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Navigating the Stages of Transition

One of the most notable transitions in Church history – the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Pope Francis – was covered by the international media and followed around the world.

Yet most changes in the Church happen much more subtly. Priests, religious and lay leaders regularly encounter transitions that, while often expected and perhaps even desired, can nonetheless present challenges.

“We’re dealing with change and the unknown, and that’s always stressful,” said Sr. Jane Becker, OSB, a licensed psychologist at Saint Luke Center in Louisville, Ky.

The most common types of transition for those who serve the Church are a new assignment or a new leader, like a bishop or religious superior. Other types of transition include retirement, the death of a loved one, or the aging of members in one’s religious community.

There are three stages of transition: letting go, the neutral zone and new beginnings. In the first stage, an individual suffers a loss of some kind. The loss may be anticipated or it may come as a shock. It may also be desired or it may be unwanted. One of the most helpful ways to deal with loss, Sr. Jane said, is to say a proper “goodbye.” Those who are leaving a parish or ministry, for example, should reach out to those they have served and tell them they will be missed.

The second stage of transition is the most transformative, she said. During this time, a priest may have moved to a new parish but not yet know anyone, or a religious community may be adjusting to a new superior. “We’ve left one thing but we’re not settled in to the new place,” said Sr. Jane. “It’s a period of uneasiness.”

It’s important to acknowledge the difficulty of change, she said, and reflect on how one has handled transitions in the past. Prayer is particularly important and so are other forums – like writing or exercising – for expressing frustration, hopes and fears.

“The first two stages are no fun, so we balk at them,” Sr. Jane said, “but spiritually it’s good for us to have a period where we’re unplugged from the world we were in and still trying to make sense of the world we’re moving into.”

The third stage is achieved when an individual feels at home in his or her new situation, she said. It is a time to be grateful, immerse oneself in the new situation, and not fear attachment because of a possible future loss.

“Make the most of those relationships and get to know the people and those experiences,” she said. The movement through the stages has no set length, Sr. Jane said, and varies depending on whether the change was anticipated or not and desired or not.

If a new beginning is elusive after several months, it may be helpful to talk with a spiritual director or therapist to discern whether an individual might be doing something that prevents settling in, Sr. Jane said. A new assignment might also turn out to be a bad fit.

Overall, though, transitions should be viewed as a positive experience, Sr. Jane said. “The challenge deepens us,” she said. “You see new skills and new connections do come out of trying something new.”