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How to help a friend in transition.


Last weekend I was overwhelmed at the response to my admission on why leaving the church feels permanent. Most were concerned friends expressing apology for not being available to my husband and I the way we needed. Some chose deflection, justifying their silence because we "didn't do a good job communicating our needs". Both responses valid, we accepted apologies and attempted better communication. I don't need the added stress of carrying offenses, and I certainly don't want people living with the impression I am walking around pissed at them. I prefer getting wrinkles from laughing, not from scowling.

If anything, I learned just how many people we have in our corner and I couldn't have been more thankful I was brave enough to publish how I was feeling - because it gave me a lot of anxiety to put those words on the internet.

Our transition out of church ministry has been an adventure.

And I've mostly enjoyed every minute.

To be honest, it's not one thing that has caused me to feel this way; it's a mountain of things I have continued to ignore for years because I thought, "I can change this. I can put this aside for now because it will change."

And the way I feel [about church] is not a new declaration; it's only new in that I decided to share it in this space. I have always felt I don't fit within organized religion; within the church culture among Christians who gather together on Sunday mornings. Those of us who long for change are hushed and eventually, we all get to this place: we begin in ministry, believing in what we are doing and then we find ourselves showing up late and sitting in the back row so we can sneak out before the service concludes.

I thought I could fight American Christianity from the inside out - as a pastor's wife and church staff member - and I'm not saying I didn't inspire people along the way, but what I wanted to do was impact the Christian culture. I've learned the machine is well-oiled and most of those who are in a position to lead a charge pushing against how things have always been done can just as easily get caught up in the people-pleasing and the status and the posturing and the need for money to keep the lights on. I get it. Whether we like to admit it or not, church is a business selling a product that no amount of money can buy. It's a hard place to be. But my husband and I could no longer continue operating machinery we didn't believe was making the kind of difference we desired to see. And we don't want to be paid for something we no longer believe in.

That is as much as a follow-up explanation I am willing to offer right now.

What I'd rather offer are things you can actively do to help a friend who is in the throes of transition. They may be experiencing a physical shift (a move or a life change), an emotional upheaval (second-guessing, navigating old or new feelings), or a mental block (unable to create a plan to move forward and heal). For some of us in transition, all of these things are happening simultaneously and we are a bit of a wreck.

But, we are okay.

Transition is defined as the process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another.

Transition hits us all differently. As I sorted through and responded to messages and texts, I began a conversation with friends who are also in transition and this week we affirmed one another while agreeing that the needs we have are the same.

Now, you'd think if you are friends with someone for any length of time, circular explanations and specific requests for communication wouldn't be necessary. You'd think the basic definition of friendship would cover it: You are my friend and I expect you to continue being my friend through this hard thing. But caring for someone in transition can be taxing and it's no wonder some friends become ghosts. We all have shit going on. What we forget is that no one person's shit is greater than another and when we get caught up in our own, we diminish the reality of someone else's pain.

Caring for a Friend in Transition

Be present. Often times those in transition don't communicate their needs because they aren't affected within an obvious, manageable and foreseeable timeline. We don't know we are operating off of adrenaline, or the thrill of adventure, until life slows down and we can be still with ourselves. Then it's a ton of bricks or a rollercoaster or a tsunami, and what we need amplifies what we haven't received - because we haven't needed it until now. In these moments, you just need to be present.

Depending on personalities and love languages, each person's needs are going to be different. Hopefully, you know this friend well enough to recognize what being present means for them. If you're not sure, don't be afraid to ask.

As an introvert whose love language is quality time, I appreciate when someone is willing to sit with me even when I don't have much to say; when the words to process my transition aren't on the tip of my tongue.

Listen with curiosity. Sometimes friends are transitioning into new ways of thinking. Maybe they're leaving a religion or joining a new church; maybe they are shifting their lifestyle as a means to be truer to who they are. Whatever it is, if you find yourself in a conversation about it, consider yourself invited into the process. And listen, putting aside defensiveness, even if you feel wary of their changes or beliefs.

Affirm the courage it takes to forge a new path without focusing on agreement versus disagreement.

