Commentary by Patrick Scriven

Have you ever noticed how hard it is to take a vacation? Beyond the planning involved if one decides to go someplace, it requires time and intention to actually leave work behind (thanks a lot ‘smart’ phone). Saying “I’m on vacation” is one thing; living it is another. 

Or consider the challenge of becoming healthier. If you’ve ever tried to lose a few pounds, exercise more, sleep better, or to improve your work/life balance, you know it is easier said than done. Even after your body has started to reward your better choices with more energy, the patterns that brought you to a state of sickness are constantly pulling you backward.

Change is harder than we often acknowledge, even when it is for something we want with clear rewards.

The ongoing conversations in our denomination, as well as those in our national politics, have had me contemplating how change happens for quite some time. While I’ve often sympathized with the voices demanding change, I’ve also at times been frustrated by the tenor of the advocacy (particularly as it is found on social media) and the lack of an effective strategy set upon changing hearts and minds.

Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin wrote on the topic of change in a blog post entitled Drip by drip and the thunderclap.

The thing is, incremental daily progress (negative or positive) is what actually causes transformation. A figurative drip, drip, drip. Showing up, every single day, gaining in strength, organizing for the long haul, building connection, laying track—this subtle but difficult work is how culture changes. It takes a generation to change the political landscape or to build a hundred-year company.

If you want to cause action in the short run, the opposite is true. In the short run, drip by drip rarely puts people on alert. It’s the thunderclap, the coordinated, accelerating work of many people, that causes those in power to sit up and take notice. Do it a few times in a row, or fifty, or a hundred, each with more impact, and you can successfully intervene.

I find this simple frame for the question of how change occurs helpful. In church language, I’d denote the thunderclap as the role of the prophets among us whereas the drip by drip formation is best understood as the work of the pastor. An organizational challenge we have in The United Methodist Church is a lack of clear differentiation between these two important, but not always complementary roles. 

Godin continues on to write that we fail to navigate change in two ways: 

One, when we ignore the drips around us and discover that we’ve been swamped by incremental culture change that we didn’t see coming. And second, when we think a few chaotic but heartfelt claps are going to be sufficient to have an impact.

The observation that I share with Godin is that we are too often found investing and participating in one type of change while neglecting the other. Or, even when we accept that people might be gifted or called toward one type of ministerial leadership, there is a tendency to belittle others whose gifts are different. Prophets imagine pastors to be lukewarm and overly cautious while pastors find prophets unrealistic and most impractical.

What I appreciate most about Godin’s insight is his recommendation that we don’t get locked into one polarity. 

[W]e succeed when we combine the best of both worlds. When we settle in for the hard work of daily, bottoms-up institution building, and use thunderclaps not as a distraction, but as the rhythm of our forward motion.

As a disciple of Jesus, I’m more interested in transformation, of my life and others, than I am with winning. Sometimes, the needs of a few are absolutely worth some loss of relationship, or even strain to the fabric of our society. This tension can be fertile soil for positive transformation even for those who feel like they have ‘lost’ especially if there are those present to do the pastoral work of interpretation. 

But there is a pace where just demands risk breaking rather than bending that moral arc of the universe of which Dr. Martin Luther King spoke. The work of peaceful activists to raise the temperature, however necessary, is squandered when the majority of those who disagree are discarded as enemies or backwards idiots. Love for those we might see as backwards, or too stuck, requires us give some space and time for the Spirit to work in and among those who have a different lens through which they see the world. 

Change is much harder to live into than it is to define. This is especially true when we’ve had decades to settle into our comfortable patterns.

Despite what many of us might want to believe, positive change is not inevitable. The prophetic warning or thunderclap of a health scare rarely leads to lasting change without new practices, and the support of others to encourage our new discipline. And even with those in place, life offers few guarantees.

I don’t know if The United Methodist Church is poised to change its position on LGBTQ+ inclusion after its own thunderclap moment(s) in 2019, but I worry that that change will be meaningless if it isn’t accompanied by a change in our practices in 2020 and beyond.

For disciples of Jesus, the challenging work of listening and discerning the prophetic word is soul-shaping. It is also uncomfortable, sometimes even quite painful and costly to our ego (and our wallets). We need good pastors to guide us through the process of self-reformation and strong communities to hold us in loving accountability.

But I worry, does this really sound like us? And if it doesn’t, who is crying out for a United Methodist Church that takes the formation of its members as seriously as its polity?


Patrick Scriven is a husband who married well, a father of three amazing girls, and a seminary educated layperson working professionally in the church. Scriven serves the Pacific Northwest Conference as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Nicely done Patrick. We are terrible at change. Having led two congregations through significant culture change, I know it is much harder than people think but also more doable than people think. Your article reminds me of Gould’s evolutionary gradual change with occasional instances of punctuated equilibrium. I have also noted the difficult balancing act pastors have between being so subtle as to not provoke at all and being too blatant as to provoke too much.

    • Thanks for reading, John. I don’t envy the task of trying to thread the balance. I do, imagine at least, a difference between the pastor trying however imperfectly to negotiate change and those seeking primarily to avoid conflict. In this moment in the UMC, the latter feels particularly foolish but have I heard from lay folks who have pastors actively avoiding the topics of LGBTQ inclusion and church schism? Unfortunately, yes.

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