By: Pastor Nate Mason
“Ch-ch-ch-Changes/Turn and face the strange”
I always felt like the school year affected me in my personal and professional life, even when I wasn’t directly doing school related things. Church programming, even for adults, tends to reflect the school year, youth ministry is built to be a mirror to its secular counterpart, and church attendance mimics school attendance for all ages. Only the truly faithful attend “summer school” for church. This year, the school year actually means something to the Mason household because our oldest is in kindergarten!
We thought we were prepared for this big change in Lily’s (our daughter) routine. We built our weekly schedule, planned our routes between home, daycare, school, and work for drop off and pick up, and set up a nightly routine to make everything run smoothly. I confess we were completely unprepared for that first week of kindergarten. Every part of our morning routine was met with defiance. If you’ve never tried to brush a curly haired five-year-old’s hair when she doesn’t want it brushed, imagine trying to groom a feral racoon and you’ll get a fairly accurate picture. The saintly teachers have had to pry Lily off our legs at drop off, just to have us pry Lily off their legs at pick up! Lily loves school in the afternoon but hates school in the mornings. After pick up, Lily is a bubbly little student who is excited to share all the things she learned during the day. When we pick up her little brother the feral racoon comes back complete with hissing and scratching. All in all, our planning was successful in that everyone got to where they were supposed to be on time, but we failed horribly to manage this transition.
Change and Transition are two different things
Dr. William Bridges[i] would probably say that we planned for the change but overlooked the transition to kindergarten. Change, according to Dr. Bridges, is a new situation presenting itself. In our family’s case, the change was going from daycare to kindergarten. We made a plan for that situation. Transition, however, is the psychological adjustment to changes.
Changes are stressful, and everyone responds to stress differently. In my homelife, change will put stress on more than just four people, it will put stress on a minimum seven different relationships (me <-> Lily, Krissa <-> Lily, Lily <-> Ezekiel, Me <-> Krissa, Me <-> Ezekiel, Krissa <-> Ezekiel, the whole family). Seeing how one change can affect the stability of seven relationships, it’s pretty easy to see how larger connected systems, like a church, can go haywire if we don’t learn to address transitions.
The Story of the Church is a Story of Constant Change
As the poet and prophet David Bowie once said “Time may change me, but I can’t trace time.” I’ve gotten old, and I’m not sure when or how that happened! I keep finding myself thinking thoughts that begin with “back when my day,” and it’s mildly alarming! A few weeks ago, I was just thinking about “back in my day” when I was in kindergarten, I lived on a little cul-de-sac in Sturgis, South Dakota. I had two best friends on my street who were my age. We played all the time. Now, my kindergartener lives on a little cul-de-sac in Des Moines, but there are no kids her age on the block. That seems messed up and completely unfair to me! That’s when I realized I started to sound like my dad who grew up in Lead, South Dakota, surrounded by a mass of cousins and friends. There were enough kids in that age group to be able to have two full baseball teams whenever they wanted to play. That far exceeds my expectation of having two best friends on every block!
I wanted to know if this was a weird outlier for our little block or has there been a massive demographic shift in the past half century that I wasn’t paying attention to. This was really just an excuse to play around with US Census data, which is a weird hobby of mine.
As it turns out, it was the latter cause. In the 1960’s (charitably considered the epoch of my father) Kid’s under 14 made up a whopping 31% of the population. On the other end of the age spectrum, only 9% of the population was older than 65. Fast forward two generations, those numbers come close to evening out. 14 and under are now 18% of the population while over 65 is 17%. That means, by population, we have half as many kids while twice the number of retirees. That is a massive change that has been experienced by three living generations! But as a church, we haven’t transitioned our ministry focus to serve the world as it is. I haven’t made that transition myself, even though I ran the numbers. I still expect two best friends for my daughter to magically appear on our block!
This isn’t the first, or even the biggest, transition the church has made. We have been doing a summer series on Acts of the Apostles. I love Acts, because it shows the growing pains of the early church. There was definitely a bigger transition from the Hebrew Bible to the Gospels. Jesus is kind of a big deal, but in most mainline protestant churches, there is no emotional connection to the Old Law, so the coming of Christ is the standard in our hearts and minds. In the Gospels, the church is a Israel centered Jewish movement. The big changes that happen in Acts turns the church into a global religion that is mostly gentile. That change was a lot rockier than what most of us realize.
The Three Stages of Transition, Beginning with the End
Dr. Bridges details three phases of a healthy transition: the ending of the old way, the neutral zone, and the new beginning. In order for a transition to really get started, there has to be a formal recognition that the old ways are now over. Water is a symbolic ending in the Hebrew Bible. When the Israelites’ time in Egypt was over, they crossed the Sea of Reeds. When their time in the wilderness was over, they crossed the Jordan. Recognizing the ending of the old ways help people to realize exactly what they are losing. It creates a space for grief and loss. Acts starts out with the Ascension of Christ. That’s a powerful ending for you! The disciples expressed their grief, fear, and doubt when their messiah left them.
