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Good grief! The range of reactions to considering a church merger. | Dream project blog: part five

michael-mondloch-bungeeWriting this blog entry has been difficult. In it, I revisit hurt feelings, strained and sometimes broken relationships, misunderstandings and miscalculations. None of these are new to my experience of church life, but they’ve been of a degree and intensity that caught me off-guard and left me feeling unsettled. The lections from the Reign of Christ have given me the confidence to finish this entry. Jeremiah speaks of God’s faithfulness even when leaders fail. In Psalm 46 we hear, an insistent God’s call to “be still” and trust in God. The writer of the letter to the Colossians speaks in majestic terms of a cosmic Christ that empowers us. In Luke’s Gospel, that same Christ, while hanging on the cross, shows us the way of forgiveness that is both ours to receive and to give. Each of these readings, in one way or another, gives me something to grasp onto during a difficult time. The Advent season, with its promise that the light will overcome darkness, also offers hope.

Before I share specific details, let me say that I have a deep affection for the people of Grace Church with whom I have served for more than 13 years. I have great respect for their faith and genuine goodness. I’ve been impressed by their willingness to adapt in response to difficult issues. We’ve worked hard together to be a healthy church. We’ve worked at connecting with the wider community and have developed new ministries to serve others. We’ve had difficult conversations about the long-term viability of the church. In 2013, together as a congregation, we decided that the status quo was not an option. We agreed to consider the possibility of merging with another congregation and appointed a committee to look into that and other options.

As has been described in earlier blogs, an announcement was made in early July that we would be entering into a process to explore the possibility of merging with St. George’s Church. In early September, we held a town hall meeting to respond to the questions that we had been hearing, and to elicit more input from the congregation. About 40 people gathered and enjoyed homemade soup and salad prior to our meeting. We made it through the meal and about 10 minutes of the formal discussion before pent-up emotions emerged. Part way through the meeting, I recognized that we were grieving, and all the classic stages of grief were evident. The depth of the grief and the complex dynamics of a group in various stages of grief surprised me. Good people do unexpected things when they are grieving.

A dominant emotion was anger. This was manifest in looking for someone to blame and wondering how this travesty was perpetrated. A usual suspect in the Anglican setting is the Bishop or “the diocese,” but those suspects had a good alibi: the proposed change was a “local solution.” So anger was directed toward the process and the local participants in the process. Anger is a valid and understandable response at the time of loss. However, how and toward whom anger is directed must be checked. Perhaps we need to reclaim the ability to be angry with God, or at least learn to vent our anger on God when there aren’t appropriate or specific culprits. What should we do with our anger when broad societal changes are to blame for our own sense of loss? These are important questions at a time when too many turn their personal dissatisfaction into anger directed at others, regardless of whether the focus of the anger actually contributed to the situation.

Denial was also apparent at our meeting. We distributed questionnaires to help determine whether the parish was ready to enter fully into this exploration. The first question was designed to help us determine the extent to which the congregation felt that something needed to be done. We asked them to describe their level of confidence that Grace Church could be a vibrant independent congregation in its present location in 5 years. Only 3 of 40 people reported that they were very confident. While not as potent as anger, denial impedes essential change. When denial is premised on confidence, be that confidence in God or the church’s ability to pull back from the brink, it can be tricky to address. Denial is a natural defence mechanism and can be expected when people are asked to change. We were fortunate to have done much over the years to openly discuss the challenges that the congregation was facing. Nonetheless, some were unable to see or accept the need for significant change. As I reflect back on my ministry, I wonder whether I was too long in denial. One of the tragedies of denial is that too many have utterly spent themselves trying to save the church that they knew. I wish I had said more often, “I appreciate your efforts, but we need to recognize our efforts may not save the church as we know it—and that’s okay.”

Bargaining was also evident. Some was blatant: “we should seek a historical designation for our building.” A few years back, someone suggested that we should bury someone on the church grounds so as to reduce the value of the property. Another more subtle form of bargaining is that of suggesting we take more time or look at more options before we decide. While it may be tempting to point out how the bargaining will not work, doing so could illicit anger (see above). I don’t recommend having too many people experiencing anger at the same time. Kaboom!!!

