I experienced “transition” long before I heard about it, as a formal, measurable, season of life.
If you are a leader and have been in transition or are in transition, then you know it's complex and confusing. You are all-too-familiar with the roller coaster of emotions, unstable footing and the uncertainty of tomorrow associated with the “T” word.
Imagine with me a room filled with church leaders who, week after week, sit in hard, plastic, elementary school chairs, circle style. And every week we say, "My name is _________. I pastor, _____________ church. I am leading a church through transition.” Then, as if choreographed and scripted everyone in the group says, “Hello __________. Welcome to LOTA.” (LOTA stands for “Leaders of Transition Anonymous.” I’m being facetious. Remember, we are imagining.)
Before leading Gateway Christian Fellowship, (Gateway for short), I was a Sr. Associate Pastor at Church of the Hills in Austin, Texas. I remember one particular time when Graham Cooke was speaking and he told us to get comfortable with the “T” word because we would be "in it" for the rest of our lives. I think I heard a collective groan in the room that morning. I wish he hadn’t said that. Wait, I’m glad he said it. Hold on, I’m not sure how I feel about this….give me a second to think.
Isn’t that the nature of transition? It’s a love-hate relationship. We are excited about “new”, but loathe letting go of the “old.” It was Heraclitus that spoke, “The only thing that is constant is change.” In his book on transition, William Bridges once said, "Every transition begins with an ending. We have to let go of the old thing before we can pick up the new one—not just outwardly, but inwardly, where we keep our connections to people and places that act as definitions of who we are.” (1)
My wife and I find ourselves in the depth of transition. And I don’t just mean depth, as if transition is one-dimensional in direction and only one way to escape. No, we are surrounded by it. In every direction, all we see is, yep, you guessed it….transition.
Our current "T" time (I'm not talking golf lingo here) started in 2013 when my wife Darlene and I believed God was asking us to branch out and become Lead Pastors in a local church context. We knew church life. My wife grew up in the church and once I became a Christian (25 years ago) I have lived in the church. (Not literally, but I think you know what I mean.) We have served the local church for years and we love it because we love people and believe in the power of the local church to be a gateway of hope. So, after all the interviews, questions, search committee meetings, etc. we were offered the position to lead Gateway. We enthusiastically said yes, but I was not prepared for what William Bridges describes as the “3 Stages of Transition.” They are: " an ending, followed by  a period of confusion and distress, leading to  a new beginning, for those who had come that far.” (2)
In this series of blogs I will share my experience as a new pastor, leading an established church, with a rich history and the five relationships (not any specific order) that have helped me successfully manage the “3 Stages of Transition”, establishing a solid direction whereunto I can lead our church family.
RELATIONSHIP #1: Jesus.
I anticipated the new and broad responsibilities to feel heavy. I was not ready for the anxiety, fear, ignorance and uncertainty with which I would live. For example, I came from a church with a strong financial position that was debt free into a church that had a mortgage note and hemorrhaging funds monthly because people were leaving the church. Gratefully, Gateway had been wise in her abundant years and had a strong savings account. That, partnered with a wise Board of Directors we absorbed a cash flow loss for two years. For 18 months every Monday I would get an email showing me our attendance, our tithes & offerings and our cash flow balance sheet. When I would see "the email" sitting in my inbox anxiety went up, fear crept in and negative thoughts flooded my mind. I would not be lying if I told you there were certain weeks I was physically ill at the thought of looking at the numbers. One particular Monday I remember “waiting” for the email and when it arrived, I sought long and far to find the courage to open the attachments. In the blink of an eye, before I could open them, I sensed the Spirit of God say to me, “Thank me for what finances have been given. When you allow anxiety and fear to influence your heart and show you how far short the giving is you discount and marginalize those that have given. I want you to be verbally thankful for the faithful ones who give and quit looking at the ones who didn’t.” WOW! That simple word from the Father changed my life. At that moment and almost every Monday since when I see the “T & O” email in my inbox I declare my gratitude to God for whatever we received, regardless of amount. Sometimes it is a “20 second prayer” and other times it is several minutes. As time went along, I recognized my heart was less anxious and my faith, expectation and appreciation were up. Here are some other things I did with respect to my relationship with Jesus that have helped me during personal and church transition.
CONNECT WITH FRIENDS: As often as possible or as needed, I called my friends who would not let me shrink back or let me lead outside of my God-given identity.
EXPRESS MY EMOTIONS: I cried because this was hard. My tears gave me permission to be where I was emotionally, but not stay where I was emotionally. I laughed because I had to find the joy and strength of God.
PRAY: I prayed because faith and hope must have the last word in transition. Prayer, regardless of words, is an expression of faith and belief that God would take care of situations.
LISTEN TO GOD: I listened to Holy Spirit, because the words of God are life-giving and stir my faith like nothing else.
LIVE SELF-AWARE: I paid attention to what season I was in because I realized I lead best when I am aware of what Jesus is saying to me and how he is shaping my heart as He and I walk together.
IDENTITY: Feeling overwhelmed by fear, anxiety or uncertainty the Father would consistently tell me, “You will lead better and be a healthier leader when you live as a son first and “everything else” second. I felt this most when getting ready to preach. I would sense the Spirit whisper to me, “Just go stand behind the pulpit and burn as a son deeply in love with God.” I love preaching and had a weekly message, but the idea of burning as a son versus being an eloquent communicator was a “no brainer.” I’ll take sonship any day!
BE TEACHABLE: Learn and never stop learning. Share what you learn with your spouse and friends.
BE HUMBLE: Find an experienced, seasoned and mature pastor that can coach you, challenge you, champion you and care for you. See a counselor or therapist if necessary.
LEAD YOUR FAMILY: Don't forget your family. They are in transition with you. We moved to a new part of the country so we would explore new scenery together, getting ice cream or do something special.
CONFESS: Confess mistakes and triumphs. Confession is mostly referenced in the context of sin and I believe in living in the light and sharing failures or sins with close brothers. However, I also confess who God says I am, what He created me to carry out and His promises over my life. I let others carry involvement in my life who are not going to call me out on my stuff, but call me up to who God says I am. I do the same….calling myself UP!
BE ANCHORED IN PROMISES: I find promises in the word of God and drill down, dropping an anchor of faith and hope into the eternal promises of God. For example “we have this hope as an anchor for our souls” found in Hebrews 6 has been with me since we arrived at Gateway nearly two years ago. I hang my faith hat on that verse all the time.
DON’T FORGET: I remind myself and Jesus that it’s His job to build the church.
If you are leading a church in transition into her preferred future, you can do it. Establish healthy practices and rhythms in your relationship with Jesus and you will not only survive, but you will discover some fantastic things about Jesus, Jesus in you and you in Jesus.
(1) Bridges, William (2004-08-10). Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, Revised 25th Anniversary Edition (p. 11). DaCapo. Kindle Edition.
(2) Bridges, William (2004-08-10). Transitions: Making Sense of Life's Changes, Revised 25th Anniversary Edition (p. 8). DaCapo. Kindle Edition.