Change: Homeostasis Versus Allostasis

Change happens to us all. Change happens to markets and institutions. Change happens to individuals and to churches. As I travel, I’m learning that there have been many changes because of COVID, from cleaning service in hotels to plexiglass shields in restaurants. I imagine you can think of several changes as well.

In his book, Master of Change, Brad Stulberg reminds us that change is constant. He writes, “Change is neutral. It becomes negative or positive depending on what we do with it. Healthy systems do not rigidly resist change, they adapt to it.” Presbyterians are often referred to as the frozen chosen. Yet, this description is inconsistent with the vision of the church reformed and always reforming. Stulberg helps us to see that the church doesn’t change so that it can become what it was. Instead, it reforms to become a new creation in the world.

Perhaps we have used homeostasis as the goal of leadership in the church. Homeostasis is leadership that says when a norm is disrupted, with gifted leadership and the right people, we will return to normal. The pattern is from order to disorder, then back to order again.

Stulberg introduces a new model for change called allostasis. Instead of returning to the previous order or the way things were before the change, there is a new way of being, a new normal. The pattern is from order to disorder, then to reorder- a different way of doing things that is inclusive of the learnings from the period of disruption.

For example, the church functioned a certain way before COVID. This included who came to worship and how often, what programs were popular, and what activities happened in the church building. Many churches were disappointed after COVID when people didn’t return in the same numbers. After COVID, homeostasis taught that people should wait and expect things to return to the previous normal. But it hasn’t happened.

Instead, allostasis takes change into account as the future is planned. Instead of a future based on the pre-COVID past, it is a future that is inclusive of what was learned from COVID. This is the new reality the church will live into. Incorporating change is how the church becomes stable. As Stulberg states in his book, “The way to find stability during change is by changing.”

We are challenged to look at our lives and find ways in which we are experiencing change. And instead of working to get back to where we were, perhaps it’s time to look to a different future that takes into account what we have learned from our period of disruption.


– Rev. Dr. Craig Howard