The immune system of the human body is incredibly complex and powerful. When it is not working properly, the body dies with surprising quickness. But when it is healthy, the body is able to fend off attacks from millions of bacteria, microbes, viruses, toxins, and parasites that are very capable of reeking incredible damage to our personal health. At the front lines of our immune system are antibodies and white blood cells that are designed to attack very specific types of enemies.

I believe that businesses, organizations, and churches mimic living organisms in many ways, including having an immune system that exists to actively oppose change that may be harmful or even cause death.

In Romans 12, the passage describes the Body of Christ, the Church, being like our human bodies, with many specialized parts doing different and important functions. I don’t think the analogy ends with just the foot, the eye, or the ear. I believe that God has designed and placed antibodies to change within each church that protects the body from change which happens too quickly or is just plain harmful. In the past, I have viewed these individuals as hindrances to necessary changes and improvements I was bringing to the staff and ministry processes. During this season of ministry, God has shown me that these antibodies are not obstacles but blessings. He has placed them in our church to help raise our sensitivity to the possibly negative impact that our plans may be having on the overall health of our Body.

Antibodies to change is not a new concept that I thought of myself; it is a thought that has grown in my mind and heart since reading a twelve-word sentence in the book, The Heart of Change, written by John P. Kotter and Dan S. Cohen. While preparing to teach a class on Managing Change and Conflict for a local Bible College, I stumbled across the sentence and was stopped dead in my tracks. The sentence stated, “Highly successful organizations know how to overcome antibodies that reject anything new.” I discussed the concept with my class and they were surprised by the positive spin that I put on what seemed like a negative aspect of every church staff. After much prayer and research, I compiled some important learnings that helped cast these helpful and valuable members of the Body in a new light.

The first three learnings are:

  1. Antibodies to change are actually blessings that were placed in our churches and organizations by a Holy God. He wants them to serve Him by protecting the uniqueness of our local Bodies and their specific missions from even well-meaning change that might jeopardize its effectiveness.
  2. There are ways to “inoculate” a Body against change by winning over the antibodies, instead of ignoring or working around them, and by helping them become “evangelists for our cause,” through purposeful and long-term communication.
  3. Sometimes antibodies mutate into a harmful form that can actually attack and damage healthy ministry processes, staff, or even the mission of the church and may require healing (a chance to pastor them) or, in extreme cases, removal.

Now, of course I am stretching the analogy a little bit when it comes to some of these thoughts. But as my class and church staff began to grasp the word pictures of these concepts, they started to see how the comparisons between the human body and the Body of Christ were a lot closer than they thought. The vocabulary that the concepts created also served to soften our hearts towards these individuals and to begin seeing them in a new and more positive light.

Antibodies to Change are Actually Blessings

I have always tried to live my Christian walk believing a statement that Bill Hybels, Senior Pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, shared several years ago during a leadership conference. He said,“God really only has one treasure and its people.”  In the past, I have viewed people who are change adverse as barriers or annoyances that we must overcome or remove. Since my escape from the corporate marketplace to serve in ministry as the Executive Director at Pikes Peak Christian Church, I have had to deal with several antibodies to change. They usually showed up in the form of little old ladies who loved their church as it was, or staff members who wanted change and growth until it impacted them and their ministry personally. Each time I was confronted by these individuals, my initial reaction was to hunker down, preparing for battle with a person that I perceived needed “re-educating” or who had a serious hard-heart condition.

Now I see I them as people who are as valuable, if not more so, as the folks who easily accept new ideas and want to help. The antibodies love God and the church just as much as the next person. They show this by taking a stand against what they consider to be a threat; they don’t just leave in a silent huff. Now when I see one of the antibodies heading my way with a full head of steam and a glint in their eye, instead of praying for the rapture, I ask God to help me treasure them and carefully listen to what they have to say.  I don’t always succeed. Sometimes they get under my skin if they are particularly negative. But little by little, my heart is changing—their input is helping me reshape or slow down the of change I am promoting.

