September Update: A Few Thoughts

by Rev. Korte Yeo

I’d like to share a few quotes and a few notes from a book I read a while back that I found pretty illuminating called “Managing Transitions.” It rang true at the time and only seems to make more sense as time goes on. I wish most of the wisdom in this article was my own.

Bridges writes, “It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions.”

They sound like the same thing, but they’re not. Change is situational; a different location or time for worship service, a different worship style, a new minister or a new series of programs. These are largely logistical moves.

But when a dramatic shift is necessary, more than a technical solution is required. When drastic change is needed because something simply doesn’t work anymore, change for its own sake isn’t going to be enough or likely have the right intention behind it. Technical fixes (adding a Bible study or meditation group, advertisements, activities) might make sense and aren’t bad ideas, but transition isn’t about technical solutions, it is psychological in nature. The technical fixes without a “Psychic change”- a change in the way we think, act and react to life, primarily through receiving and responding to the Holy spirit- aren’t going to stick.

“When change happens without transition it’s just a rearranging of the chairs.”

Ugh…Bridges sounds like me, minus my usual Titanic reference. Getting people through a transition is pivotal if the changes are to have any lasting effect. Worse yet, if you begin a transition and abort it, you find yourself needing to go begin the process again.

According to William Bridges, there are three phases of transition.

  1. Letting go of the old ways and the old identity people had. The first piece of this is an ending. This is a time when people need help to deal with (sometimes very significant) their sense of loss.
  2. Going through a period of liminal space. The old is gone but the new has not yet come into full focus. Kind of like the Kingdom of God, it is both “now” and “not yet”. This is a sort of “neutral zone”. Critical psychological realignments take place in this phase.
  3. Coming out of the transition and making a new beginning. The church develops a new identity, experiences a new energy, and discovers a new sense of purpose as they begin to make the change worthwhile.

This is not a linear process, with crisp breaks in between each phase of transition. Often parts of 2 or even 3 phases may be taking place at once. With a change, you are generally focused on an outcome. You are taking specific actions and you have expectations that those actions will yield certain results. Transition is different, primarily because “the starting point for transition is an ending.”

Situational change and technical solutions hinge on a new thing working, “but psychological transitions (and spiritual transformation) depend on letting go of the old reality and the old identity you had before the change took place.” Even in good changes, “There are transitions that begin with endings, where you have to let go of something.”

As soon as you understand that transition begins with letting go of something, you are well on your way to a meaningful change. The psychological shift required doesn’t happen overnight and we may find ourselves struggling for a time in a state that is not the old or the new but rather a kind of “emotional wilderness.”

Endings are hard but being in the no man’s land of “the neutral zone”, as Bridges puts it, can sometimes feel worse. It feels like nothing is happening when you believe it should feel like something is happening. Bridges believes it’s important to prepare people and let them know that the neutral zone is a natural part of transition. It is not unusual to feel like something is wrong or that you’re not doing everything correctly, but this is part of the transition.

You might be tempted to abort the transition, to change course or abandon the situation, but to do this is to jeopardize the chance of genuine change. If you escape early, you will lose an opportunity to move through a transition period.

Bridges assures us that while the neutral zone is dangerous, it is also full of opportunities. It is the core of the transition process. It is the time when old habits are replaced with new ones that are better adapted to the world in which the church is trying to “move and live and have its being.”

The last of the three phases is the new beginning. Letting go, repatterning, and making a new beginning work together to make authentic change possible. Together “these three phases reorient people when things are changing all around them.”

“Without them, there may be dust and noise, but when things quiet down and the dust settles, nothing is really different. Most organizations do not thoroughly work through all three phases, they don’t pay attention to endings, don’t acknowledge the neutral zone or they try to avoid it and don’t help people make a fresh beginning. Then they wonder why people have so much difficulty with change.”

Perhaps the most important part of phase one, the ending, is loss. People need to feel able to express their sense of loss and sadness. Whether they’ve lost a career, a location they loved, or in the case of a church, perhaps the “good old days” when the church celebrated its legacy years and had a vibrant children’s ministry, wealth or a packed sanctuary every Sunday.

I remember visiting a church that wanted to “get back” to the “height” of its glory years. Some of the members told me more than once about how delightful it was to be part of the church in that earlier time and place. I was absolutely astonished when I found out that this period of “glory” lasted about 15 years and had ended 35 years before.

3 1/2 decades had passed, almost all of the hundreds of members the church had in that day and age were long gone, yet they had never taken time to grieve and experience the ending of that period of the church’s history, thus they were never able to truly move forward and create new and exciting history. It’s important to acknowledge those who came before us, those who created and perpetuated a lovely congregation, but to live in the past is to turn our churches into museums. The past needs to be acknowledged as important and meaningful, but we must not get stuck in the past. We need to let go of it and turn our sights forward.

Another church was proud of its mission work. As I got to know a number of the members, I learned that many of them were involved personally in a wide variety of causes. They were an inspiring bunch that cared about others and lived out the Gospel in their lives.

When I asked for meaningful mission experiences they had with their church, what always came up was a time when they came together as a group and traveled together to assist people devastated by a natural disaster. The only problem was that the event had occurred more than a decade prior. They were involved in caring, meaningful projects, just not together. As I looked more closely at this with increasing confusion, I became aware that there was simply no time for large or committed mission projects. Almost all the energy people put into the church itself was to “keep it going.”

There was a good deal of concern about keeping the doors open, reputation and “legacy.” They worked plenty hard, but most of that work was aimed at keeping the church around into the future. There were few new members (perhaps because people not already part of a church for decades aren’t all that interested in perpetuating legacies that have little to do with them) and the members who did find time for service to others (and there was a lot of them) found it easier to do with organizations other than their church. Every church hopes people will join them, and every church hopes to exist long into the future, but I’m not sure every church knows or even thinks about why it is important to God or to the world that they continue to exist as a church.

Pray about that “why”, it’s going to make all the difference in the world.