How to Finish Well


One of the memorable “behind the scenes” moments on every Crucible Men’s Retreat is the last staff meeting on Sunday afternoon. It’s always bittersweet because we know this wonderful event is drawing to a close and we will never all be together in that configuration again. We are glad for what we did as a team, so there’s much joy. But we’re also sad that it’s over and we’re going to leave each other.

That got me thinking about the question, How can I finish things well? Not just a retreat, but anything. Life is full of endings like achieving a goal, disbanding a team until next year, a steady job ending, moving to a new city, ending a relationship or getting a bad medical report. How do I navigate those in a productive, positive way?

Historically, I haven’t done endings well. Sometimes, I just don’t know what to do; or I try things that just don’t seem to work and leave me feeling incomplete. I tend to want to just sneak out of gatherings because the work of saying goodbye to lots of people one-by-one seems so daunting. And, truth be told, I typically have strong emotions like anger or fear or sadness, and they are so uncomfortable that I sometimes go into temporary denial just so I don’t have to face the pain.

So as I’ve thought about it, I’ve come up with some ideas to help me. Maybe they’ll help you, too:

Every gain includes a loss; and every loss includes a gain

There is no such thing as a situation that is only gain or only loss. Every gain means we give up something, and vice versa. This is easy to overlook when we go from something we deem to be “negative” to something “positive.” For example, finally getting that job may seem like it’s only a gain. But something is lost as well: the discretion we had to use our time as we choose is now gone. Many other good things also have a downside: gaining a spouse means losing one’s ability to live independently, or growing up and stepping out into adult freedom means losing the security of dependence on parents. The examples are endless. William Bridges in his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes reminds us: “endings make beginnings possible.” So it helps me to accept the ending that opens the door to every new beginning.

I need to find the gain in every loss, but also be aware of the loss in every gain.

Every significant change in life includes an emotional component

I often overlook the need to feel all my feelings in the midst of change. Sometimes, the new reality is so exciting that I forget to notice other feelings lurking below the surface. While there is obvious excitement in what has come to pass, I can also have hidden sadness at the losses. I must remind myself to acknowledge the range of feelings that accompany an ending, and not deny those feelings. The good thing about feeling feelings is I can feel them to completion. If I deny feelings, they pop up later and go unresolved, causing problems down the line.

I must notice what I am feeling, and allow those emotions to be without judging them.

How you end something with others is how they will remember you

When a person leaves a job or a neighborhood or a team, their last words and actions will be how they will be remembered. I cannot undo a bad ending even if I did a lot of good before. But paradoxically, if I end well, people will tend to be more forgiving and more likely to see my prior mistakes in light of the positive way I exited. I was so glad when I got laid off of my job after 29 years that I did not give anyone a tongue-lashing. I made sure I left with gratitude and appreciation for my supervisors and co-workers. I did not give the false impression the process was easy, but I worked through the pain with a counselor and other friends rather than doing it at the job site.

I will put my best foot forward—and not kick back—when I head out any door.

Change helps us remove the illusion we have control over life’s circumstances

No solid, unchanging situation in this life exists, even though we spend most of our lives trying to set up such reliable circumstances or relationships. Because God made the world ever-changing and fluctuating, I often try very hard to set up a foundation of things that cannot support me. Every ending reminds me I can never take anything or anyone for granted. I must enjoy what I have while I have it, and let go when it is time to let go. The only thing that never changes is the certainty that everything changes.

I must hold fast to the changelessness of God so I can let go gracefully and gratefully.

Consider things you will regret not saying—or things you will regret if you do say them—and commit to “closure conversations”

Rather than avoid the hard conversations that an ending often precipitates, I’ve decided I will step into them with forethought. I try to think in advance what I want to say that will bring completion to the experience or relationship. I keep in mind Proverbs 13:3: “…those who speak rashly will come to ruin.” Sometimes, I’ll actually make a list of the things I want to say and how I might say them well, with no regrets. Then I write in my journal the things best left unsaid—acknowledging I might want to say them, but keeping them to myself. “Even a fool when he is silent is considered wise” (Proverbs 17:28).

I will say what needs to be said with wisdom, grace and courage.

Look back, look forward, look around and look up

Every ending is a chance to “look back”. What did I learn? What makes me feel grateful? How have I changed? An ending is also a chance to “look forward”. What’s next? What might I want to do differently? What kind of person do I want to be? Also, when an ending happens, I like to “look around” me. Who is still in my life I can count on (at least for now)? What good gifts do I still have even though change is coming? What have I done that I can be proud of? Finally, at every ending I take a moment to “look up”. Where is God in all this? What is he teaching me? How can I become even more reliant on his unchanging nature in the midst of life’s uncertainties? Noticing these things and taking stock can make an ending much more easeful and formative.

I will keep my eyes wide open; I will stay curious, grateful and hopeful; and I trust God with the inevitable uncertainties.

What ending are you facing? What might it mean for you to finish well? I hope these ideas lead you to the best ending possible and then into a wonderful new chapter of your life.

By Judson Poling

Judson met Greg Huston (The Crucible Project’s founder) in 2002 and staffed his first initial weekend the following spring. Judson is a founding board member of The Crucible Project and co-developer of The Crucible Project’s four second-level weekends. He also served on staff of Willow Creek Community Church for 29 years. Judson is now a best-selling author and President of Cambia Resources, LLC, doing consulting, coaching and freelance writing.

Photo Credit: Creative Commons