For someone who is being open about their shift in faith, like me, affirm the beauty of discovering God in new ways. Recognize the holiness and reverence that is still there, albeit packaged a little differently.

Tell us about a transition you experienced. Shared stories diffuse the worry of judgment and validates the process.

BUT - Don't try and fix us. What worked for you may not work for us so don't over-simplify what we "need to do" to get through this.

If we are sharing something that is hard for you to swallow - hard for you not to want to fix - it's because sharing lifts the burden and dulls the pain a bit more. It doesn't mean we enjoy victimizing ourselves and playing tiny violins; it just means we have some things to get off our chest that feel intense and serious, and once they're released we can truly let them go; and sometimes, those feelings dissipate altogether.

Don't be fearful of sharing your own successes. We need to be hopeful. We need to believe it's going to get better. Taking our mind off of ourselves is often a sought-out distraction and we want to be a part of the good things happening in your life even when we can't see the good in our own.

Don't worry about offending or saying the wrong thing. We need to be challenged and called to something beyond our transition. We need to remember life isn't always going to feel this out of sorts. Remind us of something we've forgotten about who we are or the purpose we have to fulfill - which might be the very reason we are in transition.

Yes, you should be sensitive to the language you choose that we could take the wrong way, but don't think so much about it that you don't say anything. As a friend, we trust you have our best interest in mind. Admit you aren't sure the words you are saying are appropriate. We will tell you how we hear and process them.

For me, the Christian-speak is suffocating, but I will not discount your effort in reaching out and your heart behind your words - although I may make fun of you a little bit.

Be yourself. You're in our lives because we like you. Being yourself while life is hard is exactly what we need. It allows us to shed whatever mask we want to hide behind and helps us not to diminish the value of growth during hard seasons. While we love you for who you are, we need you to show us you love us while who we are is changing.

Don't ignore us. Some people do incredible disappearing acts when life gets hard for their friends - they don't know what to do or say so instead they do nothing. We need to know you care and I'm not going to lie, it's going to be work. Every relationship is. Ask us how to support us through our transition, and ask us how we are doing. Just because things may seem fine, it doesn't necessarily mean they are.

If you feel like you should take a friend coffee and don't know why, do it. If you think about texting a friend but have no specific reason as to why you would, do it.

This week I voxed a friend and told her how much I appreciated her. When she responded, I listened to her cry her way through her thankfulness because what I felt led to do was exactly what she needed - she just didn't know she needed it until she heard it. And if she didn't know, I couldn't have possibly known.

Sometimes, in transition, we don't communicate our needs because we don't recognize what they are.

Don't always feel like you must have something to say. You can just nod, because like I said, being present is a simple way to fill a need.

There is a lot you can do. 

But of everything I've mentioned there are two things that mean the most:

Trust. Even when you don't understand or would do things differently, or completely disagree - trust me, trust my process. Trust I am capable.

Trust I am not flailing. Trust I am still just as perceptive and intuitive as I've always been. Trust I am seeking wisdom and not just waiting around for you, or anyone else, to make it all okay.

Be willing to get to know me all over again. We have been taught to fear what is different, that black and white is better than gray; and we fear if we deviate too much, we will find ourselves in the realm of "not okay". We worry there has to be a line separating acceptance and love, that we need to be clear on where we stand, because heaven forbid it look like we approve.

We forget we are all looking for a place to belong.

We forget we are wired for connection, not for being right all the time.

The greatest gift you can give someone in transition - when who they are is transforming into who they are meant to be - is to be there to experience the change as a friend and supporter, and stick around to know them in the aftermath. We want to see you on the other side of our transition, even if it means we don't run in the same circles or believe the same things. We value being trusted and we value loyalty.

I don't know a single person who wouldn't want that from a friend.

My husband and I aren't going to a church, but we still love the church. We still desire to see it change. We know now we have to approach that change differently, from the outside in, and we are transitioning into a new kind of ministry, gathering misfits and rebels along the way.

If you want to be a friend to us as we transition, we'd love nothing more than to have you join us for our journey.

Special thanks to my friends who are in the midst of their own transitions and graciously voxed me all week as I organized my thoughts: Amber, Carrie, Ashley, Cara and Katha.

I am being haunted.

When leaving feels permanent.