Transitions. Can be exciting. Can be a little scary. If we are to transition, and not merely change, it’s important that we take our time.

This congregation heads into a transitional year – as do I. As I retire from settled ministry, I’m going to try my hand at interim ministry for a couple years. The interim is necessary to bring an outsider’s perspective to help a congregation see itself clearly as it prepares for a next settled minister. The process of matching congregations in need of an interim with an interim minister culminated this week. I got matched with Des Moines, Iowa – so LoraKim and I will be moving to Des Moines.

But there were more congregations seeking an interim than ministers putting themselves up for interim ministry. We got the news this week, as Board Chair Creighton reported, that CUUC didn’t get an interim minister. I was surprised. This is a wonderful congregation. CUUC is solid on the fundamentals of congregational health – as you have been since before I got here. That’s not true of all our congregations, but it’s true here. CUUC is fundamentally sound. So I was surprised you didn’t get an interim. Who wouldn’t love this gig? Keith Kron, who is the director at our UU Association transitions department sent out a letter on Friday. He wrote:
“A shortage of ministers willing to work with congregations is real. On some level, this is not a surprise. In talking with other denomination colleagues, they report a similar shortage. Every denomination is struggling. It’s not just about ministry. Membership is down. This too is across denominations, with, despite public claims otherwise, the more conservative religions losing at higher rate than the more liberal denominations.

It’s also not just about religion. We see a shortage of teachers, doctors, nurses—all helping professions. In some ways this makes great sense. All helping professions have been expected to absorb a certain amount of society’s frustrations, often at less compensation. The world has been very frustrated these last few years. It should be noted that we really haven’t recognized and certainly prioritized the need to deal with the fact that the world is angry. And human beings did not go into helping professions to quietly absorb this expanding burden of frustrations. We’re seeing an exodus....

The author of the book, Radical Curiosity, Seth Goldenberg writes that we are in “In-Between times.”... What does it mean to be religious now? What does it mean to live one’s faith? What does it mean to be a congregation? A denomination? A minister? A church member? I think in the midst of overly busy lives and an overly busy world, we’re trying to figure that out.

My hope for this in between time is that we can engage in these bigger question conversations.... While this is happening, we still have the shortage and 17 interim congregations in need of help. What we know from previous years is that retired ministers, community ministers, and students with candidate status with Credentialing Office approval are willing to step up.”
Said Keith.

So, in this in-between time for CUUC – this broader in-between time in our country and in our world – I want to talk about transitions, today. We’ll be looking at the transition process in an individual life – though some of what we’ll see plays out in the way larger systems go through transitions. It’s not so much about passing the baton to the successor, but passing the baton from your past self to your future self.

The first thing is to notice the distinction between a transition and simply a change. Change is always happening. It’s inevitable. But it might be superficial. We might not really learn its lessons. We might, for instance, make external changes to avoid to avoid changing ourselves.

I’m thinking of someone who walks out of a relationship because their partner didn’t measure up to the model, and goes looking for someone else who at first appears to fit the model – so the same cycle repeats – as opposed to making internal changes, adjusting OUR way of being in the world. William Bridges writes:
“People who try to deal only with externals are people who walk out of relationships, leave jobs, move across the country, but who don’t end up significantly different from what and who they were before....They storm out of job (“rotten, no good boss”) rather than discover what it is in themselves that keeps finding such bosses to work for. They end another (yet another!) relationship rather than let go of the behaviors, attitudes, assumptions and images of self or others that keep making relationships turn out this way.” (132)
So, yes, change is always happening. But sometimes we change in order to not change – we make changes so we can avoid changing.

It’s like we have an inner cast of characters – the flawless parent, the noble leader, the perfect spouse, the trustworthy friend, and we keep looking for actors to play the parts – regularly switching out cast members, but never realizing that the script in our head is only in our head. That script needs re-writing. Or, better, we need to let go of the idea that we can script our life. I am not the playwright of the drama of life – or even of the drama of my own life – nor are you the playwright of your life. You and I are improv actors, each of us just one member of a troupe of others coming and going on the stage. You don’t even make it up as you go along – not you individually. The whole troupe collectively makes it up as it goes along.

You get to speak lines and be heard and taken into account – and others speak and you take them into account. But if you’re following a script in your head, then you’ll get out of sync with the troupe. You can leave them and join another troupe – and, if you’re still looking to play out your script, the cycle just repeats. Changes are happening, but you’re not being changed.

