Pastoral Transitions 1 – Change

Pastoral Transitions Background: Moving boxes stacked.
Written by: Lindsay Geist
May 10, 2023

I want to begin by welcoming you to this series about pastoral transitions, specifically the understanding of change and feelings of grief surrounding this process. Obviously, this series speaks to people in the system and polity of the United Methodist Church, and it is my hope that in this we would find healthy ways to process the grief of change in churches as we approach this season of change. I have invited Rev. Lindsay Geist, LCSW,1 to help me in this series; she brings her experience in social work and clinical knowledge, as well as pastoral experience in the United Methodist Church to bring words and conversation to unpacking feelings that many pastors, families, and churches are going through. — Andrew Ware

“Change is the only constant.”

This is an oft-used quote that is credited to the Ancient (Pre-Socratic) Philosopher Heraclitus. This idea is preserved in the only known writing we have from Heraclitus and within Plato’s writing Cratylus:

Socrates: Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river.”

Plato, Cratylus

Even as a notion, the concept of change has been at our forethought since the earliest understandings of philosophic studies. We have long attempted to understand change, why it truly is “constant,” and why humans have difficulty handling change. 

For pastors and churches in the United Methodist Church, change is almost always on the horizon in the form of our itinerant system. It is a system that sends us from church to church across a career of pastoral ministry. However, this notion of change of leadership of a local church affects more than just the pastor. There are emotions and feelings that impact the pastor, their family and friends around them, and even the local church themselves. 

I, Andrew, have always found a sense of spirituality in the itinerant system because it can serve as a protection against churches becoming too reliant on the gifts of a certain pastor, or the pastor being complacent in a specific appointment. It often calls churches to minister and exist in seasons, evaluating ministries alongside their pastoral leadership for vitality. And it often means that changes are likely to occur for one reason or another in these churches.

The problem is that change is inherently difficult.

Despite the positives of a system that allows churches to thrive under different versions of leadership, there is still much to grieve and process when change happens in our world and even in our local church. 

To begin, let’s explore why change can be difficult for us:

Change may be considered constant in life – but it is often really uncomfortable. Now, we probably don’t have to tell you that. You probably already feel it and know it deep in your bones. Change – both planned change as well as unexpected change – can be exhausting. 

However, you might wonder why change can feel so draining if it’s considered “normal” and a routine part of life.

Let’s look at an example:

Think back to when the pandemic first began in March 2020. We would attempt to do a simple chore like going to the grocery store and come home feeling like we ran a marathon. A lot of us were so confused about how a regular chore would leave us feeling completely exhausted. And it’s because we were having to be hypervigilant each time we went to the store – constantly scanning our surroundings, thinking about everything we touched, and calculating in our heads the distance between us and other people. We couldn’t rely on operating on autopilot like we used to do. As human beings, routines and habits are critical to our survival. They take less energy and focus. They allow us to reserve our energy to address new experiences and new decisions.

Change is exhausting because it requires us to expend energy instead of relying on our built-in habits and routines. 

Whether we are choosing the change that’s occurring or if it was chosen for us does not necessarily make it easier or more enjoyable. We are creatures of habit as human beings. Any sort of change is challenging for us. As we mentioned, any change requires more energy than our routine. It involves retraining our minds and/or bodies. It takes work. 

How we react to change can sometimes depend on if it was planned and chosen or if it was unexpected and a surprise. In both these circumstances, change can be perceived as “good” or “bad” – regardless of if it was chosen or not. But for now, we are going to stay away from the perceived positive or negative impact perception of the change and focus on the change experience itself. 

When we personally choose to make a change, we have often done the mental preparation work prior to the change. We have often weighed the pros and cons, thought through the action steps, and made a deliberate choice. Because of that, we can more easily focus on the action step when the change happens because we’re not having to still process our initial feelings around the change. However, when a change happens to us and/or is chosen for us, we are often having to process through how we feel about the change at the same time that our actions are having to change. We are at a different starting point in processing and taking action depending on if the change was initiated by us or forced upon us. 

Change, even when it is unplanned or unwanted, can give us a gift of an opportunity to recalibrate. We have the ability to start fresh when we experience a change – we can change our own habits, we can stop doing certain activities and start doing others. Think of it as an act of permission granting – granting us approval to modify other pieces tied to that change.

For example, when the pandemic shuttered the doors of church buildings and most activities ceased in their regular format, it was an act of permission granting. Pastors and church staff were given the opportunity to stop holding the food pantry and evaluate if that was the best use of the church’s time and resources. (Here’s a secret: sometimes it wasn’t! We found lots of churches were offering resources the community didn’t need – but were simply resources the church perceived the community needed. Once we asked people in the community about their needs, we could meet their REAL needs.) The congregation might have been more resistant to this ending of an activity if it hadn’t coincided with a larger change. Change can serve as a permission-granting moment to make additional changes. 

Change, whether planned or unexpected, exists all around us.

As humans, we experience a change in all aspects of our lives. In the United Methodist Church, we are most acutely aware of the change at this time of year as we reflect on appointment season. Some of us asked for change. Some of us did not. And still, we are all probably navigating how we feel about our upcoming changes. 

Because of the process by which hiring and firing work in any work environment, it can be an especially tricky situation in the church. Decisions are often happening within closed-door meetings to help keep confidence on certain matters. Even something that is planned for some may be unexpected for others and feelings and emotions are different in both situations. Since pastoral transitions can be both planned and unexpected (due to the nature of our itinerant system), it is important to engage in the processing of feelings when addressing this type of change.

Change is a process that we all respond to differently.

While there is no one answer to how to handle change, there are ways that we can engage with the feelings that can help us to process those feelings and identify healthy steps to move forward. Over the coming weeks, we are going to unpack what change looks like in these pastoral transitions. In our next article, we will explore feelings and how we can be better at identifying our feelings. Then we will look at grief, feelings, and emotions from different perspectives in the pastoral transition process – the pastor, the pastor’s family, and the congregation that the pastor is leaving. 

We hope you will join us for this series.

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