Transitions and Transformations

“The only constant in life is change.” At least that’s what Heraclitus tells us.  We may think that our modern world is more fast-paced when it comes to change, but these words of Heraclitus come to us from around the year 450 BCE. Change is an unavoidable part of the human condition. Perhaps the only thing that doesn’t change is that change is constant.

Some of the changes we experience are biological in nature.  We grow. We mature. We age. We die. Other changes, both welcome and unwelcome, result from outside influences or choices we (or others) have made along the way. I’ve come to appreciate that even the longed-for changes require a period of adjustment.

For his best-selling book Life is in the Transitions, Bruce Feiler traveled the country and spoke with hundreds of people about their experiences of change. He describes the major changes that we all face as ‘life-quakes.’ Feiler defines life quakes as, “…those periods when life is coming at you from all directions.” I like to think of them as threshold moments where there is a before and after.

A life quake could be:

  • Death of a loved one
  • Diagnosis of an illness
  • Loss or Change of Job
  • Birth of a Baby
  • Marriage or Divorce
  • Move to a New Town
  • The list could go on and on….

Life-quakes can be painful, inconvenient, disruptive, and disorienting.

But as a society, we often don’t these changes their due. When we experience one – or more – of these major life changes (life-quakes) we are expected to just keep going with little time for grief, rest, recalibration, or adjustment. Our culture tells us to move on, get over it, keep busy, look forward.

When I was a pastor in the United Methodist denomination, the bishop decided where I would live and work on a year-to-year basis. Four years into my ministry at my first church just outside of Boston, the bishop decided to move me to a new church in Manchester, CT. When moved, United Methodist pastors finish their service at one church on June 30th and begin their service at the new church on July 1st. I remember the exhaustion and disorientation of packing up my house, moving one hundred miles, and starting work in a whole new community at a church I didn’t know with little time for adjustment – or even to unpack. I was stressed out and exhausted. I felt inadequate that I wasn’t able to handle the transition with more ease.

What I didn’t realize then was that I was in the midst of several life-quakes.  I was grieving the loss of a community I loved. I was also processing so many new things, meeting new people, navigating a new town, learning a new congregational structure, finding new a doctor, dentist, hairdresser, grocery store. Instead of being kind to myself, I pushed myself to work harder. No wonder I felt like a zombie for that first year! I didn’t know how to say, “This is a big change for me and I need some time.” I pushed through to the detriment of my own physical and mental health and, as a result, I am sure I wasn’t the best pastor I could be to my new church.

This is why I so appreciate Bruce Feiler’s work of drawing attention to – and normalizing – the significance of life transitions. Knowing that life-quakes are a regular part of life doesn’t make them any easier, but it does help us know that we are not alone. It gives us language to honor the life transitions in our (and others’) lives so maybe we can speak up when it feels like life is coming at us from all directions and we need a little space to adjust and process.

Life-quakes, as painful as they can be, may also be opportunities for growth and new possibilities. When we experience a life-quake, we have the chance to revisit our life story.

We may have thought our story was going in one direction, but a life-quake alters the plot.  The end of a relationship. The loss of a loved one. A new job. A move.

When we are in this in-between space of leaving behind one story before fully knowing how our new story is going to unfold, it can lead to self-reflection and re-evaluation of our life.

A few years ago, I decided to leave my career in local church ministry. I had been a United Methodist pastor for 18 years and served three different churches. I knew – in my soul – that it was the right decision for me, but what would come next had not yet been revealed.

Some people didn’t understand why I had to leave and probably never will. I broke ties with the United Methodist denomination when I realized that my values no longer aligned with theirs. I lost some decades-long friendships. The discernment time, after I had left but before a new path was revealed, was scary and confusing. I woke up in the morning and didn’t have anywhere to go or anything to do. Thankfully, by this time, I knew the value of rest, slowing down, and letting go of expectations. And slowly, as I shed my identity as a local church pastor, I was able to envision something new. I came to see that, while I was no longer called to be the pastor of a church, I would always have a pastor’s heart.

In time, I unveiled my new identity as a Pastor for People Who Don’t Do Church, a pastor for those of all identities and spiritual and secular worldviews. Through this life quake, I have learned a lot about myself and found greater joy in my work. I’ve had the chance to work with inspiring people. People I would never have met if I had stayed siloed in my previous identity. What I am doing now is not something I could have envisioned five years ago, but it is what makes my soul sing.

Whatever life transition you are going through or coming out of or that is just around the corner, know that you are not alone. The only constant in life is change. It was true 2500 years ago, it is true today, and it will be true for people as long as we populate this planet. Give your life story the kindness it deserves. Be willing to say for yourself, “This is a big change for me and I need some time.” Be ready to say to someone else, “Gee, you’re going through a lot. I can see that. How can I support you as you move through this change?”

We don’t grow, heal, or transform by white-knuckling it, by putting our heads down and pushing through. As I say to the people I work with, “Don’t rush through this change. Stay here a while. Find out what it has to teach you.” Change changes us no matter how much we resist it, so we may as well let it move through us so we can learn from it. In the words of Joan Olsen from “Go Boldly:”

And until the end of your days,
may your life be filled
with possibilities and courage.