage in organic strategy development, observation of the external environment, and organizational system analysis. This approach is more difficult to measure and assess in organizations.
The 2017 Hurricane Season was one of the most devastating seasons on record (Bellies, 2017).[2] Hurricane Harvey was a good example of how churches adapted to the needs of others in crises. Churches responded to the needs of people needing housing and support during evacuations.
Planned and adaptive approaches are listed first because they represent the greatest contrast in assumptions and change processes. The other four change approaches address the strengths and inadequacies of the planned and adaptive approaches.

Cultural Approach

This “iceberg” approach tends to be nonlinear, irrational, erratic, dynamic, and largely unmanageable.  Some aspects of the organizational culture like shared values and goals are visible, above the surface while most aspects like perceptions, unwritten rules and norms are not easily seen, hidden below the surface.
Leaders use cultural assessments to better understand their iceberg. Leaders examine the attitudes, behaviors, assumptions, and patterns that are embedded within the organizational fabric and can enhance and/or damage the progress towards change. This approach addresses deeper assumptions that may be more unconscious in the organizational life.

Life Cycle Approach

navigate change life cycleThis “natural progression” approach is a rational, linear approach to change. This approach can be considered a systematic change process that involves various developmental activities throughout the different organizational phases of birth, growth, maturity, renewal, and decline. Change is evaluated from stage to stage.
Leaders are responsible for people development activities in order to bring people along to organizational maturity. Determining when to add a new staff member, start a new ministry, open a new campus, start a community center, or launch a new church plant may follow specific guidelines based on organizational life cycles. The life cycle approach shows how change occurs when individuals within the organization adapt to the natural progression of the organizational life cycles.

Dialectical Approach

This “colliding forces” approach is erratic and unplanned. Entities go through long periods of evolutionary change and experience short periods of revolutionary change when there is a stalemate between two opposing perspectives. The two perspectives are forces that are constantly interacting and influencing one another until there is a breakthrough. All Lives Matter vs. Black Lives Matter movements, as well as the #MeToo movement, are current examples of the colliding forces. This change process tends to examine how a dominant paradigm or culture shapes organizational processes and attempts to maintain its status of power and privilege.
Leaders examine a situation completely and logically from two different points of view. They also critically evaluate power structures, tensions, privilege, and marginalization of people groups for various reasons due to various situations. They use practices like social interaction, bargaining, networking, consciousness building, persuasion, and social movements with collective action. This approach is the one approach largely missing in how church leaders navigate change.

When facing a major change, consider asking these 5 questions:

  1. Planned: What are the critical strategic steps needed to steward this change effectively?
  2. Adaptive: In what ways are we open to emerging possibilities?
  3. Cultural: How does this change influence the cultural fabric of our church?
  4. Life Cycle: How will this change impact our phase of development?
  5. Dialectical: Do we know and understand the different majority and minority points of view? Is there a voice that we haven’t heard yet that will be key?

With the major changes we face, we have an opportunity to be better positioned to navigate through those changes in our communities and churches. And we know for certain that we possess this great hope for the world. In an ever-shifting cultural climate, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8).


[1] Kezar, A. J. (2014). How colleges change: Understanding, leading, and enacting change. New York: Routledge
[2] Bellies, J. (2017). 2017 Atlanta Hurricane Season Recap: 17 Moments We’ll Never Forget. Retrieved from
**Note: The 5 change approaches were adapted from Adrienna Kezar’s change typology in higher education.
Kezar, Adrianna. (2001). Understanding and Facilitating Organizational Change in the 21st Century: Recent Research and Conceptualizations. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, Volume 28, Number 4. Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education Series. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report. 28.
You can read more from Zarat Boyd’s dissertation research on examined experiences in church planting from a leadership & organizational perspective.