Helping Congregants Deal with the Five Stages of Change

By Rabbi Paula Feldstein

On the bimah stood two large, dark brown wooden podiums. The rabbi spoke from one, and the cantor sang from the other. Being four feet wide, they took up a lot of space, and anyone under 5’5” needed to stand on a step to be seen by the congregation. The podiums were also very dark on an otherwise airy bimah, standing in stark contrast to the colorful stained-glass windows that filled the back wall.

The rabbi decided to remove the two podiums and use microphones with stands and a small Torah reading table instead. The bimah was brighter and more open, and the rabbi and cantor felt more connected with the congregation.

There was only one problem.

Although many people were very happy about the change, others were very upset. In fact, they hated it. The clergy was baffled. All they did was remove two podiums. What went wrong?

While many of us think of change or transition as the beginning of something new, in reality change always begins with an ending. Noted change management consultant Dr. William Bridges frames the endings stage of transition as a time of grief and loss. It is critical, Dr. Bridges argues, to deal openly with the losses people are experiencing or anticipating by helping them talk about the feelings the change raises for them. The only way people will be able to move into a new reality is if their loss is recognized and legitimized.

In our example above, synagogue leadership neglected to recognize that the podiums were meaningful to some people – and that their removal felt like a loss.

In Western society, we are very uncomfortable with the idea of loss, yet it’s a normal part of life. The way we think about loss has been vastly influenced by the “five stages of grief,” which were introduced by psychiatrist and author Elizabeth Kübler-Ross in her book On Death and Dying. These stages have since been adopted as applicable for any type of loss, not just death.

While not everyone goes through all five stages or in Kübler-Ross’s order, they are useful in understanding the range of emotions and mindsets people may experience when dealing with change.

Stage One: Denial

This is generally a shorter stage that may come with the initial shock of being confronted with a change. Removing the podiums without any warning or explanation created shock for people as they walked into the sanctuary, their holy place.

At this stage, communication is key. Share information openly, but give people time to digest it. Do not be afraid to reiterate the news several times in different ways.

Stage Two: Anger

People often feel angry about the loss, and they may fear or resent what they will have to do to adjust to the new reality. The people who were upset about the removal of the podiums had memories of standing at them – on their own or with their children – and associated those memories with the bimah itself. Their anger needed to be heard and understood.

At this stage, listening is critical. Allow people to express their anger and convey empathy for what they will lose during the change. Having empathy means understanding and accepting their feelings – not “fixing” the problem.

Stage Three: Bargaining

At this stage, people may try to come up with a compromise or postpone the change as long as possible. Listen to suggestions, as they will help people feel heard and may ultimately result in ideas to make the change happen in a way that is easier to accept.

In the case we mentioned, the compromise was to return the podiums for High Holidays during the first year and then to experiment (a great word!) with different configurations of furniture on the bimah.

Stage Four: Depression

At this stage, most people have realized that the change is going to happen whether they like it or not. They feel sad and tend to push others away; there may be a loss of morale and energy.

This is the time to continue to listen, acknowledge the loss, offer support, and, if possible, show the positive sides of the change.

Stage Five: Acceptance

This is the point at which people realize that the change is not going to go away, and they need to embrace the new reality. People let go of the loss and begin to become excited about what the future has to offer. During this stage, keep the momentum going and be sure to thank and praise those who have made it through the change and have helped make the change possible.

All congregations experience change: Some will soon welcome new clergy, and others may want to make worship changes, such as removing podiums from the bimah. Whatever the change, congregants will experience the various stages of loss – each at their own pace.

Consider a variety of ways to get congregants, staff, and other leaders to talk and listen to one another, including one-on-one conversations and facilitated exercises with stakeholder and constituent groups. By supporting your community members as they acknowledge the change – and the feelings of loss that accompany it – you will help them become excited about the future.

Rabbi Paula Feldstein is the manager of transition support at the Union for Reform Judaism.

Cross-posted on URJ’s Inside Leadership Blog