A few weeks ago, I met with David Carr a Ph.D. student and ministry candidate from Eastside UMC. David was carrying a copy of Arnold van Gennep’s book of The Rites of Passage, where van Gennep outlines the 3 phases of change rituals: separation, transition (or threshold), reincorporation. David was looking for a reference in the book for his dissertation.
Our conversation took me back to when I was working on my dissertation where I also used portions of van Gennep’s book. My work was on how transitions (or threshold experiences) affect the faith development of college students.
Little did I know that my doctoral work on transitions with students would lead to a career-long quest of helping individuals and churches navigate and manage transitions—I even tried planting a new church called Threshold Church!
Here’s a helpful hint: If you ever have a bout with insomnia and need to settle your mind with something that’ll put you to sleep, I recommend reading my dissertation.
Like lenses in glasses that seamlessly adapt to changing light, from clear indoors to dark outdoors, and every shade in between, a transition is the emotional re-centering that we all must go through to make change work. And contrary to popular belief, the shift doesn't start with a new situation but when we're able to let go of our old status. Endings come first. Simply put: you can't do something new until you have let go of what you are currently doing.
In my position as District Superintendent, I’m discovering that the majority of my job is transition management. In fact, this is where the mission of equipping churches to imagine new ways to connect people with Jesus has its roots. To imagine new ways, first, we must let go of the ways, which requires transition management.
Transition management has 5 tasks: Honoring the past, Assessing the strengths of the present, Assuring what will remain the same, Helping people deal with loss, and Casting the vision for the future.
While it might seem odd at first glance, my blueprint for transition management doesn’t come from Simon Sinek, John Maxwell, Ken Blanchard, Patrick Lencioni or other leaders in Organizational Development. Instead, my blueprint comes from Moses and the transition management process found in the book of Exodus.
According to the Bible, Moses’ “organization” was the people of Israel. Before his time, in the days of Joseph, his people had lived in Egypt contentedly and held considerable power. And by the time Moses is born, the Egyptians had enslaved his people. This is always the case in an organization that is approaching a change: in some way or another, it is “enslaved” to an outlived way of doing things, thinking about things, or evaluating things.
Moses did what any good leader of transition management does: he looked for ways to get the old system to “let my people go.” He discovered that it's difﬁcult to break a system's hold on people. And usually, what happens during the ﬁrst phase of transition (ending), plagues of problems began to develop.
Today, the “plagues” that affect our churches are more metaphorical, but the message conveyed by the plagues is always the same: “We've never done it this way before, and the old ways aren’t working anymore.” As we read in Exodus, whatever the old system is, it always “follows” people, and tries to pull us back, just as the Pharaoh's army did.
In the church world, the old way represents old values, outdated processes, symbols, and ceremonies that exert a hold on people. Perhaps it's a worship style, a particular fellowship event, or a long-tenured and beloved staff person's way of doing things that tug at our heartstrings so that it's hard to let go. When we experience this tug, it's an indication that change is ahead and we are on the edge of the wilderness of uncertainty.
And while people will react to the wilderness in different ways, it always follows the familiar of idealizing (and perhaps idolizing) the way things used to be. In Exodus, the Israelites idealized their former life in Egypt and began to "murmur:
“What was so bad about Egypt anyway?”
“Do you think Moses knows where he's going?"
“I’d never signed up for this if I knew it was going to be like this!”
Moses could not get his people into the Promised Land—so the tradition goes—until the ones who had known Egypt had died. If we take that literally, it is a pretty discouraging message. But if we take it symbolically, it suggests that the old attitudes and behaviors that were appropriate to Egypt must die, so that new ones can be generated, or else the Promised Land will prove to be just a new Egypt.
Every church will experience murmuring in the transition process. Put another way, when people began to complain about things in the church, it's a sure sign that transition is afoot. And if we're going to help churches make it through its wilderness seasons, then we must learn to manage the development.
Are you willing to ensure that people are seen, heard, inspired and belong in the midst of a change in your church? What are the plagues that are chasing you? Are there old attitudes and behaviors that need to die in your church? Are there signs of enslavement to outlived ways of doing things that need to broken?
Transition happens when we let go of the past, endure the wilderness of uncertainty and accept a new beginning.
On the Journey,
Technology and Digital Ministry