Saturday, December 23, 2006

Transition Means More than Change

From the Gettysburg Seminary President's Office
by President Michael Cooper-White
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of facilitating a two-day retreat on the theme of “transition” for the 9 bishops in Region 3 of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and their assistants. In that part of the upper Midwest (Minnesota and the two Dakotas), a number of the synods have “term limits” beyond which a bishop may not continue serving. So at least three of the bishops will conclude their service in the next year or so, thereby guaranteeing that they, their staff colleagues and the synods served will be in a time of transition.
Being invited to enter into conversations involving discernment of next call, how to “end well” effective long-term episcopal ministries, and personal “letting go” and grieving the loss of close collegial partnerships indeed felt like being invited into the holy of holies in these folks’ lives. In preparation for this challenging assignment, I reread some familiar resources and researched a few new pieces as well on the theme of “transition.” Perhaps the foremost expert transition consultants in the corporate world today are a husband-wife team, William Bridges and Susan Mitchell Bridges. The Wall Street Journal lists Mr. Bridges as one of the top ten executive development presenters in the U.S. In a very helpful article, “Leading Transition: A New Model for Change,” the Bridges make a distinction between change and transition. Change, they suggest, is external—a new policy, a merged corporation, or in our world, a new congregation or the state of being newly ordained, commissioned or consecrated perhaps.
For some of the synodical servants I addressed out in Minnesota and the Dakotas, a forthcoming change will be the morning they wake up and are no longer a bishop or assistant.By contrast to change, an external matter, say the Bridges, “transition is the state that change puts people into.” It involves psychological and spiritual reorientation. Ordination—the change from being Ms. or Mr. to being “the Rev.”—happens in an instant when a bishop lays hands on head. But the transition into being a pastor is probably a lifelong journey after the moment of ordination.
According to the Bridges’ article, transitions normally progress through three distinct phases. First, there must be a time of saying goodbye to what has been. They repeat the old adage that to steal second base, you must finally take your feet off first and run! Following the goodbyes, which are often prolonged and painful as well as rewarding and satisfying, there may be a long time of moving through a “neutral zone.” This is a time of confusion, of wandering in the wilderness, discerning new directions. Finally, one moves forward into the new phase of life or work. A period of grieving is concluded or diminished. You arrive safely at second base, now beginning to focus on advancing toward third or home plate.
Six plus years into my current calling, I have learned that a seminary community is constantly in transition. While some of us are more or less permanent (faculty and staff), we too are aware that here we have no abiding place, and that even the most senior among us have served for only a brief period in the long-term sweep of institutional history. Those of you who are students are in a constant state of transition—from one semester to the next, preparing for or recovering from (!) CPE, internship, diaconal project or first call. Along the way, candidacy committees, faculty advisers and others are frequently monitoring progress and checking in on both changes and transitions going on in your lives.
The constant changes involved in a seminary sojourn, be it for a brief one-year student stint or for several decades as faculty or staff member, can grow wearying. When they do, it may be helpful to ponder the Emmaus road story that served as the centerpiece for our two-day transition workshop out in Region 3. Along the journey, an unknown Stranger saunters up and joins us on the journey. So often, we do not recognize Who it is in the moment. Later, looking back on a season of external change and internal transition, recognition dawns: “Were not our hearts burning within us while he walked among us along the way?” (Luke 24:13-35)

1 comment:

roger.conner said...

Thanks for this succinct description of the Bridges Framework. Bridges was a professor of literature before a personal crisis led him to write his first book and later become a management consultant. The Framework is quite consistent with social science research, BTW. The book of Exodus is a Transition story: Crossing the Red Sea was an ending (the Israelites struggled with that--wanting to return soon thereafter;; the Wilderness continued the ending (the Egypt generation had to literally die) and ushered them into a neutral zone where the next generation was "lost" --as we often are--not knowing where they had come from and where they were going; the ambiguity opened them to a new relationship with God and with each other, in which they developed an identity as God's Chosen People, a new beginning in their relationship to each other and the almighty. Only then were they ready for another change, another ending, as they crossed over the Jordan into the Promised Land.
If you want to see how this Framework is being applied by social services groups and Justice advocates, check out