By Sue Magrath
In a world turned upside down by an invisible virus, we have all been thrown into turmoil. This turmoil has been marked by many transitions—from in-person to virtual worship, from outreach programs to urging people to stay put in their homes, from familiar ways of doing ministry to the sudden need for technological skills, from a regular rhythm to your work week to disruption so drastic that it’s often hard to even know what day it is. Transitions are always hard, but when so many happen all at once, it is easy to see why we are stretched to the limit and stressed beyond the capacity of our ordinary coping skills.
And then there are the pastors who are undergoing an appointment transition! It’s all just too much!
Many years ago, when I was undergoing a purposeful transition of closing my therapy practice in Phoenix and moving to Washington to focus on spiritual direction and writing, someone recommended a book that made a world of difference to me in processing that transition. The book is called Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes by William Bridges. I found it to be extremely helpful, even somewhat spiritual though it was a secular book. Now, before you either rush off to order this book or think to yourself: when does she think we are going to find time to read, I’m going to share the main gist here because I think this simple model might serve as a helpful framework for what you are going through.
Bridges describes three phases of a transition: 1) endings, 2) the neutral zone, and 3) new beginnings. Of course, this transition is one that has been thrust upon us with little warning, so the way you move through these stages will be somewhat different.
The phase of endings is about saying goodbye. It’s about acknowledging what has been or is being lost, grieving it, and letting go. Maybe it’s about pondering what you will miss about the old way and what you are ready to leave behind for the new thing that has been necessitated by this virus. The process of grieving the endings is going to vary from person to person, just like the grief of any other type of loss. But the most important part is allowing yourself to grieve, giving an outlet to your feelings. The more you shove those emotions aside, the more likely they will emerge in other ways, sometimes in ways you can’t control and at times when you need to have your “pastor face” on.
Unfortunately, we didn’t really get a neutral zone, the space in which an ending has already happened and before a new thing has yet to begin. The neutral zone is a time of unknowing and uncertainty, a time to accept the changes that are happening and allow the unfolding to occur organically. This is a time to surrender to the Spirit’s leading and not try to control outcomes. It is liminal space. It is also scary! Even though there hasn’t been time for a graceful transition, perhaps if we approach this new reality with an attitude of surrender, it will be less of a struggle. The blessing of the neutral zone is that it is also a time to let go of anything that no longer serves us. Perhaps there can be a more conscious awareness of what those things are as we move forward into the new reality.
This brings us to the new beginning. We’ve been at this radical shift in the ways we do church for a while now, and for some of you, that might be getting a little bit easier. I hope so. But for now, maybe we can learn to recognize the gifts of this change even as we struggle to adjust and learn.
I have a feeling that, while we will all welcome a time when we return to worshiping together in the physical space of our sanctuaries, there may be some new ways, new skills, new wisdom that we will retain as we move the church out into the world and away from the building that sometimes serves as an anchor that holds us in the past.
For God reminds us, “Behold, I am doing a new thing! Do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19)
Sue Magrath is a spiritual director and the author of several books. Her previous career spanned fourteen years in the mental health field, where many of her clients were victims/survivors of child sexual abuse and/or sexual assault.