Written by Dan Wierenga
June 4, 2024

The Emotional Rollercoaster of Church Change: Decline, Renewal, and Closure

Church renewal can have a tremendous emotional impact on church members. Leaders must take a very pastoral and “care full” approach to significant changes and transitions.
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The work of church renewal can have a tremendous emotional impact on members of churches, in particular its pastors and “older” folks, many who’ve been members of the church for most of their lives. For many senior saints, the decision to make significant changes or even close, represents a huge loss, not unlike the death of a “significant other.”

  • It is essential that leaders take a very pastoral and “care full” approach to significant changes and transitions at their church. Still, such significant impact should not be allowed to deter a Spirit-led, mission-centered new direction for the church.

Church renewal leaders must seek to understand and respond to the normal dynamics of change. The pioneering work of psychiatrist, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, is worth reviewing. In 1969, she introduced what has become known as the five stages of grief:

  1. Denial: “This can’t be happening to me.”
  2. Anger: “Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
  3. Depression: “I’m too sad to do anything.”
  4. Bargaining: “Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
  5. Acceptance: “I’m at peace with what happened.”

Here are a few important principles about how to make sense of the stages of grief as you navigate through changes during church renewal:

Seven Principles to navigate grief well
Principle 1. Grief is not a straight line
  • Instead of a being a series of linear stages, we should think about the grieving process as a roller coaster, full of ups and downs, highs and lows. The difficult periods should become less intense and shorter as time goes by, but even years after a loss, especially, we may still experience a strong sense of grief.
Principle 2. Not all losses are equal in intensity
  • Typically, the more significant the loss is, the more intense the grief will be. Still, even subtle losses can lead to grief. As such, we can empathize with “long time” church members who wish to hold on to the past.
Principle 3. Normalize the complexities of grieving
  • Grief is a universal response to loss, but everyone grieves differently. Not everyone goes through all five stages. How you grieve depends on many factors, including your personality and coping style, your life experience, your faith, and the nature of the loss. You do not have to go through each stage in order to heal.
Principle 4. Allow time to grieve
  • The grieving process takes time. Healing happens gradually. It can’t be forced or hurried, and there is no normal timetable. Some people start to feel better in weeks or months. For others, the grieving process is measured in years. It is important to be patient with yourself, and with others, allowing the process to naturally unfold.
Principle 5. Ignoring pain does not heal grief
  • Some believe that pain will go away faster if you ignore it, but this is a myth. Trying to ignore pain or keep it from surfacing will only make it worse in the long run. For real healing, it is necessary to face grief and actively deal with it.
Principle 6. Resisting emotional reactions does not heal grief
  • Some people think it’s important to be “be strong” in the face of loss. However, feeling sad, frightened, or lonely is a normal reaction to loss. Crying doesn’t mean you are weak, and you don’t need to “protect” your family or friends by putting on a brave front. Showing your true feelings can help them and you.
Principle 7. Getting support is crucial
  • The single most important factor in healing from loss is having the support of other people. Sharing losses makes the burden of grief easier to carry. Connecting to others will help you heal, whether that is a friend, a family member, or a therapist.

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