Motivational Inquiry:
dealing with normal ambivalence to change

Ambivalence is the problem
When Specialized Interim Ministry (SIM) first arose, the watchword was “anxiety”. We focused on large churches who had lost their long-term pastor and felt anxious about the future. Such undetected and untreated anxiety often led to many self-destructive behaviors within the congregation which sabotaged future ministry.

However, when we focus beyond such churches we see that most of our congregations face a different issue. They are plataued or declining and (to borrow a phrase) are dying for a change. Most such churches sense that they need to change, and may even know the kinds of change they need to make. However, they are ambivalent about that change. They want to change, “but…” They know good reasons for changing and feel the pain of the loss of what they will need to give up in that change.

In SIM/R the watchword is “'Ambivalence”. And one good tool for dealing with ambivalence is Motivational Interviewing (MI). MI was developed about 10 years ago in the field of healthcare. Medical practitioners have often noted that patients with conditions demanding lifestyle changes in order to maintain health are often resistant to those changes, even after fully educated on the consequences. For example:

  • A diabetic may continue to over-indulge in carbs in the full knowledge that such “sugar-fixes” may lead to blindness or amputation of a foot.
  • An alcoholic or drug addict may ignore offers of treatment despite a keen awareness of the deadly course of their useage.

In addition, the more the healthcare worker pushes the “solution” the more entrenched the behavior often becomes.

The solution is MI
In response to this William R. Miller, professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico and Stephen Rollnick of the University of Wales School of Medicine developed Motivational Interviewing, a method of addressing a person’s need for change without inspiring the resistance normally provoked. This method has been highly successful in bringing dramatic behavioral changes in short periods of time. One 1-hour interview by an MI practitioner has been shown to be twice as effective in helping people with self-destructive lifestyle habits than 6 weeks of conventional “talk therapy”. In addition, they have shown the effects of MI to last longer than conventional “talk therapy” and to be as long lasting as inpatient therapy (though not as effective).

Another MI practitioner, Ann Fields has expanded this process into group therapy and then into corporate change. Her 5-step process addresses the ambivalence of those forced to accept change handed down from above. While this might be useful to any SIM who works within an episcopal form of church governance, the rest of us need to adapt Fields’ methods for those who, are both free to choose or resist change and yet are acting within the confines of the corporate body of Christ.

What does MI look like?
MI seeks to detect the ambivalence of those we serve. If you inquire about a change needed in the life of a person or organization – and you give enough time – you will hear comments supporting both resistance and change. The MI practitioner uses a modified version of Rogerian therapy to reflect, without affirming, the statements of resistance while exploring and encouraging the statements for change.

Note: As an MI practitioner you will never offer reasons to change until those you serve request information or express an openness to your offer of information. To do so would only reinforce resistance.

Also: While MI is a process to facilitate change, unlike medical practitioners or corporate higher-ups, SIMs cannot assume that we know the right change for a congregation. That must arise from the hearts, gifts and passions of the members and leaders. We use MI not to produce a particular change, but to assist a congregation to embrace change they have already indicated they may need to make.

In the actual process we need to differentiate the statements of resistance and for change. When we receive a statement of resistance we reflect it back adding an intuitive leap as to the source of resistance.

Elder: “Pastor, I don't want to see us add a contemporary service.”
SIM: “So you don't want us to add a contemporary service because you don’t think it’s right for this church.”

This may or may not be the truth about the Elder’s motivation. It does move the conversation forward and usually brings out deeper discussion.

Elder: “I just worry that it will split the congregation into two parts.”
SIM: “If we add a contemporary service we would end up with people attending separate services who would not see each other.”
Elder: “It’s more than that. They would be going to different churches. Worship is what church is all about and we’d have two different churches.”

Eventually, either just in the natural course of conversations or if absolutely necessary, by prompting, we will hear talk of change.

SIM: “So why do you suppose the idea of a contemporary service came up at the vision meeting?”
Elder: “I guess some people think that this is what the young people want.”
SIM: “Is that so? Tell me more about that.”

Now we are allowing the Elder to reflect on the benefits of a contemporary service and have a chance to develop his own reasons for embracing the change. Notice, we are not forcing change on him or her. We simply draw out the other side of their own thinking. Change that is internally motivated will be embraced more readily, while change that is imposed or suggested from outside will be resisted. It may well be that in the end this Elder will decide not to embrace change. MI is not a technique to manipulate someone into another position. However, it works to provide room in the person’s own thought processes to embrace change.

MI in SIM ministry.
Like Appreciative Inquiry, MI will be most effective when it becomes a way of life and way of ministry for the SIM. Just as we have learned to address anxiety by being the “less anxious presence”, so we can address ambivalence to change by becoming the “motivational presence”, the person who curiously explores the motivations of others to help them find the positive motivations they will need for change. Just as we respond to anxiety-provoked anger or dysfunction with calm, compassionate leadership, so we need to respond to ambivalent resistance to change with curiosity and compassionate reflection of motivation back to others.

MI with individuals MI was developed to help individuals with change. Early in a SIM contract a SIM may wish to use MI in one-on-one interviews with leaders and stakeholders. Helping them explore the need to move from the past into a new future (even one without the Beloved Former Pastor) may set the stage for leadership able to articulate a reason for the whole congregation to move forward. As a congregation commits to change there will be those who resist. MI will also be valuable as a way to assist them to at least adjust to the future of embracing a church which is changing around them. Finally, apart from the process of church renewal, we will likely encounter people needing personal renewal and yet suffering the very same ambivalence that diabetics and addicts experience.

MI with groups As a church considers it’s future it may have groups within it which are resistant to considering change. A small group MI process can be employed in such instances. In addition, some churches have church cultures that are adverse to change, even as they see the decline their church is facing. Holding as series of small-group meetings or a complex large-group process with small-group break-outs can address this issue. In either of these scenarios it will be important to train other leaders to be competent in the MI process.

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