Graceful Transitions

Changes in membership present a community with some of its toughest challenges. Leave-takings and arrivals have negative and positive dimensions that the collective must address. This is true whether the group lives together or, in an arrangement that is much more common, lives apart and meets regularly.

The departure of a community member, for however good and understandable reasons, represents a kind of dying. It has a finality about it that requires what we might call a mourning period—both on the part of the person leaving as well as for those who remain. Too often the need for such mourning is overlooked.

The community should, therefore, ritualize the departure of a member. Time should be set aside for prayerful reflection on that person’s life in community and the acknowledgment of her or his personal and communal gifts to the collective. It is also very important that the community and the person leaving make an agreement to remain in contact. This sort of ritual celebrates the departing member and encourages him or her to go forth with the ideals and vision gained in the years spent with the group. It is bittersweet and goes far to fulfill the requirements of mourning.

Such ritual also makes the departure a positive, forward-looking experience—a missioning. God calls us throughout our lives to "launch out into the deep," something that often means leaving the familiar for new and uncharted realities. If those called to leave know that their gifts have been appreciated and that they occupy a "grateful space" in the community’s memory, they have a better chance to share the benefits received from the experience wherever God leads them.

ARRIVALS CHALLENGE THE group in a different way. The newcomer will never fill exactly the space left by a departing member. He or she possesses different gifts to share with the group. Communities do well to acknowledge that their common life will change in the face of the transition and that this is good. (We presume here that deliberate screening and preparation of the newcomer have taken place before he or she actually joins the group.)

There are several practices that go along with the arrival of new members. The group should relate as much of its history as possible to the new members. This is best done informally—though deliberately—by telling the stories of the collective and sharing the small and large moments that have shaped the community’s personality.

The group should expect that new members will bring initial suggestions and even criticisms. They are, after all, experiencing the collective for the first time and will have initial reactions. These fresh looks can prove instructive or they may be old issues. In either case, the community does well to respect the newcomers’ proposals and not dismiss them as somehow impertinent or premature.

It is well for the other members of the community to celebrate promptly the gifts brought by newcomers. Nothing is more gratifying when joining any group than to know that one’s good will and talents are appreciated. This acknowledgment is easy to do—though often overlooked—and can happen in the natural course of community living.

Finally a word about the majority who are neither departing nor arriving, but who for the moment form the core of the community. They are those on whom the ongoing life of the collective depends and who are called to sustain it throughout the inevitable transitions. The best attitude for the core group is to hold lightly—but lovingly—the life of the community.

Nothing on Earth is permanent—one day even these core members will move on. For them, as for departing and arriving members, the most appropriate word in scripture is from the writer of the book of Hebrews: "We have not here a lasting city."

—Joe Nangle, O.F.M.

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