Navigating the Neutral Zone

stick-shift

At Wellspring, we are walking through the neutral zone of the transition process. Transition proceeds through three zones: an ending, a neutral zone and a new beginning.[1] Before we can move into a new beginning, we must move from an ending of one chapter through a neutral zone of transition. As a church, a significant ending was marked by our Anniversary celebration. As we celebrated fifty years of Blanchard and five years of Living Water, a new chapter opened up for our church. However, the transition from this ending to the new beginning is not simple or easy. The transition takes time even as we walk in a neutral zone.

What is a neutral zone? A neutral zone is the in-between stage after an ending and before we settle fully into a new beginning. In transition, we often underestimate the pain and process of the neutral zone. This neutral zone brings a wide range of emotions: confusion, loss of motivation, struggle with identity, sense of disconnection, and a loss of identity because of the change that results. If we fail to navigate this neutral zone well, then we do not move fully into the blessing of the new beginning that change can bring.

For example, when I lived in Japan, I watched many Americans navigate transitions to Japan. After the initial excitement of change wore off, people would become nostalgic for America and resentful of Japan. Why is everything so small/expensive/crowded/bureaucratic/indirect here? In America, everything is so much bigger/cheaper/more spacious/efficient/direct! This neutral zone would create a romanticized nostalgia for America, and the Americans would spend their free time watching American movies, going to American restaurants and spending time with other Americans. As a result, people could live decades in Japan without ever really “leaving” America; they would live an Americanized life in Japan, not learning Japanese and spending all of their time with Americans in Japan. Why waste the opportunity to live in another country? These Americans had failed to navigate the difficulty of the neutral zone. Around any American/missionary kid school in any country, you will find a high number of ex-patriots who have never really left America.

However, when we move through the neutral zone, we can embrace a new beginning and build a new, hybrid reality. In Japan, other Americans would build on their past but move through the neutral zone to embrace a new life in Japan. Even while they retained their American friends in Japan and sometimes enjoyed the comforts of their past, they also learned the language, culture and lifestyle of Japan. They built on their past country, but they learned to build a new, hybrid reality that took into account the beauty of their present country. They were neither fully American nor fully Japanese, but they created a third culture from the two and learned to build on the best of both worlds. This process is only possible when a person can navigate through the discomfort of the neutral zone.

As a church, we are currently in this neutral zone. Recently, someone expressed slight feelings of disconnection. Things have changed so quickly in the past year. The church that had been was no longer. Yet the church that will be is not yet. While change may happen quickly, transition happens slowly. Currently, we find ourselves in an uncomfortable, liminal neutral zone.

We cannot avoid the discomfort of this neutral zone. It is important to grieve change in times of transition as we miss what is no longer, and we must journey through this neutral zone. If we try to avoid the pain of the neutral zone, then we will not transition. We will be like Americans living an Americanized life in Japan but not embracing the beauties of Japan. We will not create a third culture. Instead, we should acknowledge the reality of our current neutral zone. You don’t move quickly through a neutral zone. You walk slowly and deliberately through the process.

For now, I want to simply suggest that, as a church, we recognize that we are in a neutral zone. Does that sound right? What feelings of grief or disconnection might you be feeling at this point? How do we prevent ourselves from getting stuck in this place? How do we build relationships with new people in our congregation so that we can step into our new reality? Discuss this with your friends at church. Share with myself, members of our Governing Board or pastoral team. Feel free to comment below. In the next month or two, I want to take up this concept and explore it with the Governing Board and pastoral staff to see how we might help our church navigate this process well. I am fully confident that we will move through this into our new beginning, and we can do this well only if we do this together.

[1] I take this language from William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes (Cambridge: Da Capo, 2004).

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3 Responses to Navigating the Neutral Zone

  1. Ray Lewis says:

    While I think my understanding of “neutral zone” is pretty rudimentary, let me see if this describes it: the neutral zone sounds like a place of uncertainty and instability while in transition from something that is ending to something that is beginning. The aspect of being in transition is something that probably affects all of us in more ways than we realize. I grew up in one place, went to college in three other places, and have lived with my wife and kids in four different places. Interestingly, I still have a deep connection for that place where I grew up, and where my parents still live. And, the transitions of getting married, and then having kids, and then getting a real job were all key transitions I have experienced. I think I share a pretty common pattern with others who might read this. So, how do I develop that sense of home that I think God wants us to have. It is easy to have shallow relationships that are not deeply invested if we are always in this state of transition, or if we are looking ahead to the next transition. So, I have committed to being part of this church, now in my 21st year, in order to invest and go deeper.
    Some of the ideas I have for how to go deeper together follow from Duane Elmer’s book Cross-Cultural Servanthood. While this book is made for International Workers, I find the principles very helpful in my own cross-cultural family context, and maybe they will be helpful as we traverse the neutral zone as well. While servanthood is the end goal, Elmer describes the need to develop through the stages of openness, acceptance, trust, learning, and understanding in order to reach true servanthood. Being open means welcoming people in a way that they feel safe with us. In acceptance, we communicate respect for others, in contrast to rejection based on our differences. Trust is mutual confidence in our relationships with others. Developing openness, acceptance, and trust helps us to be in a place where we can learn about others, from others, and with others. From that learning we can develop the kind of understanding that we all yearn for in a place where we feel home. And, all five of these aspects contribute to serving one another in the Body of Christ.

    • Mitch Kim says:

      Thanks Ray. These thoughts are helpful, as usual. Making church a home — this is the key. I wasn’t aware of Elmer’s process that you articulate here, but it sounds helpful. Thanks!

  2. Pingback: Merry Christmas…and Happy New Year!! | Musings from Pastor Mitch

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