Navigating the stages; remembering our “why”

William Bridges identified three essential stages to all transitions, whether they are life transitions (marriage, births, deaths), situational transitions (graduations, employment changes, relocations), or cultural transitions (shifts in technology, communication, political mandates).  The three stages, in order, are (1) endings (letting go), (2) the neutral zone (the confusion of the in-between time), and (3) making a beginning (starting over).  Importantly, the three stages are epigenetic; that is, the negotiation of each stage is dependent on the successful negotiation of the preceding stage.  One must deal with endings first, in order to enter into the neutral zone where one reorients, in order to make a good new beginning.  Such an orderly progression makes perfect sense as we go through transitions.  However, the real helpfulness of Bridge’s work is that he demonstrates the natural preference and tendency to try to deal with transitions by beginning at stage three.  Normally people would prefer to skip the first two stages.

From:  “Quietly Courageous: Leading the Church in a Changing World,” by Gil Rendle.

Yup.  The whole skip the first two stages, endings and the neutral zone/confusing in-between time, and just moving to stage three – what’s happening next – is my jam.  How about you?  Long goodbye’s?  No thank you.  Taking some time before jumping into what’s next?  That sounds onerous.  Let’s just TTFN (ta-ta-for-now) and get on with it!  Impatience thy name is my own.

And then I learned, more the hard way than not – is there a different way to learn? I learned the hard way that avoiding grief doesn’t make it disappear, it simply tends to come out in less than healthy ways.  Skipping past the periods of uncertainty when it feels like the ground beneath your feet is moving because what you’ve always relied on is shifting, simply means you’re more apt to fall down later.  It’s the process of attempting to run before crawling, then standing holding on to something, then walking from one safe place to another, then risking a walk beyond the safety-net, then finally running.

And the truth is, even when knowing that going through the stages of large transitions is what is most helpful, just like learning to run, there are times when you still fall down and end up with scabs on your knees and bruises to your ego.  At least that’s my experience both with running and with life-changing decisions that affect not only your own life, but the lives of those around you for whom you care and who care for you.

We are in the throes of that process at Grace as I’ve announced my retirement and we are spending these few months getting used to the idea, processing what healthy endings look like, and making what plans we can for the “neutral/in-between time when the ending has occurred but before the new beginning takes place.” What I’ve found is that you can read all the books and it makes all the sense, and then when you start living it, it’s complex and hard and joyful and funny and profound and perplexing and messy and simply perfectly imperfect, because well, we human beings are involved.

I’m a rather “big-picture-look-aheader” and so much of this process is not that, and frankly the “not that” part of it is what is most important right now.  It’s the small moments: the details, the recollections in laughter and tears, the amazements and regrets, all mushed together into a container we might label as “endings”.  And if it was simply and clearly only about endings then we might could settle in, look at each other knowingly, nod and smile, and watch the mental movies – some through which we would fast forward, others we might put on repeat a couple of times to shake our heads and laugh at how naïve we were with what we tried.

Most of our staff and leadership have heard me say and may be getting tired of it already, that I am and will do my best to end well.  To take seriously this process which makes me uncomfortable in so many ways, and walk through it for the best possible unencumbering for that which will come next.  I trust that it is the most faithful way to walk this journey – though the thought of pulling a u-haul up to the door nearest my office and throwing 20 years worth of collected valuables in and driving away in the darkness is an on-going temptation. Those of you who have been to my office know that’s not a real possibility – simply because even if I started at sundown I wouldn’t be done by sun-up the next day, and true ninja escapes can only happen in the dark!

What keeps me on the path, actually what keeps all of us on the path when it is most difficult, is the grace of God reminding us that finally, it’s not simply or even mostly about us.  Put that on repeat.  We stay on this path that is not always the most comfortable because it’s about God and the vision God has for all of us – this community of faith called Grace, the current clergy and staff, and this old pastor.

I’m including a video clip at the end that, for me, gives clarity to our shared foundation, which is the “why” of who we are.  It’s our “why” that informs the “what” that we do.  The “why” of this community of faith moves far beyond the “who” that leads it.  The “why” has been our foundation since 1858 and has been the constant that moved us from a start through various phases and locations and populations and generations to the moments we live today.  The why as Jesus made clear for all disciples is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. How we do that is unique to each congregation and likely to each generation of that congregation.  The how and the what always creatively changes in each chapter, but the why, friends, the why is the unchanging nature of the grace of God we see in and through the manifestation of Jesus.

Endings will never likely be my favorite.  Uncertainty is so not my jam.  And there is blessing in the midst of discomfort, vulnerability, and the risk of engaging in the process of being human together.  New and yet unknown beginnings are ahead with the promise of the continuing vision of God’s grace. We’ll walk this process of endings and uncertainty so that the new beginning will be the best we have for God’s purpose for all of us.  Love.  Always.  Wins.

(link to video)


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