Ron Higdon: The Challenge of Change

by Ronald Higdon, retired pastor (including intentional interim ministry), adjunct professor, and author of In Changing Times: A Guide for Reflection and Conversation and Surviving a Son’s Suicide

in-changing-times-coverA reporter was interviewing an elderly Kentucky farmer and posed an obvious-answer question: “You’ve been farming for over sixty-five years; I bet you’ve seen a lot of changes in that period of time, haven’t you?” The farmer replied, “I certainly have. And I’ve been against every one of them.”

This is not unlike the song sung by Groucho in an old Marx Brothers movie that has this recurring line: “I’m against it!” This is the theme song of many who see change as only danger and threat. I often quip that I have pastored some churches with the unstated but obvious philosophy: “Come weal or come woe, our status is quo.”

The above examples keep one in the negative and “kickative” mode because change is the one constant in life that can always be counted on. It is one of the great inevitables written large in the universe. Only of God’s consistency in his grace, mercy, and love can it be said: “As it was in the beginning, so it is now, and so shall it ever be, world without end.”

A friend was recently talking about some changes that are about to be made in the church of which we are members. Her comment was: “Nothing in my world has remained the same. It seems that everything I have loved and cherished is no more. I guess I had always assumed that at least I could count on my church remaining the same.”

Books have been written on the impact of the not only increasing amount of change in our world but of the rapidity with which it has come. I told my friend who was lamenting the changes in her life, even in the church, that each day when I get up I look out the window to make certain I’m not living on another planet. Many have brought to our attention our basic dilemma: those of my generation were educated to live in another time and now we find ourselves living in this time. My seminary education was excellent but it certainly did not prepare me for ministry in the church-world of today.

The reference has been lost but not the story of the Bishop who was meeting with a group of pastors and began his session with the announcement that he had good news and bad news for them. He asked them which they wanted first. After a brief pause, one of the pastors spoke up: “Give us the bad news first.” “It is more difficult to be in pastoral ministry today than in any other time I have known.” After a brief period of silence and heads nodding in approval, the request came: “What is the good news?” The Bishop smiled and confidently announced, “If the fifties ever come back, we’re ready!”

The impossibility of this kind of “back to the future” does not have to be spelled out even though the attempt to live it out remains in evidence. We shouldn’t have to be told, “There are no trains to yesterday.” We know the intellectual truth of this, even though some continue to wait at the Nostalgia Station for the Express to the past. It’s not coming.

The time is now. It is not the same as it was in the past and, when the future arrives it will be different than what we are experiencing but, of course, will not be called the future but the present, the now. This is the only time zone in which we can live and in this “new time” in order to live with purpose and hope I believe, that basically, we have to see the changes in our lives as challenges and opportunities.

In 1980, William Bridges wrote a book titled Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. He offered what I believe continues to be solid advice: “Whether your chose your change or not, there are unlived potentialities within you, interests and talents that you have not yet explored. Transitions clear the ground for new growth. They drop the curtain so the stage can be set for a new scene. What is it, at this point in your life, that is waiting quietly backstage for an entrance cue?” The challenge in this he spells out in one sentence: “To have a new beginning you need to acknowledge an ending.”

Why is it so difficult for us to acknowledge that some things are simply over? Endings are usually never swift or easy and are hardly ever complete. I maintain that successful beginnings always depend on reasonably successful endings. The grief process in mourning our losses plays a large part in successful endings and varies greatly with the nature of the loss (ending) and the way we have dealt with previous losses.

It is not always easy to view change as a time of transition and the opportunity for a new beginning. But that is what it is – if we are determined to be truly alive in the moment in which we are living. Just because something is difficult (and what worthwhile thing isn’t?) doesn’t mean it is not meant to be a part of our learning and growing in God’s world for this time. Who knows what fresh beginnings await us? A lot depends on how we handle the changes that will only keep coming.