As I finish my time with the Marin Foundation, I’ll be writing posts based on chapters from Unexpected Gifts: Discovering the Way of Community by Christopher Heuertz, a friend of mine and of the foundation.
Transitions are an inevitable part of community, but how they are handled has as much power over the sustainability of a community as just about anything else
For some communities, transition is beyond inevitable: it's expected. As someone who has been a student for the majority of his life, I've grown to understand that no community is intended to stay just as it is forever. If it were to do so, it would eventually die. I've had great friends who simply had to go by virtue of completing their education. Transitions for reasons like this are more natural and tend to come with less potential for harm, at least in my experience.
Other transitions are less predictable and more messy. As I was reading this chapter—which was probably one of the hardest ones for me to read thus far simply because of where I'm at in life—I couldn't help but reflect on the times when I transitioned out of various communities and times when others left as well. It's not always easy to know why we think it's time to leave. Sometimes it just feels like it. Other times, something happens that seems to push us out. In any and every situation, it's important to know why we're going.
Navigating transitions is one of the most significant and constant struggles a community will face. But what if most of our reasons for going are bad reasons? What if we could learn to see struggles and dissonance as reasons to stay? What could those unexpected and unlikely gifts possibly be?
I get what Chris is saying here. I really do. And I know that there have been times that I (or others) have left a community for less than the best of reasons. In fact, there have been times where I sincerely did not want to leave, where leaving was excrutiatingly painful, but staying felt as if it would have been even more so. However, in all but one situation, I've been blessed to be able to discern the right time to leave in the company of some of my best friends. As the decision to leave and transition out of a community impacts more than just the person leaving, so also should the decision involve more than that person.
When it's time for someone to go, that person is usually the first to know
I hate leaving. I hate feeling as if I'm losing a relationship, as if someone I love dearly is abandoning me. This is what transition can feel like for many people. This reality makes it necessary for the transition process to be handled with care, offering space for both grief and celebration. Without room for all the emotions that become tangled up in transitions, the shifts that individuals and communities face can lead to excessive pain, bitterness, resentment, and much more.
Chris offers what he calls "phases of transitional awakening, which include grief, romanticism, correction and criticism. Clearly there could be other stages, but in any transitional process, room must be made for at least these stages in order to make transitions as smoothly and painlessly as possible.
"People leaving a community usually need a clean break to step back and rediscover who they are when they way they express their vocation changes. When the transitional space isn't handled gently, it can lead to perpetual separation, something that almost no one wants." When I read this, I let out both a sigh of relief and a moan of frustration. I don't like clean breaks, regardless of how necessary I understand them to be.
When I left Holy Covenant back in October, I realized quickly that I needed a clean break, not just from the local parish but from the institutional church as a whole. I'd been without a church home for a long period before, and I feared that I would end up having the same experience all over again. However, since then, I've been back several times, usually every few months, and each time I return, I recognize how beneficial the space has been for me and for the community I left.
Life has a way of beating us into new versions of ourselves. These emerging versions of self, when dynamic and open to change, can't always stay in communities or relationships that once supported us but now may stifle our growth
I've lost track of how many friends I've had for whom this statement is true. They changed, and with that change came the realization that several of their communities and their friendships could no longer be life-giving. What has saddened me is hearing from them how these particular friends and communities handled the news. Anger. Bitterness. Blame. Judgment. Rage. You name it and they made it manifest. Rarely do we lose one relationship at a time. Often these kinds of transitions involve several people if not whole communities. Chris remarks on this:
Jenga is a lot like the collection of friendships and relationships we compile over the course of our lifetime. Sometimes the loss of a particular friendship is the Jenga of them all: once the relationship is lost, all the others come crashing down around it.
Oh how true this is. Remember back to middle school how breaking up with your "boyfriend" or "girlfriend" (because let's be honest, for most of us that included passing notes, phone calls, eating lunch together, holding hands, and the inevitable first "french kiss) would lead to the demise of several other relationships, sometimes breaking down entire circles of friends, especially when one of th persons involved was the ring leader of a particular group. If you don't, well, just come talk to me. You can have the experience vicariously.
The point of the matter is this: communities that don't learn to handle transitions with grace, love, compassion, empathy, and understanding run a high risk of imploding completely with very little chance of regrowth. I don't care whether this is a church, a circle of friends, a country club, a youth center, or whatever, transition is always to be expected, and never is just one person impacted. After all, no [person] is an island. We're all connected, tangled up in one another. That's the nature of community.