At the beginning of this year I could not have anticipated that I would have to face the kinds of changes that have happened in my life. So far into this year my oldest daughter and grandson have moved in; my wife had major surgery with a host of complications afterwards; my Mom passed away; and, if God didn’t think I had enough changes in my life right now, church ministry has taken a radical turn for me with my beloved associate pastors leaving. Some changes we encounter are big, some small; some are good, some are bad; most are bittersweet. The thing about change is that even though we know it will happen and may like it, the transition from one thing to another is the stinker that usually trips us up. It is the getting from one place to another that gets the attention and the difficulty. For example, going to Grandma’s house is a good thing; the five hour drive there with cramped car space and ornery kids is not. If we could eliminate the transition, we’d do it in a heartbeat. The same is true for church ministry. Starting a new ministry is a cool thing; changing from a big bible study or worship service to a network of small groups may be a wonderful initiative; grafting spiritual practices into traditionally business-like meetings is an improvement. But it is that dang transition time that trips us all up, and it is the transitions that need as much attention as the change itself.
Think about it this way: when Jesus came to this earth and lived, taught, was crucified, died, rose from death, ascended and glorified, this was all really good stuff. But the Jewish people had to make a transition from worship focused in the particular place of Jerusalem as a particular covenant people to focusing on Jesus as the fulfillment of all the promises that they anticipated for centuries with a Gentile people that they were not too crazy about. Most either could not or would not make the transition. The Apostle Paul spent most of his Christian life trying to help his fellow Israelites come to grips with making the transition from Judaism to Christianity – and he usually got beat up for it, both verbally and physically.
Transitions are hard. We’d rather not do them. But with every change there is a transition time that must be faced and walked through. If we ignore this reality, we will find ourselves unable to navigate the changes that are chosen not to mention becoming downright depressed with the changes foisted upon us by others and by sheer circumstance. Here are some things that I have found help me to handle the changes that occur, and to make it through the transitions from one reality to another:
1. Maintain personal spiritual disciplines. If the change is one that I did not choose, then having regular times of silence and solitude, prayer and bible reading, fasting and journaling help me make sense of what is happening and put it in proper perspective.
2. Maintain personal health practices. Freaking out by burning the candles at both ends, forgetting to eat sensibly, and ignoring exercise only exacerbates the change and makes the transition time unbearable. Instead, take the time necessary to remain healthy through proper sleep, nutrition, and activity.
3. Grieve your losses. Lament, I would argue, is a spiritual practice – a necessary one. It is also biblical. To focus on next steps without acknowledging transition is to set oneself up for later emotional difficulty and/or trauma. Unpack the heart and allow yourself to feel the loss.
4. Be patient. God is rarely in a hurry about anything. He cares more about our spiritual growth and character development than avoiding painful transitions. Let him teach you all that you need to learn.
5. God never changes. Times change, but God doesn’t. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Let this truth be a ballast to the challenges of transition.
6. Listen, learn, and lead. The time to start listening to others is before change happens. Learn all you can, especially as a pastor or church leader, and shepherd others with the spiritual resources you have gained over a lifetime of experience.
Churches are sometimes notorious for being inflexible and allergic to change. But, after all, they are made up of real flesh and blood people. To struggle with change is to be human. Let’s first help ourselves to know how to cope with needed transitions so that we can do the important work of moving people from one spiritual place to another in order that the Body of Christ can thrive and not just survive. May it be so, to the glory of God.