The Cycle of Change in Church Renewal

Written by Bill Whitt
May 2, 2023

The process of growth and change most often looks like a "J-Curve". Here are five implications of the J-Curve that relate to church renewal.

In an ideal world, when we graph attendance, giving, and engagement, it would create a straight line that goes up and to the right. However, we rarely see results like that in the real world. More often, we see predictable seasons of peaks and valleys as we navigate change.

  • To be precise, the process of growth and change most often looks like a “J-Curve.” It is called that because the graph looks like a capital letter “J.” The curve starts mid-way up the Y-axis. Its first move is not upward but downward. After the dip finally bottoms out, it then rises to a level above where it started. This phenomenon is predictable and has been well documented over decades in numerous fields.

Knowing the predictable pattern of change is very useful in church renewal too. Because improvement requires change, church renewal leaders must be skilled at navigating change. We need to know its predictable patterns in order to help people through those stages.

  • Various words have been added to the J-Curve to illustrate it. In their book, Illuminate, Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez used the words dream, leap, fight, climb, arrive, and re-dream.
  • Today, I want to lean on the work of psychologists Don Kelley and Darrell Conner, who use descriptors that focus on the emotional reaction of people to change: uninformed optimism, informed pessimism, valley of despair, informed optimism, and success and fulfillment.
Five Implications of the J-Curve of Change:
Stage 1: Uninformed optimism
  • Change starts with a dream for a better future. Excitement begins to spread. Because the group is not yet experiencing any pitfalls or setbacks, this is sometimes called a honeymoon phase.
  • This is the time to remind people that things will probably get worse before they get better. If they know what to expect, they will be more likely to stick with it!
Stage 2: Informed Pessimism
  • People have left their comfort zones and are now beginning to feel just how uncomfortable change can be. Frustration and fear may set in as people begin to experience how hard the journey will be.
  • As a leader, this is the time to encourage your people and to coach them through the process of learning new skills and new ways of ministry.
Stage 3: Valley of Despair
  • People often feel despair and hopelessness at this point in the journey. The new way of doing things is not working as well as the old way, and the temptation to turn back is strong.
  • This is the most critical juncture. As a leader, it will feel easier to simply go back to the past, where people feel safe and happy. The pull will be strong, as people tend to glamorize the past and see it more clarity there than the murky future. Your job as a leader is to make them feel safe enough risk aiming for something even better than the past. You must also show them that simply maintaining the status quo isn’t really safe at all.
Stage 4: Informed Optimism
  • For those who do not give up, small wins begin to accumulate. The team starts believing that success may be possible after all. Many people will begin to truly embrace the change at this point.
  • This is the time for leaders to focus on the positives and to rally the team to push through to the end. Don’t lose momentum, but keep going!
Stage 5: Success and Fulfillment
  • The final stage is arrival at a higher level of functioning. The change has resulted in a positive outcome, and the team feels a wonderful sense of accomplishment.
  • Some call this stage the “re-dream” stage because it is actually the starting point for your next J-Curve. However, wise leaders pause to give the church a period of stability before starting on the next dream.

The J-Curve’s most important lesson for me has always been this: Don’t Give Up Too Early!  Change is hard. The temptation to turn back will always be strong. However, if you know the typical process of change, you will expect the valley of despair, and you will be able to fight through it! Where do you find yourself on the cycle of change today?

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