Monday, July 9, 2012

Adopting new identities

Each of us create different identities for ourselves as we go through life.  You had one identity as you went through high school.  Perhaps you were a nerd, a jock, a geek, or one of the many labels young people give each other during that period of life.  Whatever identity you had, you played the part.  You dressed like others with that identity, you talked like them, you read the same kinds of books and magazines they read, you wore your hair like the others in your tribe, etc.  When you went to college your identity may have changed a little.  If you are married you created a different identity, and that identity changed again if you had children.  Various jobs you've worked and hobbies you've enjoyed have given you other identities.  The fact is, throughout our lives we will have numerous identities that will define who we are during that stage of our lives.  Those identities will determine the friends we have, the types of work we do, and how we conduct ourselves.  They also impact the way we think and how we process change.

I began thinking about the various identities that have defined me during my lifetime as I was reading Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.  In this excellent book the authors discuss how our identities impact the way we make decisions and how those identities can be changed.  In the margin of the book I began to write down some of the identities I've had throughout my lifetime.  For four years I was in the Navy, and that was my identity.  It took several months after returning to civilian life to adjust to that life because the Navy identity was so ingrained in me.  Since then I worked in a factory for 30 years and developed a mindset of one who worked on an assembly line and on machine lines and was part of a union.  I have been a business owner and salesperson and that shaped my identity during that period.  During one period of my life I enjoyed hunting, especially raccoons, and found that much of what I did revolved around that identity.  Many of my friends were coon hunters.  We chewed tobacco together, hunted together, sold our furs together, but since I quit coon hunting back in the early 1980s I seldom see any of the people I associated with back then.  Of course, for over 30 years now I have been a bivocational minister, and that has been an important part of my identity.  Much of my time is spent with other bivos and learning more about that ministry as well as developing resources to help others who serve in that capacity.  When I returned to school for my masters and doctoral degrees I had the identity of a scholar (somewhat!), and that identity shaped much of what I did.  Since 1966 I have had the identity of a husband, and since 1968 my identity has been further shaped as a father.  I share all this to say this: our identities are constantly evolving, and if we have an identity that is holding us back from fulfilling God's purpose for our lives, that identity can be changed.

What really caught my attention in the book is when the authors noted that any effort to change something that will violate someone's identity will likely fail.  Think of what this means to a church leader.  If you as the leader want to introduce something new into your church that is contrary to how the people see themselves, they are much more likely to reject it.  If the people in your congregation continually refer to themselves as just a small church with few resources and talk fondly of the good old days when things were much better they are very unlikely to get excited about a new ministry that might attract new people into your church.  They just can't see themselves capable of doing that because it doesn't fit with the identity they have for themselves.  Perhaps what needs to happen first is that the leader needs to help them begin to develop a new identity.

When I first went to pastor the church I served for twenty years I found a group of people who had not seen many good days in many years.  There really was little going on in that church that was very exciting.  One of the few questions I was asked by the pastor search committee was, "Do you think there is any hope for our little church?"  That should give you a clue about the morale in that church at that time.  I didn't intentionally do this at the time because I didn't know to do it, but one of the things I did was to keep reminding them that with God's help we could do great things.  Later in my ministry I would often tell them during a message that I had much more faith in them than some of them had in themselves.  We began to do some little things that were easily done and that gave people a sense of victory.  We would then attempt something a little bigger.  As we continued to achieve these goals our folks began to develop a new identity.  They saw themselves as people who were capable of doing big things for the Kingdom of God.  At first we just wanted to accomplish something, but later we sought to do things with excellence, and we often did.  There's not space in a blog posting to record all the amazing things that bivocational church did, but it was incredible what those folks achieved simply because they began to believe they could.

Perhaps one of the things you need to do in your church is to help people develop a new identity for themselves.  I will tell you that it can take time to do so, but it will be time well spent.  If you're not sure how to do that you may want to find a coach to help you with that process.  There are many ministry coaches, including me, who would work with you as you help your congregation develop a new identity.  Because it can take time to help people develop new identities I encourage you to start soon.  The sooner those new identities are formed, the sooner you will be able to implement some of the new ministry plans you have for your church.

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