Dealing with contrarians

Contrarian 1: “I’m not so sure that starting this new ministry is a good idea. It will take a lot of financial and people resources that we don’t have to spare, and we can’t be sure that it will move us forward. Can you give examples of other churches that have tried this and had success?” 

Contrarian 2: “This new ministry isn’t needed. What we’re doing now is perfectly fine. Even if we did try something new, this particular idea is doomed to fail. I’m only thinking of the church when I say I can’t support this initiative.” 

If you’ve spent any time in congregational ministry, you’ve dealt with these two contrarians. Both of them can be very frustrating, especially when it seems so clear to you that change is needed and that there’s a solid plan for said change. There’s an important distinction between these two contrarians, though, and being able to identify and manage it could mean the difference between the congregation getting behind the change or staying mired in complacency.

The first contrarian is a skeptic, a logical thinker. Skeptics are cautious. They can help refine ideas. They can be brought on board to new initiatives with more facts. Skeptics might slow down processes, but their need for details can help churches guard against trying to do all the things. And once skeptics are convinced of a plan’s merit, they can become big cheerleaders and hard workers.

The second contrarian is what John Kotter calls a NoNo. NoNos don’t want change and will never support new ideas. In fact, a NoNo will actively work – loudly or behind the scenes – to undermine any change. When NoNos ask for more details, they are looking for selective facts to support their positions, not information to help them process the proposal. Many a NoNo has killed small-scale changes and ministry action plans coming out of a visioning process.

Last week I wrote about the importance of true urgency, and one of Kotter’s tactics for creating urgency is dealing with NoNos. Kotter says that NoNos will let the air out of congregational urgency if you spend time and energy try to convince them to get behind the coming change. On the other hand, they will gain power if you simply ignore them. Here, then, are some constructive ways to deal with NoNos:

Pray. Pray for the NoNo, for the situation, for discernment, and for your relationship and interactions with the NoNo.

Distract them. Identify their talents and recruit them to ministries (far away from the one they’re trying to kill) in which they can put their skills to good use and feel positive about their contributions.

Use positive peer pressure. Find someone who is a big proponent for the new ministry idea and is respected by the NoNo. Assign this person the task of neutralizing the NoNo’s negativity anytime the NoNo voices it. If this person can use humor gracefully, great! If not, the person can gently remind the NoNo – and more importantly, others who are listening – why the change-in-progress is important for mission fulfillment.

Remove them from leadership. This is really tough to do with volunteers and should only be attempted if the two tactics above don’t work. Sit down with the NoNo and at least one other congregational leader. (You might also want to give your judicatory leader a heads-up in advance.) Express that since all the voices have been heard and all the options have been explored, and the congregation has subsequently decided to move forward with the initiative, it’s essential that lay leaders be focused on how to implement it most effectively. If the NoNo is not willing to be solution-focused, you would be happy to help the NoNo find a different way to use gifts and skills in service to God.

It just takes one NoNo, even one working diligently at the fringes, to bring innovation to a grinding halt and make your vocational life miserable. Don’t let a NoNo keep you and your congregation from living toward God’s vision for your ministry.

Creative Commons image “Arrows” by librarianishish is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

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