One of the really interesting side discoveries of the research we did as part of the Vibrant Congregations Project is that it's really hard to change alone.
Maybe I should back up a bit to put this more in context.
The Vibrant Congregations Project was a research endeavor generously funded by the Lilly Endowment to help a team from Luther Seminary investigate what contributed to congregational vitality and vibrancy. Partnering with congregations all over the U.S. and Canada, we studied four dimensions of congregational life - stewardship, vocation (connecting faith and daily life), biblical preaching, and biblical fluency (patterns of reading and studying the Bible at church and home). In addition to learning a lot about each of these dimensions of congregational life, we also learned a great deal about the nature of vibrancy and, while we were at it, the nature of change.
One of the things we learned was that it is very hard to change by yourself. Part of this we knew, or at least anticipated, ahead of time. And so when we worked with congregations we asked them to send two-person teams to Luther several times and to surround those two persons with a larger team back at the congregation. We knew from experience that it's very easy to get jazzed up about an idea at a conference or workshop but then to have difficulty translating that excitement into tangible action back home. One person often fails to move a whole group. But when two people go to conference, you already have a group! A small group, to be sure, but a group who can strategize together, encourage each other, even console and inspire each other from time to time. Include three persons in the group and it gets even easier, four all the more so, and so on.
So we knew that. What we didn't anticipate - but found really cool - was that each of these congregational teams profited from having company, from being able to travel this journey of change with other congregational teams along side them. Some of that was immediately evident in the good humor and spirit of camaraderie that quickly animated our group gathering. But we also discovered that this spirit of encouragement and mutual support spilled over into times when the groups were not physically together but rather scattered all over the continent.
Although I could offer several examples, I'll share just this one from our biblical preaching group. The first part of our year-long study with these congregation involved a period of "discovery," when each team would map out the "lay of the land" in its congregation by using surveys and interviews. This meant that when it came to preaching, for instance, we asked via survey and interview questions about the degree to which sermons connected (or didn't) the biblical passage at hand to everyday life. And we asked about whether folks thought about the sermon later in the week. And we asked about how engaged they were by the sermon.
After all the surveys and interview data was collected, collated, and analyzed, we planned to distribute the results to each team - both the individual results of a particular congregation as well as the aggregate data of the whole group of congregations. Much earlier, we'd announced the day we'd send back all the data and analysis - as much to give ourselves a deadline as anything else. Two days before that deadline, emails between these teams started racing across the internet. What we realized - and probably should have known - was that the imminent arrival of all this feedback about preaching - their preaching! - was creating a fair amount of anxiety among our preachers and even their other team members.
In response - and really quite beautifully - the participating preachers reached out to each other and discovered that a) they weren't alone in their anxiety about hearing what their people really thought of their preaching and b) that they could not just face the feedback but learn from it when they remembered that other preachers were participating in the project, too. And, in fact, when we gathered a month or so later we did indeed learn a lot from each other as well as offer encouragement and support.
Change is hard. Changing alone is nearly impossible. It simply creates too much anxiety and invites too much re-imagining of who you are. And so we do better when we try to change together. Charles Duhigg, author of the fantastic The Power of Habit , draws much the same conclusion when he points to the effectiveness of AA meetings. Think about it: folks struggling with addiction find it very, very difficult to change such a powerful habit, but with regular and reliable encouragement, support, and accountability, that massive change is made a little easier.
So if you're contemplating a change - in how you eat or exercise or in how you run meetings at work or even preach a sermon on Sunday - keep in mind that you will benefit immensely if you can find a group of peers who will support you and work at change along side of you. Change is often hard, but it's almost always easier when done together.