Grief Stages and Change Theory When Considering the Life of a Meeting
by Helen Mullin
Elisabeth Kubler Ross’s study of persons who are diagnosed with terminal illnesses was presenting in her book “On Death and Dying” written in 1969. The stages of grief: shock and denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (DABDA). These are end-of-life markers for anyone in the dying process. The stages of grief may be helpful when we consider the laying down of our meetings.
The meetings will go through similar states. Some statements at each stage could be:
- Denial: “No, if we just work harder at outreach and get more members.” “The yearly meeting can help us with advancement and recruitment of more members." "We ought to invite some of the young friends to join us."
- Anger: “Why did everyone leave us? How did we become so few? Why?” “This meeting cannot die! It is so needed in the community!”
- Bargaining: “Should we borrow from the bank to maintain our buildings?” “We just need to persist for a couple more months.” “If we stay here, they will come here.” “If we repair the boiler and such, more people will come back.” “Maybe we can do more to attract people.”
- Depression: “Why bother going to the meetinghouse this week, when no one new will be there?” “I sit in the meeting house and I get so sad at all the people who have died and are no longer with us. It is so sad!” “Why do we even try to keep the building open?” “We don’t proselytize. Maybe we should?”
- Acceptance: “I recognize that the meeting is not coming back to life.”
As individuals or as meetings, when we go through these stages, it may be helpful not to “blame, shame or guilt” anyone who comes or chooses not to come to meeting. In many meetings, the members are more aged and can no longer serve with the same fervor. Using blame, shame or guilt will not lengthen the life of the meeting; they would probably shorten it.
As meetings deal with dwindling numbers, changing from a monthly meeting to perhaps a worship group may be an intermediate stage before the meeting’s discernment about laying itself down. Whether using Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief or beginning to consider the questions, Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Change may assist a meeting. They are: 1. Pre-contemplation; 2. Contemplation; 3. Preparation; 4. Action; 5. Relapse; and 6. Maintenance. Developed for work with recovery from addiction, the meeting’s journey with the decision to lay itself down may be helped by the stages.
In the language of Quakers, these stages might be defined as the following.
- Pre-Contemplation: We believe that the meeting is thriving and is healthy despite the dwindling numbers in attendance. The hybrid Zoom meeting has brought back long absent friends and even some friends who have moved a great distance away from the meeting. We are doing OK. The pre-contemplation stage means perceiving that all is well.
- Contemplation: This is the beginning to recognize that things are changing. There are fewer persons able to serve on committees. We can’t expect those who are joining by Zoom to do all the work of the meeting. We are beginning to see that there may be problems. We acknowledge that there is a problem but are unsure of how to proceed. This might be the beginning of a discernment process about what to do. Often here is where some paralysis might occur, because of thinking like, this meeting has been serving the community for several decades (or centuries). How could we even begin to think about laying it down?
- Preparation: Preparation is not making a change; it is the stage where a meeting gets ready and prepares to make a change. In the world of Quakerism, this will be one of the longer stages. This is the time for discernment; for making a plan; for exploring our options. Again, at this stage, we are accepting that there needs to be a change and making a plan for how to proceed with this change. We may experience a sense of loss of the community, loss of purpose, loss of continuity. It means we let go of the things that once were important but can no longer be maintained. Here we determine what will happen with assets, property, land, and things. Here is where the legacy of the meeting may be discussed. Here is where a plan to sell or reallocate resources might happen.
- Action: Action is our next stage in the change process. This is where the change takes place. It is where the meeting is laid down and the preparation plans are implemented. The decisions having been discerned are approved at a meeting for worship with a concern for business. Here is where legacy funds/assets are managed. It may be a bit of sliding back to the preparation stage: two steps forward, one step back. The meeting may decide to change its designation from a monthly meeting to a worship group/preparatory meeting under the care of another monthly meeting. The meeting might decide to combine its meeting with another meeting. Those actions take place here.
- Relapse: This stage may be like a sliding back on the decision made above. In Quaker process, once a minute is approved, the actions start happening. Someone who was not at that meeting for business but is at the next one wants to revisit the decision. As the actions take place, there may be self-doubt or second guessing of the community decision.
- Maintenance: As with any change, there may be some doubts after the final decision and once actions are starting to take place. Maintenance stages involve making reminders of what and why this action is taking place. It may involve taking time to reassure those not present at the meeting of approval.
As we age, and some of our meeting consider a change to their status from a regional meeting to a monthly meeting to a worship group, all of these stages are helpful in framing the process. Quaker process can often be a slow process in most deliberations. This is one Quaker action that does require deliberation, discernment and final unity. Consider using the stages of grief and/or the Change Theory as a guide for how to proceed in Spirit and in truth.