So we need a vocabulary to reflect this difference between surface changes and actual growth. I propose that we use the word transition for actually changing ourselves. I know this is not always how the word is used. Transition, as a noun, is regularly used as simply a synonym for change. But it’s going to be helpful to draw a distinction between learning, growing, maturing and merely clinging to the same script with a different cast.

My suggestion today is that we follow the author William Bridges’ way of articulating that distinction as the difference between change and transition. (I do, by the way, find it delightful that a man named “bridges” has made his name by leading workshops and writing books about transitions.) He writes:
“Our society confuses [change and transition] constantly, leading us to imagine that transition is just another word for change. But it isn’t. Change is your move to a new city or your shift to a new job. It is the birth of your new baby or the death of your father. It is the switch from the old health plan at work to the new one, or the replacement of your manager by a new one, or it is the acquisition that your company just made. In other words, change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events but rather the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, the change won’t work, because it doesn’t take. Whatever word we use, our society talks a lot about change, but it seldom deals with transition.”
You can change partners, change cities, change jobs, change churches, but if you’re using the same strategies to pursue the same purposes, you haven’t made a transition. A transition means that new purposes have emerged for you – and new purposes entail new strategies. So, as Bridges puts it,
“One of the most important differences between a change and a transition is that changes are driven to reach a goal, but transitions start with letting go of what no longer fits or is adequate to the life stage you are in.” (132)
Transition begins with an ending. Then there’s some time being in neutral. And only then comes the new beginning.

First, the ending. Ending requires some dissing – not as in disrespecting, but as in disengagement, dismantling, disidentification, disenchantment, and disorientation. I will enumerate them, but they don’t come in any particular order.

1. Disengagement. We need to disengage from the life that we have had – from the person we have been. In traditional societies, a young initiate is removed from the family, taken into the forest or the desert. For us – us denizens of the WEIRD world – that is, the Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democracies -- there will be no initiation master to ring the bell one morning and say, “your time has come.”
“But all the same, we do find ourselves periodically being disengaged either willingly or unwillingly from the activities, the relationships, the settings, and the roles that have been important to us.”
When this is forced upon us, it can be very distressing.
“The person who has just been fired, or lost a parent, or had a heart attack is not in the frame of mind to”
see this or think about this as a transition. It just hurts. Maybe years later they can see it differently, but at the time to suggest that a time of personal transition is beginning is pointless and may even be cruel.
“Divorces, deaths, job changes, moves, illnesses, and many lesser events disengage us from the contexts in which we have known ourselves....As long as a system is working, it is very difficult for a member of it to imagine an alternative way of life and an alternative identity. But with disengagement, an inexorable process of change begins. Clarified, channeled, and supported, that change can lead toward a development and renewal.” (115-16)
2. Dismantling
.“Disengagement only stops the old signals and cues from being received. It leaves untouched the life infrastructure that you’ve constructed in response to those signals. The disengagement can take place in a moment: 'I’m leaving! We’re finished! Good-bye!' But the old habits and behaviors and practices that made you feel like yourself can only be dismantled. They have to be taken apart a piece at a time.” (116).
Ritual periods can help:
“for three days you keep a vigil over the lost one; on the thirtieth night after the death, you have a ceremony; you wear only black for a prescribed period, and you hold a remembrance ceremony on the anniversary of the death. And as you do these things, you slowly dismantle or unpack your relationship or identity that you have lost” (117).
3. Disidentification.
“In breaking your old connections to the world and taking apart the internal structures required by those connections, you also lose your old ways of defining yourself.” (118).
Maybe there’s the loss of role that prescribed your behavior and made you readily identifiable.
“One way or another, most people in transition have the xperiene of no longer being quite sure who they are.” (118).
That’s disidentification.
“The old identity stands in the way of transition – and of transformation and self-renewal” (120)
– but losing an identity is uncomfortable.

