By Derek Penwell
She placed one more faded greeting card into the brown box she’d bought in a package of boxes from the U-haul place. Afterward, she taped the box and left it sitting for the custodian to collect. It needed to go upstairs to the attic with the other faded greeting cards, old swatches of fabric, and stray skeins of yarn.
As long as she could remember—which, being eighty-five, turned out to be a long time—there’d been a women’s circle. For generations it had existed as the heartbeat of mission and outreach in her congregation, the most active group by far—organizing, fundraising, cooking, sewing, comforting, loving, ministering. But not long ago she’d said goodbye to her last “partner in crime” at a nice, if sparsely attended, funeral bathed in blue and pink lights and smelling of lilies. And now, bitter as it tasted, she was admitting defeat.
Scrawled in Sharpie on the top of the box it said, “cards.” But one word could never do justice to all that she’d packed up for storage.
She’d insisted on doing it herself. After all, she knew not only what the boxes contained, but also what they represented. And she couldn’t quite bear the thought of turning over stewardship of that legacy quite yet.
So, as she mopped her brow, she thought of the old offertory sentence from the Book of Common Prayer, bidding us all “with gladness” to “present the offerings and oblations of our life and labor to the Lord.” Looking up from the Sharpie-marked carton, she decided it was with gladness that she offered up the offerings and oblations of the life and labor of dozens of strong women to the Lord.
But she also had to admit that, beyond the odd ambivalence of claiming this heritage with one arthritic hand and passing it on with the other, there was something else. Deep down beneath the cobwebs and the doilies, beneath the gratitude and the disappointment lived something perhaps even more elemental.
Let’s be honest. She’s afraid … afraid all that work will get lost in the hurly-burly, afraid of irrelevance, afraid, as the song says, of being forgotten and not yet gone.
She lives in the fear that the young people who’re running things now will forget not only the things those women did, but more importantly the reason they did them.
But she doesn’t quite know how to say so much, afraid that there isn’t enough packing tape in the world to hold back what would break forth if she really stopped to talk about it. So, she expresses her fear the best she can.
When asked what’s wrong, she says: “Nobody seems to care about __ anymore.” [Fill in the blank: tradition, outreach, old people, young families, pastoral care, the neighborhood, the throw pillows my mother made, the Christmas Bazaar … me.]
If you listen closely, you can hear the quaver in the voice that reveals a trembling heart. The fear is so broad and unspecific, it’s hard to pin down. But it’s there. The anger, the reticence, the stubbornness often are merely a mask to hide the fear:
- I’m afraid that what we’ve done won’t be valued. I don’t want the things we cared so much about to be ridiculed, or worse, forgotten—as though what we valued isn’t worth anything. We worked so hard on these things. We planned and fretted and cried over this stuff. We spent hours polishing, mending, painting, storing, patching, and propping this stuff up. So, fine, maybe things don’t look so good anymore bathed in the harvest gold and avocado green of our memories. But a lot of the stuff we did worked. We just want someone to care that we cared. We know everything changes, and nothing lasts forever, but all we’re looking for is a little gentleness when it comes to the things we tried to pass on.
- I’m afraid that the choice to do a new thing is only a sneaky way of criticizing what we did. It feels like if you change it, if you stop doing it, if you throw it away, you’re denigrating what we did. Like it was stupid to think what we thought and care about the stuff we cared about. Change, as much as we don’t want it to, too often feels like censure.
- I’m afraid that the good we did will be undone through a lack of attention. If you young people don’t carry this on, we’re afraid that people will suffer. We really helped folks. It took a lot of time and energy to build the programs, organization, and physical structures we’re handing on to you. We’d like to know that you’ve at least tried to figure out how to make sure the people we helped continue to be helped, and that you’re not just walking away from an opportunity to make a difference in the world.
- I’m secretly afraid we made some bad decisions that will cripple the congregation/denomination moving forward. We bought it and now it’s an albatross. We sold it and now we need it back. We planted it; it died, and now we can never plant there again. We loved it and now it’s killing us. We didn’t welcome them when we had the chance and now they won’t have anything to do with us anymore.
- I’m just afraid that I’m going to wake up one day, and I won’t recognize this place anymore. We had a hand in shaping this, but now our fingerprints all seem to have been wiped off. We had a dream of the future, but what we have now doesn’t look anything like what we envisioned when we were in charge of mapping out the future.
If you want to make change, you need to address the underlying fear. And telling someone not to be afraid, or that they’re silly for being afraid, or that they should just trust you more isn’t addressing the underlying fear; it’s a lazy way of telling yourself that you’ve done everything you can.
If you think there are tough changes ahead, here are a few tips getting as many people on board as possible:
- Celebrate the past. Rehearse the history. Raise up the successes. Seek to understand the failures. Let people know that what they did was indispensable to bringing everything to this point where exciting opportunities mark the future. Let them know you value their contributions.
- Offer reassurances that the people and institutions that have been helped in the past will continue to be helped as you move into the future. Or, if you’re going to go in a different direction leaving certain things behind, identify what needs were being met and values were driving the passion of the old system. Then reframe the new system of changes using those needs and values as touchstones for the new work you want to do. (So, you’re not going to continue knitting Walkman holders for the kids going to college anymore. Fine. But be sure to emphasize the fact that the new pub night with the college students is just a continued attempt to show support for young people heading into uncertain times of transition.)
- Root change in story. Congregations and denominations are always telling stories about who they are and where they come from as a means of self-understanding. As you seek to tell a new story of where you’re headed, make certain to set it in the established narrative. In other words, make clear that changes aren’t a disruption of the story that’s always been told, but the logical extension of that same story moving into a different world. (So, you’re discussing becoming an Open and Affirming congregation or denomination, offering welcome to all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression. Fine. Name this as an issue of justice. Then tell the story about how you’ve always led on issues of justice—from civil rights, to support for undocumented workers, to equity for women, to your work for Habitat for Humanity or the soup kitchen or advocacy against payday lending. You get the point. Tell the story with change as part of the plot trajectory, and not as an attempt to set the old story aside in favor of a new one.)
Here’s the thing: It’s ok to box up old things and move on. But the kind of boxes you use, and the care with which you store them will make a big difference when you start unpacking the new stuff.