March 8, 2006

Change Agents

hy won’t they listen to me?” he demanded, uncertain of whether to pound my desk in anger or dissolve into helpless tears. “I’ve talked with them again and again, and they just won’t admit that anything needs changing.”
The 19-year-old who slumped in the office chair was a talented and idealistic college student known for his energy and high spirits. Like so many before him, he had run--hard--into the stone wall of institutional resistance to his proposal for change. Ten days into his project, he was ready to abandon it all and join the ranks of the cynical and dissatisfied.
I don’t remember what I said, or even if my words helped soothe his wounded spirit. I could wish that I had offered him in that conversation a decade ago some simple strategies to effect change that have become clearer to me since then--eight pointers that can be carried on a card and referred to anytime the burning, beautiful idea--IT--runs into the implacable resisters--THEY.
1. Remember to keep breathing. In the furnace of even God-inspired idealism, oxygen grows scarce. Maintaining a steady, resolute manner in the face of opposition or even provocation can only add credibility to your cause. The calmest person in the room is frequently the one who walks out with the goal achieved.
2. Wrap the great idea in prayer. This is more than just devotional advice. There’s no surer way to burn away the dross that inevitably attaches to even the best ideas than to submit them to the scrutiny of the Spirit. Burning ideas, like molten metals, need refining, clarifying, and purifying before they can accomplish what both you and God intend.
3. Canvass the levelheaded. If your proposal for change makes such abundant sense, other reasonable, Spirit-filled persons will agree with you and endorse it. It’s unlikely that you have been called by God to heroically advocate all alone for a cause. Any idea for change that won’t pass muster with the people you trust ought to be swiftly abandoned.
4. Reduce it to writing. In virtually all decision-making processes, paper drives the issue. Your ability to produce clear written descriptions and arguments in favor of the change you are urging will influence its success more than any other factor. At the end of the day--and the end of the meeting--talk evaporates, to be remembered differently by each participant.
5. Identify the decision-makers. These aren’t always the same people as those holding the elected positions or titles. Decision-makers are those who have mastered the art of influencing persons around them to move toward certain ideas and away from others. Every committee, process, campaign, or administration has such people. They should become familiar with your proposal for change in private, where they can have the freedom to ask you questions, challenge your facts, or offer encouragement.
6. Ask for “face time.” Getting on the agenda of the decision-makers can often be a frustrating endeavor. But the race isn’t to the swift. Perseverance--repeated knocking on the door--will usually open up the room to your personal advocacy. If you’ve followed steps 1-6, you’ll likely get your chance.
7. Don’t accept the first “No.” Too many great ideas have burned up because a first rejection gave the advocate all the excuse they needed to confirm their cynicism. (“See, I told you they’d never listen to any ideas for change.”) Covenant with yourself--and the others who are working and praying with you--that you won’t quit working until the top decision-making body you are dealing with says “No” for at least the second time. Some committees simply want to test your sincerity and persistence. Don’t give them an easy way out by quitting too early.
8. Share the credit: give the glory. When the idea for change succeeds--and a high percentage of those that follow these steps will--be generous in praising those who helped and encouraged you. Chances are, this won’t be the last good idea the Lord gives you. This network--now aligned for change--can work again. Be public in thanking God for what has been accomplished. Nothing is so confirming to the faith of a spiritual community as realizing that it has aligned itself with God’s will.
Who knows but that you have been called to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Bill Knott is an associate editor of the Adventist Review.