Because It's Hard For People
Let’s look at three quick examples of change your church might have experienced in the last few years…
- Membership count changes. Whether a church is growing or dwindling in numbers, a change in membership count has the potential to significantly impact the church, church leadership, and every member of the congregation.
Growing? That’s great! Now there's parking, adding additional services, making sure you’ve got enough childcare attendants and Sunday School teachers, to think about…and the list goes on.
Losing members? Now there's adjusting to smaller budgets, fewer volunteers, more pressure on those who are serving and worshiping, and more to think about.
- People changes. Whether it’s the pastor or director of Christian education, a beloved Bible study leader, or the member who always remembered who liked which cookies, when people move away or pass away, they leave a void behind, and that change can be hard to bear.
And on the flip side, when new members arrive – new staff members, new leadership, new families in town, the adjustment to welcome them, to include them in the various ministry teams and programming, and to listen carefully to the ideas and hopes they’re bringing with them is also a significant change.
- Physical changes. Building buildings, moving locations, adding an atrium/fellowship hall – the big stuff, and even the stuff that doesn’t seem like such big stuff – adding screens or monitors in the sanctuary, bringing the sound system to the modern era, new carpeting, new paint in the women’s restroom, or finally retiring that old couch in the parlor. These changes also impact members of the congregation in different ways.
Even before COVID-19, these types of changes were things many churches wrestled with. And now, each is exacerbated by the Spring and Summer of 2020, with restrictions placed on in-person worship; with the rise of “online church” that will likely never go away; with the budget challenges some churches are now facing along with their out-of-work members.
Change itself isn’t so hard. Look – the walls have been painted, the parking lot resurfaced, the wiring finished in the sanctuary, and you’re right, Marvin and Betsy retired to a warmer climate. So what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that many people struggle with change. Change – transition actually – is a process by which we start from something (let’s call it “A”) that is the way things are; then we have to let go of what was – no matter how much we loved it; then there’s an unstable period between the way things were and the way things will be, followed by an uphill battle of learning new skills, trying new things, and creating new habits and patterns, until eventually we arrive at the new state (let’s call that “B”).
And we have different needs and different emotional responses to each of those different stages through the journey. Many people are simply unaware of those different stages or of the truth that we each process those in different ways at a different pace.
What happens, then, is while Tami may be already reacting to her grief in anticipation of Char moving across the country in the spring, Stu may be trying hard to create the new Wednesday-night-lineup that will work for those new families who have recently joined remotely and frustrated that Tami isn’t engaging; and on the way in to the planning meeting, Chris banged his shin on the coffee table as he raced through the parlor, irritated that that dumb new couch is so much bigger and that the coffee table had to be pushed out into the walkway by a few inches.
So when Tami, Stu, and Chris meet together, with Char on Zoom because she is house-hunting this week in her soon-to-be new city, each of them is bringing a set of emotions they may not be able to process internally, and each of them is individually challenged by the emotions of each of the other people around them. Left to their own emotions they may lash out in unproductive ways.
If, however, we can equip them with empathy, compassion, and an understanding of the change and transition journey, they can take a moment together to thank Char for sticking with it through the transition even with so much else on her mind, to grieve with Tami about her friend’s departure, to celebrate Stu’s commitment to good planning, and to grab some ice for Chris’s shin.
John 13:35 (NIV) says “By this everyone will know that you are My disciples, if you love one another.”
Sometimes it’s hard to show our love for each other when we are caught up in our own emotions or when we don’t take time to “get” the emotions of others. Learning more about the different stages in any transition journey, the types of emotional responses people might have, and how to help them through is a great way to help your fellow congregation members transition well.