Antibodies to Change Help Inoculate the Body

The second important learning is that there are ways to “inoculate” the Body to change, better preparing the church and reducing the amount of push back that will naturally occur.  This concept helped me see the value of rolling out change even more gradually then the incredibly slow pace that I was forcing on myself, beginning the communication process months out instead of weeks. The way you inoculate the human body against a virus is to inject small amounts of the virus into the body, giving the immune system a chance to determine how best to fight the virus when the real attacks come. This strategy crosses over to managing change in the Body of Christ. I now understand the importance of communicating upcoming change in little amounts over longer periods of time, starting with the antibodies. This gives them time to acclimate to the change by asking lots of tough questions, praying about it, and discussing it with other antibodies or friends who can help them see it from different perspectives.

I have always tried to communicate upcoming change early and frequently. But what I interpreted as a proper pace was not really based in reality. Since realizing that fact, I have begun communicating smaller amounts of change as early as possible (sometimes 6-9 months out) so that the antibodies are not shocked or caught unawares. When I have taken this approach, and receive the normal amount of push back from the antibodies, it reaffirms that the change is probably good and will result in the desired effect. But if I get the opposite reaction and the Body generates more or even negative antibodies, perhaps I am heading in the wrong direction. I then begin to slow down or even modify my plans until the push back drops to normal levels.

I see this as an example of God’s “governor” system, helping me hear His voice more clearly and adjust my pace or direction according to how the immune system of the Body is responding. Another benefit is that the rest of the Body also knows who the antibodies are and give extra weight to their opinions. They have witnessed how opposed to harmful change the antibodies are. When they see that the antibodies are convinced that the change is good, the other members accept it quicker and with less effort on my part. This has helped encourage me when all the extra work of over-communicating is wearing me down. People now perceive me as a leader that is willing to listen and trying my best to be in tune with God’s will instead of my own.

Antibodies to Change Can Become Enemies Rather than Protectors

The final learning is the fact that sometimes antibodies can become sick or damaged themselves, actually harming the Body they were designed to protect. A mutated antibody in the human body is a dangerous thing and is often labeled cancerous, requiring immediate action to reduce the negative impact that it can have. It has been my experience that this is just as true in the Body of Christ. I imagine you smiling knowingly as you picture antibodies in your organization that have become true enemies instead of protectors.

If this happens in the human body, we visit a doctor. They either take steps to heal the offending cells with appropriate treatments or remove it with surgical precision. As leaders in our churches and organizations, we get to play one of two very important roles. We might be the doctor that first tries to heal (pastor) the malfunctioning antibody with a specially designed restoration process. Or we might be the surgeon that removes them, carefully and purposely, through scripture and prayer-soaked conversations. I think Matthew 18 provides an excellent framework to operate within, allowing us to play both roles in a God-honoring and people-treasuring way. It is not easy or quick. But the investment is well worth it and definitely the best way to insure your particular “Body” stays healthy and at its maximum effectiveness.

I have had to play both rolls and was thoroughly blessed by the result; either helping a treasured member return to a healthy state or watching as a person who was hurting the Body left, hopefully able to heal elsewhere under another pastor’s care. Both situations required very different approaches; the goal was always to follow God’s prompting, treasuring the person to the best of my ability. In the past, removing the troubled person was more about my personal comfort and the completion of my personal goals. Now I see myself as God’s partner in treasuring these folks that God loves and Christ died to redeem. God has blessed my efforts because of my new heart in the matter and helps me survive the tougher conversations with little damage to my soul. My preference is always to be the healing doctor, but sometimes I have to be the purposeful surgeon—during those times, God is especially close!

The human body is an incredible piece of machinery. God’s wisdom in creating the Body of Christ to mimic the human body in so many ways is also pretty amazing. I thought I was stretching the analogy a bit too far until I began studying the human immune system. I watched computer-generated movies of it attacking viruses with incredible ferocity and determination. Then I compared my past interactions with antibodies to change, before my heart change, and I honestly did not see a lot of difference! It is often said that people hate change! I think people hate bad or misunderstood change but are willing to accept change that they understand and have been prepared for.

But how do we know the difference between good change and potentially bad change? I think God has already anticipated this question. He provided a way for us to discern the difference by working with the antibodies to change.He has gifted and tasked these individuals with the responsibility of protecting our organizations. Maybe you have not recognized them as blessings but viewed them as obstacles or annoyances. Try changing your bias towards them; lean into them as partners who are just as committed to healthy growth as you are. I guarantee that you will feel more in touch with your Body’s perception of pending changes and spend less time cleaning up the collateral damage caused by bad changes that you thought were going to be good.