Thursday, October 11, 2007

Thoughts on Transitions and Change

The other afternoon I grabbed a book off my shelf and headed round the corner to an old-fashioned barber's shop to get my first haircut since arriving in Cambridge. They don't take appointments, you just have to sit until it is your turn to be shorn, so I needed something to while the waiting time away. The book I picked up was William Bridges' Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change.

This is a book I have read several times before, as well as dipping into from time to time because the writer understands transitions, my life has been shaped by a series of difficult transitions, and I have not always navigated them well. Indeed, I think that I have developed this abiding interest in the future because I sometimes transition so badly that I have hoped it would give me a leg up, as it were! As I flipped through the pages and looked at my previous underlinings I realized that perhaps I was not as far down the transitional road back into English life as I had thought.

Bridges identifies several stages to a transition, the first being making a good ending of what you have been and what you have been doing. You cannot get on with a constructive transition until you have given decent Christian burial to your past. When you move forward into something new, there are always losses and with those losses come a tangle of emotions, awkward feelings, and ambivalences, all of which require your best attention.

The day after my haircut I received an email from someone who because of the health of a child has had to leave in mid-stream a ministry that he loved in order to be in a place where his kid is going to receive absolutely vital health care. Of course, he and his wife were battered and bewildered by his internal responses to all they found themselves going through. I understand some of those feelings, because that is where part of me is right now. Put simply, I am not yet able to be fully engaged in my ministry in Cambridge because there are still so many factors of my life in Tennessee that, quite honestly, I am finding trouble letting go of.

Individuals, organizations, cultures all have trouble saying farewell to the past and moving on into the kind of neutral zone where they are able to reorient, and which is the beginning of so many elements of growth that can take place when transitioning. Abandoning our past is not the way to healthily handle transition, because abandonment aborts the process of leaving and grieving. To put it crudely, it is a bit like not bothering to go to a parent or sibling's funeral, however much you were at odds with that family member. If we are to make a fresh beginning then it is essential that we manage a good ending to the old.

Transition has the capacity make you into a very different kind of person. Handle it well and you grow, handle it badly and you either stagnate or fester. William Bridges wrote another much more personal book about his own transitions which he sub-titled "embracing life's most difficult moments." The message of this book is loud and clear that if you fail to embrace such moments then it is possible that maturities of which you are capable will pass you by. He echoes the opening words of Moby Dick, where Herman Melville writes about "the damp, drizzly November of my soul." I guess that journeys of transition often feel like this, and it is necessary for us to gird ourselves up and grasp them appropriately.

The transition I am making is not only from the USA to England, but is also from parish ministry to seminary work, from maintaining the life of a congregation to advancing the life of a theological college that has an exciting future. I feel at sea in that I no longer have a congregation, which to me has always been a bit like an extended family to which I belong, but I am in the process of becoming part of a team in the rather intense little communities that seminaries often tend to be. Meanwhile, for the first time in nearly forty years I find myself temporarily living not as part of a couple but a single life - which means I am learning all sorts of interesting things about myself as I wait for my wife to arrive.

In the midst of all that is going on in my own life I am reading a recent history of Ridley Hall, commissioned for the 125th anniversary of the college. The Sixties and Seventies, were a painful period when the whole future of Ridley was up for grabs, and the college struggled to make a difficult transition either into oblivion, or a merger, or into something different. One of the reasons it was so difficult was because these were difficult years for the Christian faith in Britain.

Elements of the mood of that period I recall as if it was yesterday, because it was when I was preparing for and starting out on my ordained life. While our seminary was relatively healthy, when I got into parish life I found myself confronted with all sorts of things I had not been expecting because so much was changing. We had been trained for one kind of ministry, but so much happened during the four years I was in process that by the time I came out a different kind of world was being born. The fabric of the church was being stretched within a context where the fabric of the culture was being radically altered. I am certain that some of my peers have spent their whole ministries with heads buried in the sand trying to ignore what is happening.

The truth is that Ridley Hall came within a whisker of dying in the early Seventies. By God's grace that didn't quite happen, and while reading the story of the college's trials is agony, the story of its rebirth makes fascinating reading. Now, several decades later this is a place of grace that is full to overflowing with men and women eager to serve Christ with heart, soul, mind, and strength in the church. Yet some of the seeds that are blossoming today were planted during that 'near death' experience that took place a couple of generations ago.

The transition that Ridley has made has not been easy, and the veterans here would perhaps agree that there is still a long way to go, but out of that era has come something potentially very beautiful for God. Valuable lessons were learned in those dark years that so far have not been forgotten, and I sense that no one rests on their laurels here. There is something extraordinarily robust about this theological college as it focuses on Christ, his truth, and how these impact the nation and nations during this postmodern time.

Perhaps the lesson to be learned about transitioning is that these periods cannot be forced, any more than a child can be encouraged to be born on its due date! Our lives don't straighten out after a transition for months for any number of reasons, but out of these in-between-times can come great and glorious blessings.

As I flicked the pages of Managing Transitions as I waited for a little boy to finish having his hair cut the other afternoon I rediscovered a quote from the French novelist Andre Gide that rings bells with me: "One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a long time."

I suspect that in the church today we have lost sight of the shore, but if we can accept that we are being led forward under the sovereign hand of God, then in due course and by his grace we will discover new lands.


Anonymous said...

Read a great quote today from James Baldwin's essay "A Fly in Buttermilk." He was writing about a Southern "Negro" (that was the word used back then), the educational director of a black college, who was dealing with integration almost as badly as the whites:

"The new day a-coming was not for him. I don't think this fact made him bitter but I think it frightened him and made him sad; for the future is like heaven -- everyone exalts it but no one wants to go there. now."

I just thought this was a fantastic quote and fits the idea of awkward transitions.

Thanks for a great piece.

Anonymous said...

Oops, I typed an extra period which spoiled the last bit, which is an absolutely wonderful quote and deserves to be printed right:

"[T]he future is like heaven -- everyone exalts it but no one wants to go there now."

Thanks for letting me get that right. :)