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Managing Transitions: Meeting People Where They Are and Moving On
Membership Growth & Outreach

Congregational Change is Personal

Keynote Presentation by Sarah Bridges, Ph.D., L.P. at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Conference for Mid-Size Congregations
Phoenix, AZ, March 3, 2006

Sarah Bridges, consultant in William Bridges and Associates, delivered the keynote address for the UUA's 2006 Mid-size church conference. The conference, which was attended by nearly three hundred lay and professional congregational leaders, was held at the Hyatt Regency Phoenix.

Bridges' remarks focused on many of the issues surrounding growth:

  • Should we have growth?
  • Should we have growth for growth sake?
  • Should we have two services?
  • Which one should the choir go to?
  • What kind of music should we use?

Many changes are good, she explained, but they trigger other things that leave people with many emotions. What does it mean to be a minister with all the changes that go on in the congregation? The minister may think, "I am now an executive, and I wasn't called for that." Trying to balance diverse opinions and beliefs in the congregations… about growth, about change, is challenging. All these elements are a backdrop for talking about a model for managing transitions.

Bridges said, "I want you to take two minutes and come up with a particular change going on in your congregation. People talk about the pace of change, but it is really the pace of repeated transitions that cause anxiety for people.

Bridges offered a set of slides summarizing her discussion about transition and change.

Change vs. Transition

Change and transition are not the same.

Change = a shift in the external situation

Transition = a psychological process that people go through to adapt to/assimilate a change. We are more likely to make a change if it's something people get on board with.

Transition Has a Distinctive Three Phase Form

  • the first phase is ending the old way: people have to let go
  • the second phase is one of hiatus, where the old way is gone but the new isn't working yet: people have to get through this time and use it creatively
  • the third phase is a new beginning: people come out of a successful transition with a sense of purpose that is realigned and with renewed energy

While something may have happened on a set date, the ripples touch many areas. We don't' like to have everything in our world realigned. When Galileo talked about the way the planets were aligned, Bridges reminded the audience, people responded in a way that had the planets going backward—that is sometimes the reaction.


It is the transition—not the change itself—that leads to resistance. What people resist is transition's three phases:

  • the loss of their identity and of their 'world.'
  • the disorientation and uncertainty of the neutral zone
  • the risk of failing in a new beginning

Change management starts with the outcome ("we'll add a service and go forward").

Transition management starts with wherever people are.

"The marathon effect" (name comes from a marathon in California): There is nothing more demeaning than hearing that some runners have crossed the finish line and you haven't even started. Transition is like that: we are all in different places and we have to meet people where they are.

It would be nice if we knew that there was a set beginning, middle, and ending. But in fact, there are overlapping phases.

  • ending, losing, letting go
  • the neutral zone
  • the new beginning

Why Transition Matters

  • if people don't make a transition, the change won't work
  • changes without transitions make people resist and blame the changes for what they are feeling
  • u nmanaged transition disrupts operations and distresses people unmanaged transition also polarizes groups and causes leaders to be mistrusted
  • because of these things, unmanaged transition causes productivity and effectiveness to decline

Unmanaged transition can case fear, sometimes irrational fear, where people worry about things that aren't likely.

Regarding the Changes You Face (We Need to Understand)

  • what is ending?
  • who's going to lose what?
  • what can we [who] stop doing?
  • what is it time [for who?] to let go of?
  • what is it time [for who?] to say goodbye to?
  • how do they do that?

To Manage Endings

Make sure that:

  1. People understand what is finished and what is not.
  2. People feel that their losses are seen and acknowledged.
  3. You've removed excuses to hold on to the past.
  4. You've used boundary actions or events to mark a clean break.
  5. Your managers understand and accept grieving.
  6. You've 'sold the problem' without denigrating the past.
  7. People are getting all the information they need. (People are bad at remembering info rmation when they are under stress.)
  8. People have been given a piece of the past.
  9. You've looked for ways to soften the impact and protect people's interests.
  10. You've used ceremony, ritual, or symbolic events to gain closure.

Endings: The People's View (e.g., How People Experience Endings)

  • a sense of loss (learned helplessness is often a part of the process— people need to understand that what they are doing does have an effect)
  • grieving what is gone—identity and competence
  • lack of clarity regarding what is over and what is not subjective

What people in transition need depends on where they are in the transition process. Do they need help with endings or with the neutral zone or with new beginnings? The leads to the second question: where are people? The various groups? The key individuals? Outsiders affected by changes? You yourself?

Another Image of Transition

Transition is an ongoing process that is actually a sequence of three underlying processes:

  1. Relinquishing the old way of doing things and the realities that justified it.
  2. A time of inner re-patterning, during which neither the old nor the new provides structure and meaning.
  3. Launching forth and with a new way and a new identity based upon it.

