The paradox of our time: We are at an end and a beginning

*By Rev. Tom Hazelwood, Director of Connectional Ministries, Memphis Conference

Rev. Tom Hazelwood, Director of Connectional Ministries, Memphis Conference, United Methodist Church

Rev. Tom Hazelwood, Director of Connectional Ministries, Memphis Conference, United Methodist Church

The paradox before the United Methodist Church is this: we are in the throes of what some say is death; yet I believe we are actually in the pangs of birth. “Doing church” as we have for the last hundred years is simply not sustainable and mostly irrelevant to our current society. Yet there are glimpses of a new Spirit moving in our midst.

I have spent the last 17 years in ministry working in the area of disaster response. With each disaster during those years, I encountered individuals, families and whole communities who were facing loss. Loss always brings with it pain and frustration.

But there is hope.


Envisioning A New Day
Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians reminds us that if anyone is in Christ, we are a new creation. The old has passed away and the new has come. (2 Cor. 5:17).

What I found is that, regardless of the loss, there is a process that requires our utmost attention if we are to find our way to the “new” that holds promise for us. We must:

  • Accept the reality of what has happened.
  • Experience the pain.
  • Adjust to the new situation.
  • Withdraw emotional energy from the past and invest in the future.

A new day is dawning and, in fact, many believe has already dawned in the United Methodist Church, as we embrace what it means to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

This “new day” brings insecurity and pain for many who, like me, were never trained to engage the world the way we are being called today. Even as we engage in ministry that we think is “cutting edge,” we quickly realize we in the church are far far behind. The world has changed, and it is hard to accept…yet that is what we must do.


Managing Transition
We keep talking about “change,” but my experience tells me we are really going through a “transition.” Change is situational—reorganizing the way in which we do ministry, developing new strategic plans. Transition is the psychological process of internalizing and coming to terms with the details of the new situation the change brings about.

When a change happens without people going through a transition, it is just a rearrangement of the chairs. That realignment is reflected in the thinking that “just because everything has changed, it does not mean that anything is really different in this conference.” It’s what has gone wrong when we spend a lot of money on consultants and new programs that, in the end, produce disappointing results. It’s why we hear pastors and laity say things like this: “We get some new program from the conference every few years, but nothing ever gets better.”

We hear over and over that the mission field begins in each of our own neighborhoods. Nothing matters more than that local mission field, and it is our springboard to the world.

We are using demographic information that includes community ethnicity, economic and religious profiles to better understand our neighborhoods, and we are asking each pastor and church to make a plan for how to engage their mission field.

Not surprisingly, pastors and laity are finding it hard to understand what it is that is expected of them and make the necessary shift. Pastors know to preach and pray; laity know how to love their community. But when we ask them to be strategic in how they engage the mission field around them, they think they don’t know how to do that.

Things indeed have changed. When we realize this, the loss of “what was” is painful and we react in predictable ways of all who grieve. The good news of the Gospel is the transition has begun and God’s new thing is beginning to take shape.

William Bridges in his book, “Managing Transitions,” defined the tasks for those who are in transition to mean we must be willing to let go of the old identity, feel the pain of that loss and move through the middle zone where the new is not fully operational, but critical spiritual and psychological realignment is taking place and emerge from that transition with a new sense of identity, truly a new sense of purpose.


Coaching for the Future
We are in that “middle zone” today. District superintendents, who are our mission strategists, are looking at their districts with new eyes and are working with each church to map out a strategy to reach people for Christ. What are the ways Jesus is leading our churches to begin the transformation of the world…right in our hometowns, neighborhoods, communities?

As director of connectional ministries, I am charged and entrusted with the responsibility to steward our conference’s vision of what it can become. I want to use my years of experience in managing transition in disaster to help us make sense of what we must do to move forward and fulfill Bishop Bill McAlilly’s vision of fruitfulness for our area. The conference is to be about the business of discovering, equipping, connecting and sending leaders back to the local church where they can make disciples who in turn make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world!

In disaster response, we used case managers to partner with people to help them move forward to a holistic recovery. We in the Nashville Episcopal Area plan to use coaches to help our leaders, pastors and laity navigate this transition. Coaches, like disaster case managers, can help us move forward.

As in disaster case management, transformational coaches know that the person being coached is the expert on his or her own situation. Coaches help us make our own individual plan to get where we want to go. To individuals and congregations, coaches ask clarifying questions that make us dig deeper into our own situations, and they add accountability on our journey forward. I will talk more in-depth about disaster case management and transformational coaching in my next article.


Calling Us to a New Creation
Ours is a God of hope. We will be journeying in this in-between time for an extended period into the future, yet Christ is with us, calling us to a “new creation.”

Transition starts with an ending and finishes with a beginning. Our transition is a process by which we United Methodists can move away from the old, unsustainable way of being and plug into a new world and new way of being disciples that will, indeed, transform the world.

The paradox of our time is that we are, simultaneously, at an end and a new beginning.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to

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9 Comments on "The paradox of our time: We are at an end and a beginning"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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I liked this piece alot and am thankful that Tom Hazelwood speaks the truth for our time. It's not difficult to see that everything around us in our communities, country and world has changed dramatically in recent decades. Aspects of our society that aren't responding to this shift to a post-industrial society are withering and dieing like the church. Of course this doesn't mean to throw out the baby with the bath but rather to renew ourselves in the same way that Wesley brought dramatic change that reflected the realities of his time. Change and renewal are very "Methodist" things… Read more »

I grew up in the Methodist church and I was 40 before I learned what the Method was. I was astounded, studied it and what it brought transformed my life. Yet no one seems to ever speak of it. What the UMC needs is one who can lead the church and its members toward the perfection that Wesley so clearly saw. Lead us forward to our roots.

This piece is a lot like cotton candy: much fluff, but not much to actually sink your teeth into. In that way, it exemplifies much of what comes down from our church hierarchy these days. Instead of teaching with authority or conviction, they just issue forth glowing generalities designed to offend no one, but that leave the average layperson confused about where the church stands, what we are trying to accomplish, or why it even matters. That, in my estimaton, is the biggest problem with our church these days. The Methodist church just needs to quit squandering it's moral authority… Read more »

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Dare it be said that many in the heirarchy have not experienced the Resurrected Savior? Dare it be said that politics means more in the church than Father/Son/Holy Spirit?


Sort of agree with d–not that the issue is unique to Reverend Hazelwood's piece. The connection writ large seems to be piling up a lot of words that don't resonate much in the way of meaning. The "end" part I get. I'm just so very curious as to what our leaders think we're actually moving toward.


This piece tells the church little.

Change? What does that mean?

Change from and to what?

A few specifics would be helpful.

Bert Bagley
God is certainly doing a new thing in the UMC. Here's my suggestion for all of us. Let's concentrate on something else Paul wrote about in Philippians 4:8-9. Those two verses direct me to remember and treasure the good things and good people of the past. I am also directed to do what is true, honorable, just, etc. When I choose to remember and move forward then the blessing is clear to this 59 year old pastor: God's Peace will be with me. This doesn't mean that we are working and serving to "save" the denomination. It does mean that… Read more »
bill krill

It seems that the UMC often 'misses the boat' concerning 'transitions' in that there is not nearly enough effort to make (vastly more) continuing education required that is pertinent to such transitions. There is a bleak and sad culture of pastors who are far under-supported in their spiritual growth, marriages and family life, mental health issues (including personality disorders) and healthy human relationship skills. Instead of bewailing the pressures external to the church, perhaps it is wiser to address the stagnation and decay within it.

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