From the Interim Rector
Understanding Transition

July 14, 2022

Friends,

 

In both my article and sermon last week, I invited you to get in-touch with how you feel when you come to Atonement, in-person or online. I now want to build on that exercise in order to introduce you to a model for how to think about the process of transition. Have a look:

Bridge's Model of Transition.png

 

 

This model helps us see that there are three phases to transitioning from a former reality to a new reality:

  1. Ending, Losing, Letting Go

  2. The Neutral Zone

  3. The New Beginning

 

The most important thing to remember is that these phases describe the emotional process of transition. There is a natural rhythm to a healthy transition that cannot be forced, rushed, or skipped over. As you read the model from left to right, you are seeing the change in how people in an organization feel over time. Note: at any given time, there are always at least a few people in each emotional phase.

 

Let me now walk you through what these phases entail.

 

Ending, Losing, Letting Go is the phase of coming to terms with the loss of what-used-to-be. For example, on Mother Erika’s last Sunday at Atonement, she ceremonially returned to the wardens the items she had been given when she was installed as rector. This was an intentional act of facilitating the process of ending. Whatever ends, is lost, or let go of  must be named, emotionally processed, and accepted before there can be any emotional readiness for the future. Very often, we experience this phase as grief and mourning for a person, a situation, a sense of stability, and/or hoped-for possibilities.

Typical emotions during this phase: sadness, anger, fear, confusion, denial, being lost

 

The Neutral Zone is the in-between time, after the former reality is let go yet before the new reality has taken shape. According to Bridges, when transitions do not go well, it is almost always because the Neutral Zone is skipped over or rushed through. Bridges’s favorite image for the Neutral Zone is one familiar to us: Israel wandering in the wilderness for 40 years, a time between leaving the old reality of slavery in Egypt and embracing the new reality of building a nation in the Promised Land. The Israelites needed those 40 years of the Neutral Zone in order to figure out what being a free yet righteous people would mean. I will have more to say about the Neutral Zone, but for now I want to highlight that the Neutral Zone is a space of managed instability: it is a time when old routines often change, expectations are renegotiated, new ideas are experimented with, and an organization’s identity might be reconsidered. That is also why strengthening interpersonal relationships is vitally important during the Neutral Zone, so that there is an abiding emotional stability underneath the organizational instability. 

Typical emotions during this phase: anxiety, tension, uncertainty, hesitancy, low energy, experimentation, creativity

 

The New Beginning is the phase of establishing what will become “normal” for the organization. It’s when Israel arrives in the Promised Land. But, just like in that story, the New Beginning is not “... they lived happily ever after.” In fact, the New Beginning is really just the start of the story. In the New Beginning, the organization is ready for the future. This phase is about settling into what the new routines, expectations, structures, identity, etc. of the organization will be.

Typical emotions during this phase: excitement, openness, confidence, peacefulness

 

Obviously, this model resonates with what a Rector transition looks like. In fact, it’s tempting to plug priests into these phases: Ending, Losing, Letting Go is about Mtr. Erika, the Neutral Zone is about me, and the New Beginning is about the Settled Rector you will call. To a certain extent, that aligns. And, of course, life is not as tidy as that. Remember these caveats:

  • The process of Ending, Losing, Letting Go is not just about Mtr. Erika but also about the totality of who Atonement was and hoped to be during her tenure.

  • There might be even older realities that might need to be let go of, dating further back before the last Rector.

  • The New Beginning will not happen automatically when your Settled Rector arrives. In fact, the first several months or even couple years of their tenure will likely be a continuation of the Neutral Zone. Recognizing that will help both you and them to appreciate that you are working to create the New Beginning together.

 

This is a lot for you to process in one article, so thanks for making it this far. I will continue to unpack this model for you in the weeks to come. In my Sermon this Sunday and in my next article, I will take you more deeply into the Neutral Zone, its pitfalls, its unavoidability, and its enormous creative and spiritual possibilities.

 

For now… One of the key takeaways from the Bridges Model of Transitions is that we cannot will ourselves through the phases. Again, transition is an emotional process far more than it is an administrative one, and that emotional process  must be worked with rather than controlled. That is why I asked you last week to get in-touch with how you honestly feel when you are at Atonement. Please keep doing that on a regular basis, not just on Sundays but in all of the ways you take part in the life of this parish.

 

Our emotions reveal our reality.

 

If this model has stirred up emotions, thoughts, reactions for you that you would like to share with me, please email me so we can talk: rector@atonementchicago.org

 

The Rev’d Dan Puchalla

Interim Rector, Church of the Atonement