Anytime we speak about leading change or leading into a changing environment, the qualities that come to mind include innovation, openness to new ideas, strategic thinking, vision and the ability to see things that others cannot. Those qualities stand out because they have to do with the change itself. In fact, they may even dominate this issue of Light + Life Magazine. (As I write, I have not yet read the other articles in this edition.)
Leading change assumes you understand the culture and see how it is changing and how to best respond. Understanding people, culture, future need and possessing vision are requisite characteristics.
All of that is good and even necessary. But I believe the best starting point for leading change is to understand some things about the past — the basic needs of humanity, common mistakes from yesteryear, and principles behind success that have transcended the ever-tempting arrogance of the current culture and tendencies of people of all races and worldviews. Thinking first about the present and future does not often lead to meaningful change. Looking back with a view to the future generally produces the best results. Truth is timeless. The truth we can see is in the past. If it is timeless, then understanding the visible and conspicuous truths will help us understand their application in the future.
Beginning with futuristic thinking and visionary ideals often leads to treating symptoms without addressing the core problems of humanity. The road of failure is strewn with the visions of creative thinkers who know the present and accurately predict the future but fail at some point to understand essential truths, the core needs of humanity, the power of the human condition or the overcoming power of God. Those who have failed to understand truth — bare, essential and transcendent — may have led change, but not change that lasts.
John Wesley was a creative innovator. Some attribute the invention of shock therapy to him. His innovation in prison reform and care for the families of prisoners was creative and served as a template for much of today’s prison reform. He figured out how to produce inexpensive and accessible literature that contributed to increased literacy in England. He influenced those who abolished legalized, state-sponsored slavery in England. He impacted a change in church architecture, which led to the unchurchy church meeting hall. He encouraged pastors of new societies to innovate and try new things. He envisioned the power of the small group in disciple-making, which impacts the church’s understanding of discipleship today. The list goes on and on.
None of those creative changes he developed were his beginning or focal points. In fact, those innovations were not the foci of Wesley’s ministry. Most of them fail to appear in his journals where he wrote prolifically on what he considered to be the more important matters. He was tenaciously committed to teach the love of God that expressed itself best through a loving and holy life. The love of God and the rooted understanding of the human condition that Wesley gained from the Bible, early church fathers and reformers set the foundation from which innovation and creative vision became a natural outcome.
We often speak about the need to keep pace with the times — meaning current times. In reality, we need to keep pace with the past (the best parts of the past). The old adage that “those who ignore the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them” can also include the complimentary idea that “those who forget the good achievements of the past are destined to think their own achievements surpass all others.” The dangers of ignoring failures and successes from the past are arrogance, ignorance and shortsightedness.
The real change agents I see today are people who, like Wesley, are so overwhelmed by the love of God, aware of eternal truths, cognizant of the falseness of humanity, and desirous of loving people in Jesus’ name that they understand the need and think of creative ways to meet them.
Solomon knew there is nothing new under the sun. Moses reminded the people to never forget God’s goodness to them. David humbly knew his place in history. Jesus knew the prophets’ message about Him and drew His strength from His father.
Leaders who have learned to keep pace with the past have the amazing ability to influence head-spinning, future change. And it is change that lasts.
Bishop Matthew Thomas has been an active part of the Free Methodist Church since 1979. His ministry roles have included serving as a pastor, church planter, missionary and superintendent.