Transition, Transformation, and Heartbreak
I am constantly reminded that the world I live in is not the world I grew up in. As I child, I never imagined that I would see a black man elected president. Nor, growing up in California, did I imagine a conservative court legalizing gay marriage, or the Iowa legislature taking a similar action. There is the conversation I heard between my husband and daughter regarding sources for a school research paper. Dad, "Does one have to be printed?" Daughter, "No, we just have to list a resource." It took several moments to clarify that by printed Dad meant a resource that was printed in a book or magazine, daughter thought he meant printing out a copy of her resource on the computer.
As I followed the post-election demonstrations in Iran on Twitter, which were described as the first Twitter-recorded revolution, I was struck by the irony that not only was I following events half a world away on Twitter, but I'd learned about the Twitter hash (posts on a specific topic that carry their own marking for search purposes, as #IranElection) through a conversation on Second Life and that conversation had involved people in a third country. It is not the world in which I grew up.
When we talk about transformation in congregations, we often underplay the sense of dislocation and loss people experience when they find themselves in an alien world. Ethnic congregations know this. The ethnic congregations I've worked with tend to preserve their old-country ties within their community life. They not only keep the language, they follow old-country patterns of worship. They choose hymns from the old country. They celebrate old-country festivals and serve familiar food at fellowship hours. We spent my daughter's first Easter eating kimchi with a Korean congregation, because that was part of their Easter feast. It is easy to understand why ethnic congregations preserve the old ways. All week long people adjust to new and different ways. All week long they communicate, sometimes easily and sometimes with difficulty, in what to them is foreign language. All week long they deal with misunderstandings and unmet expectations. In worship, ethnic communities remember and receive some of the comfort of home. By worshiping in a way that speaks to their hearts, members hear God affirm that the home they have lost, the home that shaped them, also had worth. Their traditional worship tells them that God values where they came from and who they have been.
Many of the people in our congregations are strangers in a strange land as much as any immigrant. They are refugees cut off from the home that formed them. The difference between them and immigrants is that they did not move to a foreign land; this strange land emerged around them. The world that shaped them is gone. The community they were used to and which they understood is gone. Even the language they spoke is gone. Now it is full of strange words like twitter, and bite, and pixel. Bruce Hermann, in his book A Bold Step of Faith states, "I was trained to be pastor in a world that no longer exists" (Herman, 2006, p. 58). I've heard other ministers make similar comments. If clergy feel dislocated by the changes that have occurred, how can we expect members to be unaffected?
Evangelism workshops and books talk about how we need new approaches to reach a new generation. Who talks about the affect of the changes on those who were shaped by a substantially different world? Where are the conversations about how the Church is called to help people who are forced to live in a world not of their making, and often not of their liking? Do we even recognize that as new ideas and ways of thinking reshape every corner of life people shaped by an earlier way of life find their world dying? Do we recognize the grief and fear that accompanies that change? Many of our members find themselves living as refugees from the past. Like immigrants who have come to a strange land, they find there is only one place that still speaks to their hearts, which still provides the comforts of home. That place is their church.
As the world changes, some people adjust and thrive while others struggle with the loss and the grief that accompanies it. Understanding this allows us to understand that resistance to change and transition is often a cry of anguish that is rooted in the fear of further and final loss. It is not obstinacy. It is not just a lack of openness to the new or different. It is a cry born of pain and worry. Although they may not be able to articulate it, many of our members, those who seem most resistant to transition and the new, fear that the last of their familiar world will disappear if their church changes. They sense they will be cut off, homeless, without roots to which they can return if that last bit of their familiar world goes. They worry they will no longer have value in this new world.
I found myself speaking with another congregation facing the problems that accompany transition and transformation. The group spoke of the difficulties of learning how to reach the new folk in the community who are so unlike them. How can they contact people? How can they understand their differences? How can they offer something that will share their faith with people who have such different backgrounds? As members of the group spoke, I noticed one person sitting quietly, looking increasingly uncomfortable. As the conversation continued, I pointed out this congregation has a more difficult challenge than the flourishing new independents around them. A new congregation only has to focus on reaching one group. As an established congregation, they need to reach out in new ways while also reassuring those who have a history that there will still be a place for them. I pointed out that for those who'd been here a long time the community changes form a collection of losses. As a congregation they needed to ensure a place for those who'd been there awhile as well as newcomers. As I spoke, I noticed the uncomfortable member nodding, looking relieved. It was as if an unspoken fear had been identified. Later I was informed that the individual whom I had identified as being uncomfortable with the idea of new outreach was one of the people most resistant to anything being done differently.
