Is It Too Late to Turn Back? Reflections on the Difficulties of Change
I’ve recently entered a season that I might describe as a wilderness of sorts. My husband and I just moved to Boston, Massachusetts, nearly two thousand miles away from Abilene, Texas, the place that we have called home for the past five years. With a change of scenery, a change in culture, and a complete detachment from our community back home, I find myself feeling adrift in unfamiliar seas. I frequently wonder if I possess what I need in order to survive, and I find myself relying heavily upon the words of my mentors back home who assured me that I could thrive in this new context. In the first month of living in our new home, we had a terrifying late night rush to the emergency animal hospital for our beloved puppy dog, I managed to catch what we believe may have been viral meningitis, I traveled to New York to speak at a conference while sick, and my husband began a new job which requires him to work until 1:00 a.m. nearly every night. I don’t tell you these things to throw a pity party (trust me, I’ve been the life of that pity party for a solid three weeks now, and I’ve just about exhausted the role). I tell you about these things because I’ve been drawn into deeper reflection lately on the difficulties of change. We all know that change is difficult. But if you’re anything like me, than you like to convince yourself that you can successfully tackle any challenge with the right amount of grit and preparation. You brace yourself for the change, you rally the forces, you organize every detail, and you convince yourself that you have created a foolproof plan for a perfect and seamless transition.
And then everything starts to go haywire. All of your organization failed to anticipate the real challenges of the transition, and now you’re left scrambling, having exhausted all of your resources, and wondering what in the world you should do. Is it too late to turn back? Did we make a mistake? Remember how comfortable we were before we embarked on this transition?
It’s easy to begin to reflect on the past with rose-colored lenses when the going gets tough. For us, this means that we have begun to long for the place we called home, while forgetting why we chose to move here in the first place. It kind of reminds me of the way that the Israelites grumbled in the wilderness after God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. I used to read about their wilderness grumbling and wonder how in the world they could become so disoriented that they would begin to long for their lives back in Egypt.
Now, I’m in no way comparing my time in Abilene to enslavement in Egypt! Sure, the blistering heat and desert landscape might offer some considerable overlap, but Abilene was a wonderful home. In many ways, Abilene helped to shape me into the woman I have become, while offering all of the love and support a girl could possibly need. And yet, it was time for me to move to Boston. There are many things to love about Boston. We have access to endless restaurants, music, history, culture, and even the ocean! But now I find myself longing for the illusion of the perfect Abilene--perfection that I never really saw while I was there. I’m wandering in the wilderness, and grumbling all the while about the discomforts of a necessary change.
I wonder if sometimes we feel similarly about transitions in our churches. Identifying the need for change in church practices, and then implementing that change, can result in similar disorientation. If you’re a minister or an elder of a church, and your church has recognized the need for change, chances are that you have planned the heck out of the anticipated transition. You have held meetings, you’ve studied your context, you’ve sought wisdom from others who have successfully pulled off a similar transition, and you’ve done everything within your power to make the transition go smoothly.
And yet somehow, nothing you’ve done fully prepared you for the actual challenges you are facing. Families are leaving your church (including some of the key families who help keep the church financially afloat), some people are dropping the ball on their responsibilities, you’re receiving public criticism, and now you’re wondering if you even have what it takes to successfully survive this shift. At one point in your ministry, the change seemed so necessary, but now you’re left wondering if it’s too late to turn back.
Well, the short answer is yes--it’s too late to turn back. We have not yet invented a time machine that would allow you or me to go back and try a different path. We made choices, and now we have to work with them. I’m reminded of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken”--a poem that is oft misinterpreted. We read that poem, scouring each line in hopes of finding the key to picking the right path, when in reality the poem simply urges us to make a choice. There is no way that we can fully anticipate what we will encounter on a given path, so we do our best to prepare and we do what we believe is best. Did we make the right choice? I suppose there’s no way to know if we made the best choice. But now we must work with the decision and trust that if we were prayerful, diligent, and committed to the process, than God must be guiding the situation. There may be opportunities to slow down, or change our course moving forward, but at this point there is no way to go back to the way things were before we launched into a new direction.
So if you are adrift in the seas of change, take heart--you’re not alone out here! I’m floating somewhere in the seas with you, along with countless others who are wondering what to do next. The good news is that we affirm that there is a benevolent and loving Creator who commands the seas, and keeps a watchful eye on each creature. When the seas get rough, we must remember why we embarked in the first place. If your church took the plunge on some major change, try to remember why. Remember all of the discernment that went into the process, reflect on all of the preparation, and trust that God will sustain you until you reach your goal. If you remain diligent and faithful, and if you reach out to others who have cast themselves into the seas of change before (and live to tell the tale), you will find your way. Perhaps I write this piece for you, as well as myself. May we be reminded in these seasons that God carried the Israelites to a new home, and worked through all of their imperfections to bring about a plan to save creation. Change is difficult, but oh so necessary! Take the unforeseen challenges as opportunities for growth and learning, and know that someday you will be the one with both feet planted on solid ground, offering encouragement to those in need.