Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Adjusting to Change

Adjusting to Change

I recently read a piece by a learned church growth professor in a noted religious journal that left me more than a little depressed. The writer said that any clergy person trained for ministry before 1980 was ill-equipped to be an effective pastor in a modern day church. If this is true, then I spent the last 18 years of my active ministry ill-equipped for my job. Add a dozen years of retirement to that and I am a real professional dinosaur! If that word gets out, I doubt that any modern day minister will ever invite me to preach again.


While the truth about God is timeless, and the teachings of Jesus have survived relatively unchanged for 2000 years, there may be a modicum of truth in the good professor’s hyperbolic pronouncement that left me depressed.


When I graduated from Candler School of Theology at Emory University at age 25, I realized that while I had a good generalized liberal arts education in college and three years of specialized training in theology and church history, I was lacking in my understanding of the dynamics of the development of the mental and emotional life of people. Since my whole life would be spent trying to help people, I decided to extend my education in the field of psychology and counseling. I spent two years on a graduate degree in clinical psychology at Northwestern University and Garrett School of Theology. I worked one year as Chaplain-Intern at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. I then considered myself ready to take on the role of pastor and counselor in any local church. Truth was, my education was just beginning!


None of the formulas I had learned for "saving" people and families worked alike in all situations. Some did not work at all! I discovered that stereotypical solutions to individual and family problems did not work across the board. I had to make some serious adjustments in my ministry. Tolstoy was right when he said, "Happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". The humorist, Will Rogers, also had it right when he said: "Weddings are all the same, but no two divorces are alike"

The most prominent task of any Christian pastor is preaching the Gospel of Jesus and leading people to apply their teaching to how they live. But there is more. Fifty-nine years of working with people has taught me that the most significant task of the pastor as counselor is to help individuals and families adjust creatively to the inevitable changes that come in life. Most people expect life to stay the same or, at least, to make predictable changes. It never does. Could you have ever predicted that you would be where you are today, doing what you do each day, feeling like you feel or even married to the person you married? Circumstances and age bring changes of which we never dream. We never thought that we would lose that intense feeling of romance that led us to the altar. But reality has taught us that romantic love is like a second-rate hotel where all the luxury is in the lobby. Those who never learn this eventually develop problems best measured on the Richter scale.


There is much truth to the adage that women marry men expecting they will change, and they do not. Men marry women expecting they will not change, and they do. Many couples think that a child will cement their bond of marriage, and it often has the opposite effect. We survive our individual and family problems in direct proportion to our ability to make creative adjustments to inevitable change. It always bothered me when I would successfully assist some person in breaking some neurotic bonds, discover themselves, and begin to grow that it would sometimes disrupt relationships with parents, spouses, or children who could not adjust to those creative changes. No matter how troubled that person may have been, there were always those who wanted them to stay just the way they used to be.


In his book, A World Waiting to be Born, Dr. M. Scott Peck gives an interesting illustration of how and why when one person in a constellation of relationships changes, it requires some change in all other persons involved.


Have you ever had the experience of taking your car in for a minor engine repair only to have the car conk out on the way home from the shop? We usually get upset at the mechanic, but, as a rule, it is not the fault of the mechanic. It is just that the presence of a new part will cause subtle changes in the engine, requiring an adjustment from the older parts. Sometimes the older parts are not able to make those adjustments without breaking down. Can you hear what I’m saying to you?


Successful therapy with one person will sometimes cause a breakdown with connected relationships with others who simply cannot or will not adjust to the change. I could easily offer countless examples of this, but there are too many people out there who would think I was talking about them specifically or that I had been reading their emotional mail.