Too often, we dismiss those who resist change or anything new as simply being stubborn or intransigent. If their resistance is to a group who are of a different race or ethnicity, who speak a different language or come from a different cultural background we call them bigots. If resistance is to a group who are younger, we dismiss it as unwillingness to share power. What we seldom do is listen to their stories, understand where they come from, and recognize why the changes happening in our world and our communities raise deep emotions centering on fear, loss, confusion, and grief over what was but is no more.
When we recognize this sense of loss, we can approach the resistance to change and transition differently. We do not have to avoid it for the sake of those who find it painful, nor do we have to push it through by force. Instead, we can minister to the pain. As do ethnic churches, we can find ways to affirm people's history even in the midst of the change. We can affirm that they too are valuable in God's eyes. We can affirm that God values where they came from and who they have been and still are. We can affirm that what shaped their faith had value and how they expressed that faith was important. We can do that even as we affirm that other people come to faith with a different set of experiences that shape their faith in different ways and lead them to express their faith through different means.
The question is how do we do both? How do we minister with and to people whose lives and faith are shaped by this emerging new world, who need a form of faith that answers the questions that arise in this new world? How do we at the same time and within the same congregation minister with and to people shaped by a fading world, who respond to a form of faith that was shaped by that world? How do we do both without tearing ourselves or each other apart?
All of us tend to view and understand and measure the world from our own perspective and experience. There is a tendency to think that what is meaningless to us is also meaningless for others. Overcoming the gap among people in their experience and expressions of faith involves separating our responses and those of other people. It involves understanding that ways of demonstrating faith which are meaningless to us may still be meaningful to others followed by respecting rather than denigrating the differences. That respect needs to go both ways. In several congregations I've served, I've heard members grouse and complain over the lack of faith they see in representatives of another group. The real objection is usually that the other group isn't doing things the way the complainers expect. In one congregation, a relatively new Christian fussed about the lack of faith and spiritual commitment among many of the older members. Among the people dismissed was a woman, then in her eighties, who had started the local Meals on Wheels program and a daycarecenter for older adults. Still active herself, she frequently showed signs of fatigue from caring for a husband suffering from dementia. She regularly brought her husband to worship and watched over him there, but she did not attend the Bible Study the younger member felt important.
One way to bridge the differences is to provide opportunities for people to share their faith journeys. Storytelling can bring understanding. Hearing one another's stories, especially when those stories come from ordinary people and not professional speakers, is quite powerful. Such storytelling can become a moving part of worship, though many people need help shaping their stories. It can also be done in small groups. Telling faith journeys lifts up and affirms gifts from the past. For those who sense their world is fading and who fear that where they came from and what they did will be forgotten or dismissed, telling their stories can bring new affirmation. A woman I know shared with several members of a worship team the story of her childhood, how because the family was large and their church at some distance everyone could not make it every Sunday. Worship was also held at home as part of family life, and preparation for Sunday worship began with family gatherings on Saturday evenings. The family would not only read scripture together, they would also sing together. After hearing her story, one of the younger members told her that he was beginning to incorporate some of her family's actions into his own practices. He had found that Sunday worship had more meaning when he started thinking about it on Saturday. Her history found new meaning in the younger member's response.
The real challenge comes while living together. It's important to recognize that people's capacity to deal with the new and different varies. Too many changes become overwhelming causing people's ability to cope with additional change to decline. My father died, my husband retired, and my daughter became a teenager within three months. A short time later I attended a pastor's retreat during which we were asked to describe where we were being called to change in our lives. My blunt response was that at that point I was not interested in anything new, I wanted stability.
Some members are in a similar position. They have experienced so many changes in their own lives that what they most desire from their church is stability and comfort. In one congregation, I watched members provide extra support to the person who was most reluctant to see anything new happen. They understood the overwhelming experiences she had gone through. In the space of a few years she had lost her husband, one adult child, and was facing the lost of a second adult child. Her third child lived in another city. Through visits and intentionally including her in a variety of events, they made it clear she was and would continue to be a part of the congregation's family no matter what else happened.
