Change is in the air among those called United Methodist. It is that time again. We are getting closer to Annual Conference, and that means we are moving toward the time when congregations, pastors and their families will have to say goodbye and hello. It is the “middle time” when you are at one place with one leader – while anticipating a new place or new leader. It is a time filled with all kinds of feelings and thoughts.
R. Franklin Gillis Jr. is a ministry consultant and coach for Four Seasons Ministry. On his Web site at FourSeasonsMinstry.org, Gillis makes this comment: A change in a pastoral appointment represents a significant transition in the lives of both pastor and church. This transition is packed with a variety of emotional responses on the part of all involved: anticipation, joy, fear, anxiety, and even guilt.
This is a time of extreme opportunities. We can respond in a way that will ensure that effective, productive, and successful fulfillment of the church mission is accomplished. Or, we can respond in such a way that we provide opportunity for those forces working against God’s purpose to be triumphant in destroying and discouraging God’s people.
I believe that Franklin Gillis lifts up something we often overlook: the role of feelings and emotions in what we do and experience in life. We in the United Methodist Church often want to intellectualize our way through life’s difficulties, but if we discount the role that feelings play in this drama, we won’t be prepared to deal with the challenging time now upon us.
Dr. Gillis offers what he calls “Start-up Strategies for the Itinerant Pastor”: Stay spiritually focused; be intentional about making a good first impression; ask questions, listen, and learn; be sensitive to the transitions the congregation is experiencing; help the congregation understand mission, vision, and ministry; equip members for faithful discipleship and shared ministry; and become an agent of transformation.
Change is part of the very fabric of United Methodism. I remember my first transition. I was at first very excited about leaving for a new church, but later I had second thoughts. I spoke to one of the church matriarchs, whom I thought would encourage me to stay. She simply said, “Rev, I have learned over the years that preachers come and preachers go. But God never leaves us.”
Her response was a shock to my system and a bruise to my ego. She was saying to me, “I love you, son, but Jesus is my first love and the only one into whom I am called to place my whole trust.”
Gil Rendle of the Alban Institute tells us that even when churches request change and seek to follow a new vision, they will later question the change as reality begins to set in.
Rendle writes: There is a bit of common wisdom in family systems theory that says that as the family confronts necessary changes, the family usually gets worse before it gets better. What is suggested in the roller coaster of change is the opposite. It often seems as if the congregational system gets better before it gets worse (and then better again). [“Roller Coaster of Change,” Alban Weekly, Jan. 29, 2007]
Rendle warns us that for the majority of congregations, the initial reaction to change will be positive, but as the transition progresses, there will be some resistance and, at times, downright hostility.
My Lord, that sounds like, “It’s that time again.” But we must not stop at the worst point, because Rendle says the situation will improve. People have a unique capacity to deal with change if we give them space and nurture them as they adapt. The same is true for pastors and their families in the midst of transitions to new appointments.
I don’t mean to sugarcoat what I know is a difficult time. This is a simple affirmation that through it all, God is too great and too powerful to allow God’s will to be defeated.
So yes, it’s that time again. Yes, it is time for the Holy Spirit to carry us as the Holy Spirit has always carried us, through difficult and challenging times.