Friday, July 31, 2020

CHANGE: Part THREE of a Three Part Series

Rev. J. Ronald Knott
(originally written for the Diocese of Lafayette, Indiana)

for a video version

In week one of this column, I wrote about “change.” A “change” is any event that can shake up our understanding of the world, our old priorities and our old patterns of behavior. A “transition,” on the other hand, is a three-phase psychological reorientation process that people go through when they are coming to terms with a “change.” In a “transition” there is an ending, a neutral zone and a new beginning. 

Phase Three – Managing a New Beginning 

In last week’s column of this three-part series, I wrote about the second phase – the neutral zone. The neutral zone is an area of great discomfort. These are the pain-filled days when there is a temptation to want to return to the familiar for relief. We need only to remember the statistics of how many abused spouses return to their abusers choosing the familiarity of the known over the chaos of the unknown. The secret of success in the neutral zone is to “ride it out” with the belief that “this too shall pass.” It is rightly called a “grieving period” in which people struggle to be reconciled with reality. 

While many people stay stuck in the neutral zone, either by trying to recover some irretrievable past or by being paralyzed by the fear of letting go of a past identity and the fear of moving into a new one. The only thing that will set them free is for them to give up their self-defeating chokehold on a belief that if they just don’t like something enough it will go away. 

Only after going through each of these first two phases of transition can people deal successfully with the third phase: beginning over again, with new energy, a new sense of purpose, a new outlook, and a new image of themselves. The grieving widow starts dating again, the single mother gets her on-line degree, the new job or volunteer opportunity presents itself and the new house begins to feel like “home.” The death of the Encore Priest Program that I had created, hoped to lead and grieved over when I was about to retire from Saint Meinrad has happily morphed into an even better program - my Catholic Second Wind Guild for retired professionals wanting to offer their gifts in the Caribbean missions. 

People and organizations cause great damage when they try to make a new beginning without seeing to it that they have first completed the other two phases of transition. Denial, anger and depression should be expected. Priests and dioceses often make changes with little understanding of the transition people will have to go through if the changes are to work! 

Understandable as that blindness is - not dealing with the psychological aspects of the transition that change brings on - it is simply a luxury that has become unaffordable today. Today changes come too fast and from too many unexpected angles. There are too many stakeholders now, too many groups whose transitions, if mismanaged, will undermine needed change. 

Many leaders fail to realize the importance of managing transitions, believing that if the structural, technical and financial changes go well, the human transitions will take care of themselves. Nowhere is this more obvious than the closing of parishes. Even if it makes good financial and structural sense, it can make no sense, pastorally and emotionally. Unless people can make the psychological transitions that these changes require, these changes will simply not work well, causing great pain, heartache, alienation and even spiritual violence. The change may happen, but the result will be that everything has changed, and everything is worse, no matter what bright future the leaders of change promised. Such an organizational change is like the old medical joke about the operation that was a success . . . although the patient died. 

The entrance into any new situation, be it a priest entering a new parish or a parish welcoming a new priest, calls for a new mind. Both should begin by accepting the fact that “if you don’t get what you want, you can change your mind and want what you get.” There are no perfect parishes and there are no perfect priests. 

Priests need to enter new assignments with their shoes off because they are treading on holy ground. They need to be willing to learn as well as be willing to teach. They are called to preach, yes, but they are also called to practice what they preach. New pastors and established parishioners must be willing to learn from each other and approach each other with kindness and patience, welcoming that yet-to-be-known something new that is about to happen between them. 

Finally, the Old Testament book of Exodus should be studied by anyone interested in learning how to lead and be led. The story runs through three books of the Old Testament, Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. The bulk of the narrative is, however, in Exodus. 

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