The most dangerous time in the life of national is the time between systems when the old ways are discredited, but the new habit and institutions have not taken shape.

It is not enough to communicate the vision and to stay positive…nothing will elicit more venomous behavior in people….it's like the grim reaper coming forward and putting their arm around you.

Neutral Zone: The People's View (e.g., How People Experience the Neutral Zone)

  • confusing
  • rules of the game in limbo or new
  • reporting and policy issues jumbled
  • creative chaos

"Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood."
—Henry Miller

Things to Remember in the Neutral Zone

  • use temporary solutions to Neutral Zone problems
  • focus communication on the 4 P's: purpose, picture, plan, and part (what is someone's role in this process)
  • remember the 2 C's: stay connected, show your concern for people
  • (re) build trust and make it safer to take risks
  • help people to rethink their career plans

Reframe the Changes

  • Broken window theory (are we fixing the break or the whole window)
  • Everything changing versus connected pieces of change
  • Focus on whole company versus my function
  • Toyota production systems (Toyota talked about continuous improvement as a process first): change is a continuum and we are always changing and improving and re-evaluating what we do.

To Facilitate New Beginnings

  • fine tune the implementation plan using input from transition monitoring teams (people who have no decision making authority but who can be a conduit for info going back up to the leadership)
  • translate all changes into new behaviors and attitudes that will be needed to make them work
  • update the reward structure so that you aren't rewarding old behaviors and attitudes
  • focus on and publicize the early successes achieved by the changes
  • build in the resources and structures that will be needed to make transition less disruptive next time

The Rev. Ken Brown, one of four UUA district staff or congregational consultants facilitating the second part of the keynote program, posed several questions to the group for small group reflection. He asked people to think of a point of change and transition in their own congregation and reflect on these points:

  1. Who's going to have let go of what?
  2. What could you do to help affected people to deal with their losses and let go of the old way?
  3. How could you help them?
  4. What could you do facilitate the new beginnings?

After discussion, Bridges resumed her presentation. She noted that it's important to understand several key behavioral points:

  • thermostats offer control—or even a sense of control, which can help people adapt to transitions
  • psychological reactance—when we take something away from people, even if they didn't like it, they want it back
  • law versus preference—what things must we change, vs. what things might we like to change? focus on what we must do first
  • share information, based on communication you receive

Two Most Important Functions of Transition

  • reorientation: turning people in a new direction, one that is aligned with the next stage of their organization's journey
  • renewal: bringing people o out of the transition with anew source of energy and a new sense of purpose

The Three Paths to Renewal

  • reorganizing: creating a form that better first the group's function
  • recapturing practices and spirit of a new venture
  • discovering new ways of doing things


Bridges concluded her comments by asking these three questions of participants:

  1. What should be done in your part of the congregation manage the current transitions better?
  2. What should be done to keep nonstop change from being so confusing and disruptive?
  3. What should be done to renew the organization and its people? AND…
  4. What can you do personally, using the channels of influence that you possess—to increase the likelihood that one of those transition-facilitating actions will be taken?

In the afternoon, facilitators Ken Brown & Angela Merkert, Terasa Cooley, and Cilla Raughley led reflection in congregational groups.

Brown and Me rkert noted that in leadership a congregation manages transition with the ending, losing, letting go process…where are people and how long will it take them to move forward? Our role as leaders is not to get frustrated, but to move forward. As leaders, it doesn't mean that we aren't working with our understanding of the new beginning…but it means that we manage transition at the same time that we deal with the ending process.

Often in managing transitions, we are blocked because there is a strident group of four or five voices. That is normal and typical. But if you believe in a notion of new beginning, you keep moving…there is a recognition that we are never bringing one hundred percent of the people to the new beginning.

We are working during this conference with the concept of understand a congregation as a system: developing an understanding of a sensitivity that as changes occur, they impact different parts of the congregation. Ministerial transition brings changes in creativity in the congregation—where else does it ripple in the congregation, in worship, in faith development, in other parts of the system?

Some people have heard about transformational leadership and technical work (working from the recipe cards) vs. adaptive work (creating, engaging, finding approaches and answers for our particular group) that will serve us well? The adaptive work happens best, said the presenters, in the neutral zone: being on the balcony, taking a look at where we your congregation is going, managing anxieties as you work for change.

Work for the balance of the day continued in congregational groups, with high enthusiasm from the conference participants for the focus of the day and its potential for helping congregations navigate and manage transitions in their congregations.

Reported by Deborah Weiner.

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