Managing Change, the Only Constant in Today’s World

July 1, 2015Rabbi Janet Offel

This is the time of year when many congregations prepare to welcome new rabbis and other senior staff members to the temple family. With this period of change comes many emotions – excitement, anxiety, curiosity, sadness at the departure of a long-time beloved rabbi or other staff member…

In our work with the URJ’s Strengthening Congregations team, Rabbi David Fine and I interact with Reform congregations all around North America that are in the midst of change. Whether it be a clergy or senior staffing change, a synagogue merger, an emerging collaboration between multiple synagogues, or any of the other myriad changes that are so much a part of today’s world, the only constant seems to be change.

As congregational families, how do we manage feelings of disruption and discomfort in this world of constant change?

We are all familiar with stories from the secular world in which new corporate CEOs have failed spectacularly and of corporate mergers that were deemed to be disasters within weeks of their announcement (think AOL-Time Warner). William Bridges, who in 1991 published the first edition of his groundbreaking book Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change, says that in most of these cases, the problem isn’t the change itself but the way people react to it. He calls these reactions “the human side of change.”

Bridges notes that a change in one’s own world can lead to feelings of disrupted expectations, a threatened sense of security, and fears of looking foolish, awkward, or embarrassed. In a synagogue setting, these feelings may occur among b’nai mitzvah families who were looking forward to the soon-to-be-former rabbi officiating at their children’s service. Other congregants may wonder: Will the new rabbi “get” and understand my family and me? Members often feel they are missing key information that might help them understand the implications of the change: Why have so many senior staff members left our synagogue in the last couple of years? What will that mean for our synagogue’s future and my own place in it? In Bridges’ lexicon, the psychological reorientation that we go through in coming to terms with a change is called “transition management.”

In other words, the change is the new rabbi’s arrival or the completion of the merger of two congregations. The transition is the process of letting go of old ways and getting comfortable with the new rabbi’s personality and behavior, or with the congregational minhagim (customs) that new leaders institute.

Bridges developed a model for managing transitions in which he defined three phases of the process: ending, neutral zone, and new beginning.

Endings often include emotions that we label as negative: sadness, anger, denial, resentment, fear, anxiety, loss, betrayal, and abandonment. These are predictable, normal emotions when grappling with an ending. Even when the change is positive, there are feelings of ending and loss. Of course, there can also be feelings of excitement and anticipation in the ending zone, but they are often bittersweet and mixed with at least a tinge of sadness and loss.

The neutral zone is often characterized by feelings of confusion, disorientation, apathy, disconnection, and impatience. It is a time in which people complain about a loss of leadership – i.e., the outgoing rabbi seems to have “checked out” and the new rabbi isn’t here yet. Frequently, synagogue leaders ask how many members they should expect to lose when going through the rabbinic placement process. It is because of their own fears of the neutral zone that this becomes such a big worry. A wonderful video titled The Trapeze, based upon the poem by Danaan Parry, is worth watching for a better grasp on this phase. Indeed, the neutral zone is that moment when you have let go of the old trapeze bar but have not yet grabbed the new one, evoking a mix of emotions: fear and excitement, impatience and curiosity, disorientation and openness.

Individuals finally enter the new beginning phase once they become comfortable with the change. At the very least, congregants feel a sense of ease in this phase. When the transition process is carefully managed, fully embracing the new beginning leads to a sense of recommitment and reengagement, and, as a result, a congregational family that is energized, vigorous and renewed.

Here at the URJ, we have gone through many changes and our own transition process in recent years. As such, we are especially committed to offering learning and engagement opportunities to help our congregations focus more fully on their transition processes. For more information about managing your congregation’s transitions, please email me or my colleague Rabbi Paula Winnig

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