Welcome to this series about pastoral transitions, specifically the understanding of change and feelings of grief surrounding this process.
This series is primarily speaking to people in the system and polity of The United Methodist Church (though it works for most pastoral transitions), 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 invited Rev. Lindsay Geist, LCSW, 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.Rev. Andrew Ware
In our previous article, we began this series by discussing the concept of change as an uncomfortable constant in our life.
As we explored, change is difficult because of the mental capacity it often takes when we are knocked out of a “regular routine.” It is in a change, like a pastoral transition, where the mental and emotional feelings can become magnified because it is a change that we often cannot escape from.
It rarely makes a difference whether the change is planned or unexpected, it still brings with it the challenges of adjustment – and a whole heck of a lot of feelings.
Without giving any one prescriptive pill of how to do this, we are faced with two questions:
- What are feelings? …and…
- Why is it important to understand them?
What are Feelings?
Whenever we mention the word “feelings,” often the hit Pixar movie, Inside Out, comes to mind.
For those unfamiliar with the movie, it is about a teenage girl, who moves from her home in Minnesota to California. However, the focus of the movie centers around the feelings that exist within her, how the family handles the move, and ultimately how Riley (the teenager) ends up adjusting to and growing through this change.
The movie uses five base feelings (happy, sad, anger, disgust, and fear), and throughout the narrative of the movie, we see how these feelings interact with one another and the rest of Riley’s conscious and subconscious to navigate the true feelings of what is happening in Riley’s life transition.
One of the things that we can take from this movie is the idea of how our feelings are often interactive with one another.
Feelings are complex
But when we can get down deep and name what we are feeling, it can help us to be able to express those feelings. In expressing our feelings honestly we can open ourselves to ways to move our lives forward amid these changing situations.
Why is it important to understand our feelings?
What’s great about the movie Inside Out is that while it is geared toward kids and families, it’s also a message for adults to learn more about exploring their feelings. When we are young, we are taught an extensive variety of feelings. (Remember those big posters of all the cartoon faces or the flashcards with photographs of people making different faces? They had faces with a variety of expressions – from frustrated to disappointed to embarrassed to joyful to surprised.)
Then we all grew up into adults. And we seemed to forget the wide variety of feelings we were taught.
As adults, we mostly talk about three feelings: glad, mad, and sad.
What happened to all those other feelings? We essentially forgot them.
So let’s go explore them some more again!
If you don’t know where to start when it comes to exploring feelings, check out a feelings wheel.
The feelings wheel has the primary big feelings in the middle, but as you move outward in the spiral, it gives some of the possible nuances of those feelings.
- For example: we might say we are sad – but there are huge differences between feeling lonely, grief, disappointed, and embarrassed. And those are often all feelings we lump under the word “sad” when we say it.
Naming feelings is critical to tame and address them.
Most often, our feelings simply want to be seen and acknowledged. Once we do so, we can figure out the next steps to express and address them.
So as you are navigating your pastoral transition, grab a feelings wheel and sit down with your journal, a trusted friend, or your family and start naming what you’re experiencing.
Feelings and Pastoral Transitions
Now once we name what we’re feeling, often the next step is to express them in some way.
There often is no doubt that we as humans are not only bad at change (because it is difficult) but we can also struggle to honestly express our feelings. We might feel shame around our feelings or wish our feelings were different.
Therefore, when faced with the prospect of a big change accompanied by the grief and emotions that come with it, we often struggle to truly name or even quantify the feelings we have.
This unfortunately leads to unhealthy practices moving forward.
In the case of pastoral transitions, this could result in the outgoing pastor not giving the incoming pastor the space to minister to the congregation because they cannot bear leaving. This could mean congregation members continuing to reach out to previous pastors to seek guidance instead of looking to the current spiritual guide on these matters. This could look like families struggling to find systems of support both within and outside their clergy person.
Unpacking and understanding our feelings may not give us all the answers we may want, but it can give us language for conversations with our loved ones and support systems.
Having given the foundation for language to name our feelings, we will begin to explore the nature of grief from three different perspectives in the moving process. We are looking at the move/transition process from the perspective of the clergyperson, their family, and members of the congregation. For each of these, naming and processing their feelings can ultimately be a tool for a healthier church environment.