Dr. Zemke’s well-written book on congregational change is timely given the shifting landscape of the Church in America. Most U.S. denominations are experiencing declines in attendance and engagement. She has spent her life trying to understand churches and offers wisdom to navigate a way forward through the necessary change.
Everyone can gain from being more thoughtful about change. I think of Hunter’s work in To Change the World as a means of understanding the responses the Church has given in light of the new reality. He claims that churches, denominations and movements have chosen one of three postures related to the shifting post-Christian culture: defensive against, relevance to, or purity from.No matter the camp one is in, more change is inevitable.
What I appreciated most from Zemke (besides her insight on “tempered radicals” and thoughts on dissent) was her connection with change and grief. A few years ago I read Dr. Bridges Managing Transitions which I found to be insightful, especially for church leaders. I have since recommended it widely. My experience agreed with Bridges assessment that most leaders focus exclusively on the “change”. But his premise is that the success of any change is actually played on the “transition” level. The change is the new direction, decision or circumstance; the transition is the psychological process of accepting the change.
According to Bridges, the transition process has three phases of which none are linear or self-contained. The phases are as follows:
- an ending;
- in between – a “no man’s land” of sorts that where the old way no longer exists but the new way has not taken hold;
- and new beginning.
Seems straightforward enough. But what has stayed with me was the grieving process of any change. And Zemke states, “Americans do not grieve well.” I agree and it is unfortunate that this has seeped into American Christian culture. Change begins with an ending.
I have witnessed and spearheaded changes over the years at church, some big and some small relatively. I have seen a correlation between how well we attend to the ending and how quickly the new reality takes shape. But what makes it difficult for Christians to attend to something so unavoidable? I wonder what makes grieving so counter-cultural, at least in circles I have found myself in. We understand grief better when it comes to the loss of someone we love. But Zemke is speaking of the more common, medium and small changes that make up the human experience. I offer a few thoughts on what has contributed to my own devaluing of grieving.
Focusing on loss conflicts with a theology of more. If “up and to the right” is the target then anything not in that direction (i.e. failure, loss, staff transition, etc) is often not acknowledged. We move on fast. We have to spin the story. Sometimes I wish we could get more comfortable as leaders with language such as “we hoped it had work but it didn’t”, “we were wrong about our assumptions”, “this is hard”, “I’m sorry”. These admissions do not mix well with more, bigger, faster, better.
I also wonder if my sense of worth is overly tied to accomplishment and appearing successful. Is this perhaps a reason that endings are hard to honor? Do we equate endings with failure too closely? I have over-personalized failure certainly. If something ending or changing or not working is tied to my identity, I will feel threatened. And then it will be tempting to avoid.
And finally, I wonder if attending to loss simply has very little productivity value. Instead of taking the time to grieve, leaders keep accumulating hurts and losses secretly over years and decades. Forging ahead and working hard is doing something. Talking about the past accomplishes what?
Yes, we must move forward in life. But not practicing self-compassion by grieving will not be the short-cut it appears to be. Attending to our losses, changes, endings with Jesus is a worthy endeavor. And as a bonus, it may enable us to get to the new beginning sooner.
James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, 214-9.
 William Bridges and Susan Mitchell Bridges, Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change(Boston, MA: Da Capo Lifelong Books, A Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2016).
 Diane Zemke, Being SMART about Congregational Change. (Create Space Independent Publishing 2014.) (Kindle) Loc 1226.