Pilgrimage reflections from the messy middle

What’s the difference between transition and transformation?

Source: Unsplash/Richard Viana

I wonder, what does it mean to be on a spiritual journey we never intended to take in the first place?

I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately. I didn’t join the Great Resignation of 2021-2022. I like my job. I like the congregation I serve. In fact, I like it so much that I relocated to town. I happily adopted the local zip code and kissed my twice-daily views of Jersey Turnpike bumpers goodbye. Then one day, I looked up to realize I was working in a place I didn’t fully recognize. My office was the same, but the ground around me had shifted. Overnight, the journey of transition had begun and had permeated every aspect of our congregational life. It was as though I was serving an entirely different church…

Like so many institutions right now, our large congregation on the Philadelphia Main Line is experiencing massive change. In about a year’s time, nearly all my former colleagues have departed. Seats around our conference table are vacant or filled with interim colleagues, chief of which is highlighted by our ongoing search for a senior pastor. It has been a bumpy road, particularly over these past several months. Congregational grief over lost relationships and missing institutional memory remains acute. Some members have walked out the door, weary of the constant flood of change.

Yet prospective members want to join, hopeful that something new under the sun is happening here. Our new staff team has locked arms and are eager to create and lead together. I confess that sometimes it feels as though we are trying to build on sand. At any point, will office responsibilities get shuffled around yet again? Will another volunteer step into my office feeling discouraged? The internal dialogue in my head loops on repeat: How did we even get here? Where are we going next? Maybe I should start a dog-walking business, just to be safe… 

Nevertheless, here we are: a liminal setting we never intended to be. Since arriving in this unanticipated space, I wonder what it all means for our congregation and for me. In many ways, life itself is a series of arriving in unexpected places. I suppose it’s what we do after we arrive in each space that matters. Specifically, when God calls each of us forth into uncharted territory: how will we respond?Will we answer the call?

To be clear, I am still in the midst of the pilgrimage. These are not my sage reflections from life on the other side, but rather my obscured views peering out from some choppy “middle” place.  It’s not easy to articulate my thoughts on the journey so far. As I have learned, existing in this liminal space means many things are truth all at once, often in tension. I love my new colleagues, but I miss my former ones. The ubiquity of impermanence is overwhelming; still a new door of possibilities has cracked open to us wider than ever before. I can see the light of revitalization streaming through, and it’s so clear to me that God is at work here.

The question now is: how will we step forward into this next phase of the journey? How do we interpret God’s work faithfully and with intention? How do we participate and join in with what God is already doing in this place? The soil is fertile in the congregation for renewal, regrowth, and dare I say revival. What will we do with the fertile soil God has handed us? All this remains to be seen…

My experience in the messy middle has made me wonder if churches overuse the word “transition.” Without a doubt, the word “transition” is a beneficial one to keep bookmarked in our congregational lexicons, especially today. A transitional season is a midway point, a place of change, a time of fluidity, and a shift toward the next thing. Lord knows, none of us are strangers to transition these days! Though to be very clear, a time of transition is only intended to carry us so far by its very definition. It literally means “to go across,” like a bridge. In anticipation of our arrival on the other side, we need another word at the ready in our back pockets.    

With that in mind, as our congregation takes the next step into an uncertain future, I am craving a different word: “transformation.” Transformation means to be changed, to undergo a metamorphosis. For my weary soul, transformation feels exciting, holistic, and capacious: brimming with big possibilities and full of potential. Transformation offers an invitation to step into something bigger than we are, a metaphysical transcendence beyond the finite limitations of who and what we once were.

Transformation is a term expansive enough to fit both our enthusiasm for what is to come and our sadness at what once was. To be transformed doesn’t mean we step away from our grief and simply leave it behind us in the dust, unaddressed and denied. The transformative process is one that takes our grief along with us to this next pivotal phase of the journey, allowing every part of us to be shaped and molded, especially the pieces of us still broken and hurting. Truly God’s hand is the redemptive agent in the sacred work of transformation.

If we’re honest with ourselves, transformation is equal parts exhilarating and frightening. Ready or not, widespread spiritual and ecclesial transformation is already happening. Whatever comes next, in the life of our own congregations or for the American Church at large it will be nothing we’ve ever seen before. Once we go across that bridge, we won’t be the same. Our God who leads us to the other side will shape us and form us in ways beyond our wildest imaginations. Transition takes decisive steps toward a new place; it is the bridge that carries us over to the other side. Transformation is full immersion into uncharted territoryhow will God change us?