This is the time of year when appointmaking takes place in the United Methodist Church. I am learning from my more seasoned colleagues that when making routine phone calls to clergy in the winter, I should begin with a disclaimer, “I want you to know that this call is not about a new appointment!”
Being reappointed is the occasion for anxiety, stress, and grief as well as excitement, anticipation and energy. In the midst of varied emotions, there is one constant: change.
The call came for me a year ago January. After 13 years in the same church, I forgot what it’s like to have your life turned upside down in a moment. I knew the transition would not be easy. After all, when you love a congregation deeply, you can’t just stop loving them on July 1. I read books on clergy transition, spent time in retreat and was intentional in finding ways to say goodbye and prepare for a new pastor.
The first months in my new job were busy and full, as I immersed myself in the life and ministry of a district superintendent. Then, in November, everything seemed different. All of the losses I experienced through the change stared me in the face. I finally admitted that I was confused, angry, depressed and feeling disconnected from God. Waves of overwhelming grief washed over me.
It wasn’t until I read an email article in the Alban Weekly a few months later that I began to understand. In his book, Leading Change in the Congregation; Spiritual and Organizational Tools For Leaders, author Gil Rendle describes the natural progression of feelings during times of great change. The roller coaster of change, shown below, was first adapted from Ralph G. Hirschowitz by United Methodist bishop, Susan Hassinger.[i]
I thought I had dealt with my grief before the change took place. What I failed to anticipate is that the initial grief might not only come back but that I might even bottom out by questioning whether I wanted to “stick with it” or leave. By working with a spiritual director, reading scripture and books, and sharing with family and close friends, I have been able to ride the roller coaster and emerge with a new sense of hope, commitment and purpose. We often hear that when change happens, things get worse before they get better. However, the actual sequence is that things can get better before they get worse before they get better again.
People grieving the loss of loved ones experience the same process. Acceptance often comes soon after death. Only later, sometimes months later, do anger and depression hit full force. It’s not just sorrow. It’s more like a yearning for our loved one. It’s not denial so much as it is heartache. Something reminds us of our loss, and the wound reopens.
Pastors and congregations ride the same roller coaster when change takes place in the church. That change could be the appointment of a new pastor, the addition of another worship service, a building program, or the start of a major outreach initiative. At first, excitement mounts at the possibilities inherent in the change. Hopes and dreams abound.
As the church enters into necessary change, however, ambivalent feelings and disappointment must be addressed when things don’t go as smoothly as anticipated. Feelings of loss are expressed as criticism, and concerns and disillusionment are met with disbelief by leaders who were convinced everything was fine. They don’t realize that the congregational system is adjusting to change by seeking stability and balance. Fortunately, the system will eventually loop through the negative feelings back into a positive state when leaders understand the roller coaster of change.
I encourage you to consider these questions for reflection.
- Have you ever experienced the roller coaster of change?
- Is your church in the middle of the emotional cycles of such a roller coaster?
- Are you aware of how initial positive energy can turn into negative energy and eventually back into positive energy?
- How can you be a calm, self-differentiated presence in the midst of change?
P.S. Making a Difference: Understanding the United Methodist System of Giving