Change vs. Transition: Should we change the conversation?

by vernsanders on January 14, 2011

So I was reading on the internet (there’s a statement you wouldn’t have heard 10 years ago…) because I’m trying to focus on reading and commenting in this month’s blogs. I came across this statement, which in the manner that can only be found in blogs, was a quote by William Bridges but in a blog by Rhett Smith. Here’s the quote (and the bold is added by Rhett…not me):

Our society confuses them constantly, leading us to imagine that transition is just another word for change. But it isn’t. Change is your move to a new city or your shift to a new job. It is the birth of your new baby or the death of your father. It is the switch from the old health plan at work to a new one, or the replacement of your manager by a new one, or it is the acquisition that your company just made.

In other words, change is situational. Transition on the other hand, is psychological (bold added for emphasis). It is not those events, but rather the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, the change won’t work, because it doesn’t ‘take.’ Whatever word we use, our society talks a lot about change; but it seldom deals with transition. Unfortunately for us, it is the transition that blind-sides us and is often the source of our troubles.

Then Rhett, in commenting on this quote says:

Change can come easy, but transitioning will take work. So don’t commit to just changing this year, but commit to transitioning.

Maybe I missed something here, but my experience is that group change, i.e. a change for a choir, or a congregation, doesn’t come easy. I’m not sure it comes easy for an individual, but that is easily debated because some people don’t have a fear factor about change. But groups? In my experience, the old analogy applies here: it is easier to turn a rowboat than an ocean liner.

In my experience, change generally only comes about because there is some kind of clear motivation to do so…and even that is often not enough. That’s where leadership comes into the equation. Without leadership, even the motivation to change can wane in a group. Here’s where it is important to understand the family systems approach when it comes to churches.

Recognize this story?

A struggling church, a business,a musical ensemble,  or, to take a neutral example from the headlines right now, the Stanford football program, finds a charismatic leader, and all of a sudden things begin to change, seemingly for the better. New members are attracted, generally they are more gifted, and everybody gets better at what they do, so that what they deliver corporately shows real change. The general public recognizes that “something is happening here” and pays attention, to the point that public relations are much easier to get, and generally positive, so that the cycle continues to spiral upward.

Then real change happens. The leader leaves. It may be because the leader can’t get along with a superior, or the group is resistant to continuing to improve, the leader is upwardly mobile, the organization doesn’t want to meet demands about salary or control, or external circumstances impose themselves. Doesn’t matter why.

Now there is a problem. Because now all of the good from the initial change is back on the table for negotiation. And it is my experience that it takes years to create a great corporate culture, and days to kill it.

And then change happens again…the church, organization, business, or ensemble shrinks, and begins to lament the loss of the “golden days.”

So yes, change can come. I’m not sure I’d use the word easy at the end of the previous sentence, but change is inevitable. And yes, transitions are hard…because for every individual in a group that welcomes a return to less work, lack of commitment needed, and less pressure to perform, there is another individual who mourns the loss of those things.

More to come in my next post. In the meantime, please leave a comment and let me know what you think: should we change the conversation about change and transition?

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Change vs. Transition: Taking off and Landing
January 18, 2011 at 7:14 am

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Mark January 14, 2011 at 10:17 am

Good observations, Vern. External change can oftentimes be easier than internal change (transition). While external change can be done by others, internal change (i.e., transition) requires the individual to take action in seeking his or her own acceptance and ownership of that external change. The desired impetus, of course, being to facilitate worship and ministry. For some, though, it’s just a matter of time before the change becomes habit and “the way we’ve always done it.” :)

vernsanders January 16, 2011 at 5:59 pm


I think you’ve hit on it exactly…everybody has a different “change meter” and the challenge as a leader is to move everybody through either transition or change toward a positive result. It often can seem like herding cats, but true leadership prepares for just those moments by thinking through and planning for all the “what ifs” that any given situation may raise.


Vicki Carr January 17, 2011 at 8:33 am

Incredibly timely, Vern. Our worship team/choir has made a big change over the last several years, and most have made the psychological transition, as well, because of the tremendous leadership of our MoM. He is retiring, and my fear is that even with excellent interim talent, the forward momentum will be lost. Some have already made up their minds that things can never be this good again. To support a new person would be unfaithful to our retiring leader. Of course that is the last thing our MoM would desire. He has only a few weeks to get that across.

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