Depression had set in among some parishioners. Normally vibrant and engaged parishioners looked forlorn and asked, “why us?” The lack of will and energy that accompanies depression, and its impact on those who themselves are not depressed and who are trying to push through a difficult time, is a challenge. There are clear strains in relationships, especially between people in different stages of grief from one another. Efforts must be taken to listen, seek to understand, and support one another. In a group setting such as I’m describing here, that task will often fall upon those who have come to a stage of acceptance.

There were many at the meeting who showed evidence of acceptance. In responding to a second item on the questionnaire, 18 of 39 said Grace Church should proceed “full speed ahead” in the exploration. An additional 11 stated that they weren’t keen but they were willing to see where the exploration led. This gave us a mandate to move ahead with the exploration. I’m not aware of anyone who has shifted away from acceptance, but there have certainly been attempts to sway opinions. I suspect that acceptance is robust in part because of the solid foundation of trust in God’s providence and from years of trying hard to sustain the church. Those who have already given their all need not ask the difficult question, “could I have done more to save Grace Church?”

Let me explain why I entitled this blog “Good Grief.” I am thankful that the whole range of reactions came out. The range of expressions of grief indicates that people are being open about where they are at concerning leaving their sacred home. In setting a course on a journey it is vitally important to know your starting point. As charged as our town-hall meeting was, it did help us know where people were at. Notably, in the heat of the moment individuals in varying states of grief affirmed publically that the ongoing unity of our community was important to them. Some expressed that it was not so much the building that they would miss should Grace Church relocate, but they would miss each other should some choose a separate path. That the community has held together in the midst of such grief bears witness to their care and affection toward each other.

As I reflect back to September 11, 2016, I found myself seeking solace in the holy friendships that have been developing between our parishes as we discern God’s call. Because of the pain of grief, I was more open to, and more appreciative of, the caring response offered by St. George’s. Revisiting the town hall meeting made me aware of my desire to jump ahead to realize the hopes for the future that a merger might hold. By virtue of the task laid before them, leaders are compelled to deal with their grief—to work through it, to see past the present and explore what the future might hold. But coming through grief happens in fits and starts, and it is easy to get stuck, especially if we find ourselves in the position of saying, “I don’t want to talk about it.” It was good for me to be reminded that some in my care are grieving still, and that safe spaces must be created to allow people to open up.

Grief is good when we come through it better than before. Should the merger go through and a more vital and vibrant faith community emerges, a profound demonstration of what Jesus says in Matthew 16:25,

For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

If by God’s grace, our faith community finds greater life and vitality, the darkness through which we have travelled will make the light more brilliant. We will be inspired to engage more fully in the sacrificial lifestyle to which we are called.

Finally, looking at this situation through the lens of what I know about grief helps me to gain some objectivity. I’m also reminded that how people respond to a new source of grief is often affected by previous loss. The elderly widow who hoped to have her funeral in the same place as her husband and the widower who is still angry because his wife died may experience the loss of their spiritual home more potently than others. How people are acting, myself included, is not just about exploring a church merger.

Possible universal truths (admitted some motherhood and apple pie) below:

  • We should expect that proposing a significant change will reveal unresolved issues.
  • While the proposed change ultimately may be for the best, things could very well get worse before they get better.
  • People will look for something or someone to blame for their pain. Leaders should expect that they may be thought to be responsible for things over which they have no control.
  • Being at different stages of grief will challenge relationships. Managing those tensions will demand much of the leaders.
  • Leaders will make mistakes and cannot control how others react.
The Rev. Dr. Michael Mondloch

About The Rev. Dr. Michael Mondloch

Michael Mondloch is a priest serving in Niagara. Innately curious and an admitted tinkerer Michael earned a doctorate in experimental psychology to feed his desire to make the world a better place. Michael’s wife and ‘adultescent’ children (try to) keep him playful and fun loving. Michael marvels at how the potter continues to work the clay, often times through adversity, which might account for this blues aficionado’s being a long-suffering Brewers, Packers and Hoosiers fan and willing to try new things in the church.
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    • The Rev. Dr. Michael Mondloch