Why Is Change So Hard?

Blurred background image
 on December 11, 2020

I recently signed on to a coaching relationship with Peter Elliott, retired Dean of the cathedral in Vancouver, a person I have respected very much as a colleague and appreciated even more as a friend over the years. I have been finding ministry in a big downtown setting increasingly complex. I have also been feeling increasingly called to grow myself and grow this ministry exactly where I am. I needed a sounding board, someone with some expertise with whom to talk through problems, an outside perspective on the various decision-making trees I navigate. I wanted some help on how to stay alive in the place where I have been called.

I had my opening paperwork to fill out. It was the kind of paperwork that makes me want to have a big, long explanatory conversation, rather than tick a box or pick a number on a scale from one to ten. I want room for footnotes on these forms: “well, in these situations, I am like this … and in these situations I am like that …” 

And then Peter and I met for our first session.

It was a good first session. I had some opportunity to address a few of those footnotes there was no room to add on the initial paperwork, and we established that the issues and goals we named would always be a living document, with room to grow, expand, or shift as needed throughout our conversations. I felt able to articulate why I was there, and I felt heard as I did so.

There was a word, though, that Peter peppered throughout our conversation, and each time he said it, an involuntary sense of dread rippled through me. It was the word “change.” He talked about changing habits. He even talked about changing brain patterns. His assumption in our time together is that something about me and my ministry would be discernably different by the end.

Somehow this is not what I had signed up for.

Each time he said the word, and each time I inwardly shuddered in response, I also quickly pushed the dread and the shudder away, determined to move on, to take the bad feelings in stride and to keep on with why I was there. But by the end of our ninety minutes I felt so disquieted by my own disquiet that when Peter asked me how I was feeling about our time together, and when I said all of the right sporting things about how great everything was, I also found the words tumbling out of me before I could stop them. “I’m really worried about that word ‘change’ that you keep using. And I need to think about why that is.”

He didn’t seem either alarmed or surprised by this admission. We set our next date.

And I was left to mull over feelings that have caught me totally off guard.

I am known in ministry for initiating change. I believe that I have been effective in the change I have led in the churches I have served. I don’t think I would be accused of going for the “baby out with the bathwater” sort of approach — change for its own sake, change that dishonours tradition and culture. New ideas and new projects emerge out of conversation, prayer, discernment and a strong sense of both needs and gifts been raised up from the context I am in. Throughout my life, and particularly throughout my years in church leadership, I have been prepared to be on the move, to be out of my comfort zone, to be new at things, to be in new places, to have to figure out the lay of the new land. I have never thought of myself as being in any way afraid of change, and in fact, I am mostly the one to initiate it.

If asked, I would say that embracing change in built into our Christian DNA, and that this is a healthy, good and Gospel thing. Jesus begins his public ministry with the call to Repent, which quite literally means the call to change your mind or to turn in a new direction. Author Padraig O’Tuama notes that “the Christian faith [should be] a faith that is adapted to change, a faith that is not undone by realizing that its precepts or propositions are incorrect … It should mean that Christianity would be known as the faith that regularly announces that it has, hitherto, been wrong, and is neither frightened nor undone by discovering error, or misdirection.”

But then, and also …

Isn’t it interesting to be on the receiving end of news that change is necessary? And isn’t that different from being the one bearing the news? It’s not quite the same to change because you have picked up and moved somewhere new as it is to be asked to consider another way right where you are. Because what that involuntary shudder of dread is really about is self-protection. And when there is talk about disrupting any of the precarious balance that allows my own self to get by day by day, hold it all together, and hopefully somewhat look like I know what I’m doing, then all of a sudden my inward self feels a lot like that old 1980s Jenga game, and also it feels like a lot of the blocks are already missing and it could really just be a matter of one more block being taken from one place and put somewhere else that could see the whole thing crash to the ground.

You would think that describing my sense of self as a Jenga tower with a lot of missing blocks might be an impetus to feel quite eager for change. And yet, even those first followers of Jesus can attest that when they were invited to change in the context of the best news possible — the hoped-for Kingdom of God was breaking into their very midst right then and there — our response can be more complicated than we might expect. We may say we want things to be different, and then when faced with the possibility of how it can actually be so, we suddenly find the familiar and the comfortable to have a stronger pull on us than we might like to admit.

Here is the bottom line about change. To be told that change is needed is also to be told that in some fundamental way, the course that I am on is wrong. I don’t want to be wrong. It is embarrassing to be wrong.

It is also faithful to be wrong. O’Tuama goes on to say that “to consider oneself immune from the need for such changing of tune, of mind, of direction or idea is to alienate oneself from the argument of being human. Hello to the gift of being wrong.”

I might add to O’Tuama’s words, “hello to the gift of getting to practice what you preach.”

I am beginning this coaching journey. I am doing so with some trepidation. Thanks be to God for a faith that makes room for trepidation and honesty and that claims change is both hard and holy.

  • Martha Tatarnic

    The Reverend Canon Martha Tatarnic is the rector of St. George’s, St. Catharines. Her second book, Why Gather? The Hope & Promise of the Church, will be published in June 2022 by Church Publishing, and will be available at https://www.churchpublishing.org/whygather. The Living Diet is also available through Amazon, Church Publishing and the author.

Skip to content