The Hard Work of Transition
Rev. Amy Russell
May 18, 2014, Davies Memorial
Every sermon about transition usually talks about Moses. And of course, you have to start such a sermon with a joke about Moses. But this joke is a two-fer. It has Moses and George W. Bush in it. It goes like this:
George W. Bush, the president of the United States, was in an airport lobby and noticed a man in a long flowing white robe with a long flowing white beard and flowing white hair. The man had a staff in one hand and some stone tablets under the other arm.
Excited, George W. approached the man and inquired, “Aren’t you Moses?” The man ignored George W. and stared at the ceiling.
Mr. Bush positioned himself more directly in the man’s view and asked again, “Aren’t you Moses?” The man continued to peruse the ceiling.
George tugged at the man’s sleeve and asked once again, “Aren’t you Moses?” The man finally responded in an irritated voice, “Yes I am.” George W. asked him why he was so uppity and the man replied, “The last time I spoke to a Bush I had to spend forty years in the desert!”
So, we all have heard about the Israelites who spent forty years wandering in the desert with their leader Moses. When the Israelites were led by the “pillar of fire” through the Red Sea and they began their time in the desert, they weren’t so happy. They had left Egypt where they had plenty of meat and plenty of wine to drink, and Moses led them to this hot, dry, never-ending desert where they didn’t know where they were going to get their next meal. I mean, they didn’t have McDonald’s out there then. The kids kept saying to their parents, “Are we there, yet?” And the parents had no idea how to answer that question because Moses wasn’t sure from day to day where they were going. So, the Israelites were pretty unhappy. The Bible says that they started “murmuring”. That’s the word in the Bible for grumbling or grousing. Lots of murmuring was going on.
There was murmuring about no meat and there was murmuring about nothing to drink. There was murmuring about not having a roof over their heads. The Israelites remembered what it was like to live in the Egyptian palaces where there was plenty of food and drink. So, they began to wonder why they had followed Moses out into the desert and who this God was who had commanded them to follow.
The problem the Israelites had is a problem that a lot of us have when we’re in transition in our lives. When we’ve left one part of our lives and we haven’t quite seen what the next part of our lives is going to be like, we feel lost and confused about why we got ourselves into this mess in the first place.
I have to say that during the past six months of my life, I felt a lot like the Israelites. There was a lot of murmuring going on in my house. My husband, Bill, can tell you. I wasn’t the happiest camper. And I didn’t know what was next in my life, couldn’t see the shape of my future, and I felt sort of at a loss as to who I was and what I wanted. And when you’re in this kind of transition, you experience several feelings. One is fear. One can be denial. And one can be anger.
I was certainly fearful. I had moved here so that Bill and I could finally live together after 12 years of managing a commuter marriage. I had given up my wonderful congregation in Ohio and left a small town where I had many friends and activities. I came here to start a new life with my husband. Except I didn’t know what that new life was going to be. So, I felt stuck. I kept thinking about the life I had left. The friends I had left and the church I had left. I didn’t know who I was in this new life. Without a job or role, I didn’t know who I wanted to be. And much like the Israelites, I started doing some murmuring, or complaining. I was stuck in the old life and not doing much movement toward my new life. I had lots of changes that I was dealing with, but I wasn’t quite ready for the transition to the new life.
William Bridges, a consultant on models of change, writes that there’s a difference between change and transition. He says that change is something that happens to people, even if they don’t seek it. Transition, on the other hand, is internal, it’s what is happening in our minds to try to figure out the change. The change in our lives can happen very quickly, but the transition that we need to make in our internal thought takes a lot longer.
He outlines three stages in the transition that people’s mind make when they are trying to deal with change. First there’s stage one: ending, losing, and letting go. This is the really hard part- the letting go of what we have lost, grieving it, and finally getting to some acceptance about that loss. Then, we are in a transitional phase, which Bridges calls the “neutral zone”. This is where we aren’t sure what’s next. We struggle with who we are and what we want to become. The final phase, moving into a new beginning doesn’t always happen for a long time.
So, it is Bridges that suggest that when we’re in this first stage of ending, losing and letting go that we might feel fear, denial, and even anger. So, as I said, I was certainly experiencing fear in my first couple of months. Fear that I wouldn’t make any friends. Fear that I wouldn’t find a job. And mostly fear, that I didn’t know who I was anymore.
Denial. Well, I wasn’t in denial about my being in transition. But I was in denial about how long this transition would take. I figured I was going to change careers and find a new job in a non-profit and then I’d be happy again. So, I got to work on finding a job in a non-profit. I started applying for jobs on-line. I’d write probably three cover letters a day, maybe 10-12 a week. And I’d wait and I’d wait. And I wouldn’t hear anything back. Now I understood that I was applying for jobs in a new field. The biggest thing I hadn’t really processed was if I was still if I really wanted a job in a non-profit or if I just was taking a break from ministry. I hadn’t really processed whether I wanted to leave ministry or not. I hadn’t figured out what my main purpose in life would be moving forward. I hadn’t ended one part of my life before I was trying to transition on to a new part.
When we’re in transition, as Bridges notes, we don’t always take in account that something has ended in our lives and we need to let go. We aren’t always aware that we’re grieving something we’ve lost and we have some emotions of sadness and a sense of loss. Rachel Naomi Remen in our reading today took some time out to grieve the loss of her ring. Then she realized that the loss of that ring symbolized an empty space in her life that made room for new beginnings.
Even when we’ve noted that we’ve lost something and that we’re grieving, we don’t always know how to let go and move from that stage to the next, the neutral zone. In this next stage, people might be confused, uncertain, and impatient, Bridges says. This is the time between having let go of the old, and before understanding what the new change means. In this phase, we may still be attached to the old ways of doing things and not knowing how to adapt to the new. Just like the “unbudging Zaks” in the Dr. Seuss story today who got stuck in place because they wouldn’t take a step in a new direction.
