Every change and transition begin with an ending. It doesn’t matter what the nature of the ending is whether it is a relationship that ends because of divorce, death or moving to another state or it is the end of a production process or graduation from high school or college.
What is important is that endings begin when people are disengaged from the contexts in which they have known themselves. Disengagement breaks the old-cue-system, according to William Bridges in his “Transitions: Making Sense of life’s Changes,” which had served to reinforce the roles used to pattern the person’s or congregation’s behavior. In addition, during disengagement the way a person or congregation defined themselves is lost creating the sensation of not quite being sure of whom they are anymore. The inability to define one’s self is like losing the thread of one’s life story which leads to the loss of one’s identity-the why of one’s existence-which in turn leads to loss of meaningfulness for life. Here in this ending is the disorientation that comes with disengagement. The sensing that in some war reality is no longer the reality the person or persons thought it was, such as when we discovered the “tooth fairy wasn’t real or that best friends can let you down (Bridges 99).
Disorientation makes one feel like they are free floating in an ocean where one is trying to find, once again, the place to anchor oneself, making the world real. However, before we can find the anchorage, we need to let go of the way we understand the world to be and go below the surface of reality to seek a deeper understanding of ourselves- our why for existing, our relationships, and the world around us. This act of becoming more self-aware is critical. As Bridges notes, those people who do not choose to look beyond their old perspectives and beliefs, become merely disillusioned and will seek out replacements for what has ended that will fit the old broken down views of the world. Transformation or renewal will not take place. This often happens when congregations do not take the time to seek a deeper understanding of the way their past brought them to the present moment and the truth that their past does not determine their future. Instead, these congregations will call a pastor who will be like the last pastor who served them and will seek to continue doing the same ministries and operating in the same manner as they have without regard to whether they will thrive or be sustainable as a community of faith. This is particularly the case with congregations led by charismatic pastors, since finding a successor to the charismatic pastor is difficult and those congregations will have leaders who were disempowered by the charismatic pastor because the charismatic pastor desires to control all aspects of a congregation’s life from ministry to finances as Edwin Friedman, noted family systems therapist has written in “Generation to Generation” and “Failure of Nerve.”
Disillusioned people and congregations are like the man who walks down a street and falls into a hole. After a while he gets out. Then, he walks down the same street and falls into the same hole. He gets out more quickly. He continues to walk down the same road falling into the same hole time and time again without ever realizing that he might want to walk around the hole or walk down a different street (Nelson, 3).
What Bridges is describing in disorientation is grief. All endings are experiences of death and this death stirs within us a multitude of diverse emotions that erupt into actions such as uncontrollable weeping or angry shouting, often erupting without warning and without apparent reason. This experience of grief is painful, but it is an experience which must not be denied or tamped down into some pseudo managed place within ourselves where we think positive thoughts and try holding despair at bay by “lighting matches and whistling in the dark” (Bridges 103). Grief must be lived through fully and acknowledged for what it is, otherwise, we will never heal, be renewed, or transformed.
Even though the truth of that last statement is well known through the work of trauma specialists, grief counselors, pastors and Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her seminal work “On Death and Dying,” resistance to living through and fully experiencing the pain, anger, frustration, confusion, and tears of grief is still commonplace. Indeed, as Kubler-Ross and others have noted we live in a culture that denies death and in denying death also denies the accompanying pain of grief. Additionally, Walter Brueggemann in his work with the psalms of lament notes that this unwillingness to confront the reality of grief may be one reason why the Christian church fails to read the psalms of lament either in bible studies or, more importantly, in worship.
The denial of grief is manifest as a drive to not change, to continue to be the same person or congregation we have always been, and to continue doing all the old familiar things we have always done. The seven last words of the church-“we’ve always done it this way before”- and its companion phrase- “and we aren’t going to do it that new way”- speaks loudly about congregations’ unwillingness to live through their grief. Other phrases similar to the church’s last seven words say the same thing _ “we are not going to give up what is familiar even if it is leading us to be imprisoned in a past we cannot change and which will not lead us to thriving and healthy present and future.” The seven last words of the church are the ones heard as the last gasp of a dying community faith.
A colleague of mine challenged us in our pastor’s lectionary study group to articulate why the lectionary for the week was important with the phrase, “so what?” Well, the “so, what” with grief is it acts an invitation to a person or congregation or organization to walk deeper into the forest of change and transition by asking questions such as “What is the meaning of the actions I am taking?” “What will I do tomorrow and how will that influence the outcome of my life?” “Why do I exist?” “How am I living toward the fulfillment of my life?” These are the questions that encourage a person, congregation, or organization to seek the increased self-awareness necessary to complete the journey through the forest of change and transition.
Next week, we will discover the guides leading us along the forest trail.