Dr. Bridger also warns us to expect a lot of push back when things end. Does your church have a big annual event? Yard sales, bake sale, noodle dinner, ice cream social… What happens when that event has a change in leadership? I hope most of you would answer that question by saying something like “Not much really. It’s a team effort and we intentionally rotate people off the team so we don’t experience burnout and the team has an understanding of institutional history.” But for many of us, that transition is met with conflict and strife. “That’s not how we’ve always done it” is recited more in some churches than the Nicene Creed. Believe it or not, this is a biblical conflict.
Again, in Acts, there is a massive change in leadership and evangelical focus, from Jews to Gentiles as the biblical language goes. The author of Luke/Acts tries to smooth over the rough edges of that conflict. James would request that Paul observe Jewish ritual and tradition, and Paul would oblige. But if you read deeper into the Epistles, Paul gives a very different account of his relationship with the James and Peter. Acts claims that Paul went straight to Jerusalem to receive the blessing of the original twelve disciples before heading out into the world to proclaim the gospel. In Galatians, Paul denies that he ever sought out their permission, and goes on to throw some serious anti-Gentile accusations against Peter.[ii] In the post-biblical history of the church, another big conflict happened in the church in Rome. After the Jewish revolt, all the Jewish people were banished from the city of Rome. The church at that time was still predominantly Jewish, so that left a power vacuum that was quickly filled by gentile believers. Three years later when the banishment ended, the returning Jewish leadership expected to get their places back, while the established gentile leadership disagreed. Conflict and riots ensued. Putting our modern transitions into a historical perspective makes them seem more manageable.
Communication: The key to getting through the neutral zone and into the new beginning
The first three months at a new job are just the worst. I hate the feeling of not knowing exactly what I am going to be doing, or what I should be doing. But then, like some sort of cosmic clockwork, I suddenly realize I know what I’m doing, and life becomes routine again. I don’t know about you, but I always get a little self-deprecating after routine kicks in. How on earth could I have been nervous about this job that is second nature to me now! That awkward period of uncertainty is what Dr. Bridges would consider the neutral zone. The old ways are gone, but life hasn’t settled into that new beginning yet. For most of us, this gray area is the most stressful time of any change.
Lily’s in the neutral zone right now with her school experience. I love how kids do a much better job of expressing their anxieties than adults do! Both of my kids will ask a million questions when they are anxious (as opposed to the typical 100,000 we can expect on a normal day.) “Who’s going to be there? Can I bring a stuffy? Can I have a treat? What will my teacher be wearing? What will we do? Do you think I’ll be able to do that? Can I please have a treat?” Being able to paint a picture of the post transition future is essential to calming anxieties. It’s a picture you will have to paint multiple times from a variety of perspectives, because unlike children, adults won’t always express the details that matter the most to them.
Trying to transition church ministry from youth focused to adult focused will cause a whole bunch of anxiety. I really struggle to paint a good picture of adult focused ministry. I have tried to explain a discipleship/spiritual growth model that I personally would be excited about, but to most people bible studies and prayer groups are less than thrilling. Underneath those anxieties though, is a deeper worry. A lot of church members equate the presence of children to church sustainability. To give up on children’s ministry would be the same as giving up on the church. There are dozens of reasons why that isn’t true, and even more reasons as to why continued youth focus will quicken the downfall of a congregation, but anxiety rarely responds well to emotionally disconnected reasoning.
Purpose and Part
Of all the words of wisdom from Managing Transitions, I especially appreciate Dr. Bridges insights into building a new beginning. The purpose of an organization should be at the heart of all changes. When an organization loses its purpose, it’s hard to create group alignment and anxieties multiply. One of the many blessings of the United Methodist Church is that we have a succinct purpose: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. When the questions start coming, we have a baked in answer! Why are we making this change? To make disciples… How are we going to achieve this goal By making disciples… When churches lose sight of this purpose, they become Sunday morning social clubs. Any one out of the social circles has no place in the club, and thus no purpose for being there. Establishing that mutual purpose helps everyone to understand why they are there.
Harder than the group purpose, is identifying each individual’s part in the grander purpose. This is where people feel left behind. I’m sure James was more than a little jealous that Paul got to travel the known world while he was left behind in Jerusalem! Just like my son is currently jealous because Lily’s going to “big kids’ school.” Having specific actions in mind that people can do to participate will help ensure that they will help the transition run smoothly. Finally, people need encouragement. Celebrate every victory, no matter how small. Some days when I pick up my three-year-old from daycare, the teacher will give him a big hug and proclaim that we had a good day, and Ezekiel, full of pride, will shout “Yeah! I didn’t hit or spit today!” Even if the achievement seems trivial or small, a celebration will help keep us all on track.
Finally, take some time praying about the changes that you know are coming. Most churches have pulled back on our COVID safety measures, but with the fall and winter coming what will we do when the numbers spike again? Charge Conference is around the corner, what kind of leadership changes will that bring? The best hope we have of managing transition in a healthy and holy way is to get out in front of them.
May your fall bring blessed changes and divine transitions.