5 Ways to handle change
What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” from Four Quartets
Change is difficult for many of us. We don’t like it because it disrupts our settled rhythms of life and causes us to have to renegotiate our commitments and our ways of being. A new job means new relationships, a new vocabulary, perhaps a new dress code and a new commute. A child leaving for college means not only less noise, but the absence of a familiar face and the snatched conversations, hugs, and presence that accompanies being part of a family. Whatever the change, a new normal settles in and is often accompanied by a sense of loss or of grief.
In his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes William Bridges explains how we often respond to endings:
…[M]ost of us handle them poorly. This is in part because we misunderstand them and take them either too seriously or not seriously enough. We take them too seriously by confusing them with finality–that’s it, all over, never more, finished! We see them as something without sequel, forgetting that they are the first phase of the transition process and a precondition of self-renewal. At the same time, we fail to take them seriously enough. Because they scare us, we try to avoid them. (107)
Encountering endings well isn’t for the faint of heart: it’s hard work. It takes the ability to see beyond the moment and to look farther down the road to what could be a different, and better day.
Here are five ways to handle change in a constructive way the will lay the foundation for something new and better to emerge.
- Don’t rush the process. Endings bring grief. Grief is unpleasant and we often like to rush past it or repress it. Don’t. Sit with the grief for a season and do your best to work through it with God and others. Failing to really experience the grief of the ending will retard your ability to move beyond it to something new. The bad ending will always be an anchor that holds you back from really moving into a new reality.
- Don’t get stuck in the grief. In the Christian classic The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian finds himself getting trapped in the “slough of despond,” a swampy place where his sorrows and sin weigh him down and he has no energy to escape and press forward toward the Celestial City. It’s easy to allow ourselves to become bogged down by the very same grief I’ve just warned you to fully engage. You can’t set a deadline for grief to subside, but make an effort to note how you’re doing at intervals along the way. If your grief is the same six months on then perhaps you need some help to move beyond it.
- Zoom out to the big picture. It’s easy to lose the forest for the trees. When the leadership of a team or an organization changes its easy to imagine the worst. True, the worst case is always a possibility. Most of us, if we take the time, can realize that in the majority of instances the worst doesn’t become reality. My wife Anna was a student at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill when legendary basketball coach Dean Smith retired. Smith had coached at UNC for thirty years. Who could possibly replace such a legendary leader? Two coaches came and went: Bill Guthridge (1997-2000) and Matt Doherty (2000-2003). Both had less success than Smith and neither lasted more than three seasons. Doherty’s departure allowed a new coach came on the scene. Roy Williams, the current coach of the Tar Heels, has led them to two national championships since in eleven years. The six years between Smith and Williams have to be placed in the larger context of UNC basketball. At the end of the day, despite the difficult transition the programs continues to be one of the most successful and well-known in the nation.
- Don’t go dark. It’s easy to turn negative, to shut down, to fall into the trap that everything has to stop simply because of a transition, even one of a senior leader. No one is served by a Chicken Little monologue that seeks out the worst in every situation. Consider the words of Paul: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus” (Romans 5:15). God is the giver both of endurance and of encouragement. And we act in accordance with the nature and character of God when we help our friends and colleagues grow in endurance and when we encourage them as together we follow Christ, the head of the church.
- Remember, God isn’t surprised. God hasn’t abandoned his creation nor has he abandoned his church. God works within that creation to manage all things according to the “immutable [unchangeable] counsel of His own will” (Westminster Confession of Faith, V, i). In other words, God is in control. This knowledge, couples with a knowledge of the nature and attributes of God, allows us to experience what John Calvin describes:
Gratitude of mind for the favorable outcome of things, patience in adversity, and also incredible freedom from worry about the future all necessarily follow upon this knowledge. Therefore, whatever shall happen prosperously and according to the desire of his heart, God’s servant will attribute wholly to God, whether he feels God’s beneficence through the ministry of men, or has been helped by inanimate creatures. For thus he will reason in his mind: surely it is the Lord who has inclined their hearts to me, who has so bound them to me that they should become the instruments of his kindness.