When we talk about transition and transformation, we need to recognized that congregations are made up of people, and like individuals they have different capacities for dealing with the new and different. The strategy to use when trying to reach new groups of people depends on how much grief and loss a congregation has already dealt with and how much upheaval it can face in the future. Some congregations have experienced great losses. They have lost members and income. They have lost programs and ministries that were once important. They are puzzled by a world that has become very different and do not understand why what used to work, does not work anymore. Their previous attempts to make changes either had no response or ended in disaster. Worse, previous changes may have led to divisions that divided the congregation, broke friendships, and left people feeling battered and bruised. Their heartache over the losses of the past may be overwhelming. As a result, they respond to anything innovative negatively, and they respond to new people the same way. When this group predominates in a congregation, it is probably best not to fight them. Instead, find a way to care for their heartache and grief while starting a new parallel ministry in the same area, and keep the two separate.
Other congregations have a mixed response to change. Their members recognize that there are multiple ways to express faith and want to honor that. On the other hand, they are also aware of their own sense of dislocation and need for their church to provide them a sense of stability and familiarity. Congregations with a moderate capacity for difficulties can minister to different communities by adding another worship service or other event. However, this option will surface hidden fears and concerns that the new worship service or event will take away from what already exists. This concern is often expressed as financial, that the new will take more than its share of resources. It may also be expressed as a concern that people won't all be together and won't all know each other, that the community of the congregation will be impacted. Both concerns reflect the usually unspoken fear that the new people involved will have neither understanding nor sympathy for those who have been involved for a long period, will take over and end traditions that have meaning to those already there, and will end up producing yet another loss for those who already feel dislocated in a changing world. The concerns are best dealt with by raising and addressing the hidden fear of loss and the heartbreak that accompanies it. Again, it is an issue best dealt with by having people describe who they are, what is important to them, and why.
Finally, there are congregations whose members have not been overwhelmed by grief and loss. They are comfortable with differences and do not see them as warning signs of losses to come. They don't mind being around other experiences and expressions as long as there are sufficient familiar pieces to give them a sense of home also. Congregations filled with such folk can develop blended services and events that appeal to many different folk. The pieces that don't touch a particular individual or group are tolerated with the knowledge that something else will touch them. Because they know their parts will be there, people comfortable with differences can relax. They know their interests are not forgotten and that they and their contributions are still considered valuable.
No matter what path a congregation takes, the reality is we live in a time of great shifts. The kinds of transition and transformation needed to minister in this new world often bring heartbreak. Some of it comes from the losses that inevitably accompany change. We end up saying goodbye to people, ministries, even worship styles that have helped define us. Some of the heartbreak comes from misunderstandings and the failure to respect those who express their faith in different ways. In either case, we worsen the difficulties when we ignore the hurt. We cannot prevent all the heartbreak. Transition and transformation always bring losses that grieve people. When we recognize, name, and minister to the pain, however, we can mitigate it. We can lessen the strife and anger the losses produce. We can also recognize when the hurt and loss has become too overwhelming for people to deal with more change. In that case we can stop wasting energy and aggravating the pain by pushing for changes that won't come and instead put energy into nurturing new life elsewhere while saying to those whose time is fading, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Hermann, B.I. (2006). A Bold step of faith: Move your church from survival to mission!, 1st ed. Ventura, CA: SecondWindBookworks.
The Reverend Dr. Elizabeth Steele was ordained by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1980 and has worked with congregations that have experienced traumatic events or are undergoing difficult transitions throughout her ministry. She has also worked in a variety of multiethnic and multicultural settings. Her masters and doctoral degrees are from the University of Chicago Divinity School. In addition to her work as an interim pastor, Elizabeth is a member of APIMS (The Association of Presbyterian Interim Ministry Specialists ) and served on their board. She is the author of a number of articles looking at ministry including “How Responding to People's Needs Hurts the Church” printed in Congregations: The Alban Journal, Vol XXXIV, no. 2 (Spring 2008), and reprinted on line.