I think Davies is kind of stuck in this place between the first stage of grieving your losses and letting go, and the next stage which is the neutral zone. I see many people still stuck on the things that Davies was in the past, and are feeling lost and unable to take a next step into an uncertain future.
The kinds of things I hear that make me feel that Davies is stuck are things like this:
• We’re tired.
• We miss having more members to do all the work.
• We miss having a really caring community.
• We’d like to move forward to focus on bigger issues, but we don’t know how.
• We’re sick of having to worry about money.
• We remember the times in the past when we were growing and had energy and excitement.
So, being “stuck in the middle” is sort of about being able to let go of some of the things about the past, and see a vision for the future. Moving on into the “transitional phase” means doing some work on what your purpose in life in all about, and seeing some kind of vision for how you might get there. You really can’t move on into the new beginning phase until you see where you’re going.
For me when I was stuck in this transitional phase, half in the past, and not seeing what was in my future, it was because I hadn’t decided what my true purpose was. I missed ministry but I couldn’t tell if I truly had the energy and drive to move into a new ministry. It wasn’t until Mt. Vernon UU in Alexandria where I was attending asked me to preach that things became clearer to me. I preached and had many people coming up to me afterward wanting to talk about things in their lives that related to what I had spoken about. I realized that preaching in ministry was for me, mostly a pastoral event that allowed me to go deeper with people in relating to what was going on in their lives. I could see that my purpose was in helping a church become a caring community. And my vision for the future became clear. I realized that ministry was where I belonged. After that, I had the energy and drive to go into search for a new congregation.
For you here at Davies, I have seen many good things happening here even while you are somewhat stuck in this transition.
I have seen people who are truly committed to re-vitalizing Davies as a caring community. Many of you have been attending our Non-Violent communication course where we’ve been doing a lot of sharing about how we talk to one another in ways that are more honest and empathetic, while sharing our own feelings and needs. I see many of you struggling with the idea that Davies isn’t as caring a place as you would like, but feeling frustrated at not being able to change that.
I see some people who have a vision of Davies being a place that is more focused on making the world a better place and being frustrated at not being able to get others to join you in this effort.
Some of you are grieving the time when the vision of Davies as an intentionally multi-cultural community was clear and you felt that you were moving in the direction of having worship that reflected that diversity. But moving in that direction seems unclear without a minister to lead you, and without a committed core of people who want to develop that multi-cultural worship.
Some of you are frustrated about not having enough young families to create a truly vibrant RE program for your kids.
In being stuck in this transition, it seems that Davies hasn’t decided what their purpose in really is, what your mission is. That is the hard work of transition that is so needed at Davies right now.
So, in defining your mission, you want to look at what is most important to you in what you want Davies to be. You may not all agree on one specific mission but you might want to work on a few clearly defining purposes like for instance these:
• A caring community
• A community involved in their community and the larger world
• An intentionally multi-cultural and multi-generational community
You each may have one of these that resonates with you more than the others. You each may have ideas on how to create goals to move in one or more of these directions. Many of you, while tired and grieving the past, may still have the heart that is yearning for the vibrant and spirited church that you know Davies can be. Many of you are still dreaming for the time of new beginning for Davies.
Whether you are a long-time member, having lived through the years of disappointment in ministry, or a newer member who really hasn’t had a chance to see what ministry looks like in a UU setting, you are all hoping for some ministerial leadership to help you realize those dreams. Your search committee is working hard to identify candidates for Davies ministry.
Bridges recommends that organizations going through a time of difficult transition, being stuck in the middle so to speak, identify some short term goals that are “quick wins” that might nudge an organization a short distance toward their goal. He says that when people see some progress toward a future direction, they begin to gain energy toward a future.
I think the next steps for Davies involve doing some deep soul searching about your larger identity and purpose and your vision for moving toward that dream. Doing this work may need to wait for your ministerial leadership. But there may be some small short term plans that would move you forward. Then you can celebrate accomplishing these “quick wins” which would boost everyone’s spirit.
You might be able to create vision teams which would develop short term goals and specific plans for moving Davies one or two steps toward your hopes for the future. Your RE committee constitutes one such team that is already making plans to move forward with Board input and assistance. The people in the Non-Violent Communication course could become a team to work with the Membership Committee to create plans for creating a more caring community.
One thing that I learned as soon as I came here is that you identify as an intentional multi-cultural community. The thing I didn’t discover until I was here for awhile is that the intentional part may need some work. Being intentional, to me, means being able to identify what you do thoughtfully and carefully to live those values. It means being able to articulate how you live into that identity. I think it means deep conversations about racial and cultural norms in this community. Conversations about what it feels like to be an African American in this church, what it feels like to be white in this church, what it feels like to be young in this church, or what it feels like to be new in this church.
These conversations might allow one way for moving Davies out of its stuckness and on into the new beginnings. Being open and honest about what kind of church you’d like to have and what you’re each willing to do to move on. Gathering the energy and strength around you to have vision and to work toward it.
The Israelites didn’t stop their murmuring and being stuck for forty years in which they wandered in the desert lost and confused. It wasn’t until Moses revealed the vision of the Promised Land in Caanan that they began to create hopes and dreams for their future. With that vision, and with new leaders in place, the Israelites went forward to create a new nation for their people.
“Let me people go”, was Moses’ plea to the Pharoah. But it was really the work of the people to let go of their past, stop grieving what they no longer had, and move forward with a new vision of what they could be. A new nation and a new people.