4. Disenchantment. This is
“the discovery that in some sense one’s world is indeed no longer real.”
Recall, for instance, the disenchantments of childhood:
“That there is no Santa Claus; that parents sometimes lie and are afraid and make stupid mistakes and like silly things; that best friends let you down....The lifetime contains a long chain of disenchantments, many small and a few large: lovers who prove unfaithful, leaders who are corrupt, idols who turn out to be petty and dull, organizations that betray your trust. Worst of all, there are the times when you turned out to be what you said (and even believed) that you were not.
These stages don’t always follow the same order. Sometimes a significant transition will begin with disenchantment. Our culture
“tends to view growth as an additive process. We did not have to unlearn the first grade to go on to the second, for example.”
As a result, we may expect we don’t need to give up old beliefs in order to mature, but we do. Disenchantment is the letting go of what used to seem true.
“Reality has many layers, none wrong but each appropriate to a particular phase of intellectual and spiritual development.”
Importantly, disenchantment does not mean disillusionment.
“The disenchanted person recognizes the old view as sufficient in its time but insufficient now... On the other hand, the disillusioned person simply rejects the embodiment of the earlier view.”(124)
The disillusioned person sees some significant other person differently. The disenchanted person understands herself differently. Someone disillusioned with this partner, or this job, or this boss will go after a new partner, or get a new boss – but retain the same enchantment with what a relationship should be like, or what a boss or a job should be.
“The disenchanted person moves on, but the disillusioned person stops and goes through the play again with new actors.” (124)
5. Disorientation. The reality that is left behind was one in which we felt we knew which way was up and which way down, which way forward and which way back. It orients us. But in a transition,
“the old sense of life as going somewhere breaks down, and we feel like shipwrecked sailors on some existential atoll.... Disorientation is meaningful, but it isn’t enjoyable. It is a time of confusion and emptiness when ordinary things assume an unreal quality. Things that used to be important don’t seem to matter much now. We feel stuck, dead, lost in some great, dark nonworld.” (125)
After some form, in some order, of disengagement, dismantling, disidentification, disenchantment, and disorientation, generally comes some time in the neutral zone. This may not be as uncomfortable as the endings – or it may be just as uncomfortable. We would rather see transition
“as a kind of street-crossing procedure. One would be a fool to stay out there in the middle of the street any longer than was necessary; so once you step off the curb, you move on to the other side as fast as you can. And whatever you do, don’t sit down on the center line to think things over.” (137).
Yet some time to just be, to settle into the fact that the old self is gone, is just what’s needed.
“Without quite knowing why, people in the middle of transition tend to find ways of being alone and away from all the familiar distractions.” (137)
We need to get away for a time. Not really to think – at least not in any way that produces definite results.
“Instead, we walk the beaches or the back streets. We sit in the park” (138)
– gaze at the clouds. We might feel a little defensive about not being productive, but we need such a
“moratorium from the conventional activity of everyday existence....Only in the apparently aimless activity of your time alone can you do the important inner business of self-transformation.”
In the neutral zone,
“we aren’t sure what is happening to us or when it will all be over. We don’t know whether we are going crazy or becoming enlightened, and neither prospect is one we can readily discuss with anyone else. For many people, the experience of the neutral zone is essentially one of emptiness in which the old reality looks transparent and nothing feels solid anymore.” (141)
Remember that
“the process of transformation is essentially a death and rebirth process rather than one of mechanical modification” (143).
The process of disintegration of reintegration is the source of renewal, and it’s gonna take a minute. Or a year.

We need our neutral zone
“just the way that an apple tree needs the cold of winter” (144).
The way out of the neutral zone is to plunge all the way into it. The way out is in. Accept that you need this time in neutral. Find regular times and places to be alone. Begin a log of your neutral-zone experiences. It may be very helpful to take this pause in the action of your life to write your autobiography. And reflect on what you really want. As the old purposes and meanings fall away, what really do you want?Only after some time will you begin to begin again.

I have described the neutral zone as a goo phase. The caterpillar goes into its cocoon, and it doesn’t simply begin sprouting butterfly wings. It dissolves into goo – the goo you would find if you opened a cocoon halfway through its period. Out of that goo, a butterfly begins to take form. But you can’t skip the goo.

These are in-between times – for CUUC, for our whole society – and maybe in your personal life. It can all feel a bit gooey. No need to rush to get things settled. In fact, there’s a need not to rush. If we are to transition, and not merely change, it’s important that we take our time.


Whether the details about disengaging, dismantling, disidentifying, disenchanting, or disorienting make sense or mean much to you, please remember two things. First, life is not always about being a better caterpillar. There are deeper transformative possibilities than that. Maybe you have gone through such a transition, and emerged a new person from the cocoon. And that leads to the second point: Even the butterfly is not the final stage – not for us humans. There are further transformations that await.

Go in peace.

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