Congregational Consulting Group logo

The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

A Season of Letting Go

In several parts of my life, I feel a sense of letting go—as I transition into a new professional role, let go of some things in my personal life and identity, and shake off this reluctant Minnesota winter that won’t quite let me go. As a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church, I sense that we have now entered a season of letting go, as our time of denominational separation has arrived.

Even outside of the United Methodist Church, congregations of all types are letting go. Some of us are letting go of our in-person, pre-pandemic, average worship attendance numbers. Or we may be letting go of seeing colleagues in the office every day. Many of us have been forced to let go of our comfortable feelings of competence and confidence because our role has changed—and to embrace instead new feelings of incompetence and insecurity.

Our Nature is to Hold On

As Daniel O’Leary wrote in Year of the Heart: A Spirituality for Lovers, “The desire to have, to hold, to possess and to control is part of our nature.” And so letting go is never easy. I have no quick-fix, self-help answers to offer. Some days, it just sucks. The loss, grief, and sadness can feel overwhelming. Years ago I read the book, Eyes Remade for Wonder, a collection of vignettes by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. A paragraph from one of the readings made a huge impression on me:

At any given moment, you can only be where you are. You can wish to be somewhere else, but that will only decrease the likelihood you’ll succeed. You get somewhere else by first realizing and accepting where you are and who you are.

I wonder what it will mean for congregations and their leaders to accept where they are and who they are in this season. All around me I see the following patterns:

  • Naming the Present Realities. I have led and have witnessed rituals of storytelling as folks take advantage of lower Covid infection rates to regather. We spontaneously talk about the impact of the past two years on us and on our loved ones. This naming is almost a talking our realities into existence—acknowledging and embracing what has happened.
  • Receiving How Others are Experiencing Their Realities. As we tell our stories, we realize that others have had experiences both similar and different from ours. If we remain open and curious in our listening, we become more empathetic to those around us.
  • Laying Aside Some Expectations. At some point, we have to lay aside some of our expectations like, “The pastor just needs to work harder at getting everyone back to our in-person worship services,” and accept that some of what has changed may be part of our new reality going forward. Accepting reality is not giving up—it frees us to figure out how to begin the work of moving forward.
  • The Experience of Some Vacillating. My son recently reminded me that letting go is not a one-and-done, linear experience. On any given day, we move back and forth between accepting the new reality, surrendering to grief and fear, and clinging to the past.
  • Rehearsing Our Values. Leadership at this time requires rehearsing what is ultimately most important. What do we really believe? What have we committed ourselves to over the years? What is God’s desire and purpose for us as a community of believers and how do we remain true to that?
  • Making Promises About How We Will Treat One Another. Finally, how are we going to treat one another in this moment? We’ve all witnessed or experienced pain, conflict, polarization and lashing out that have left us traumatized, our souls in shreds. We have to say out loud to each other that we will care for one another and be gentle with each another and find ways to hold each other accountable in love.

For many, but especially for those of us in the United Methodist Church, this is a time for letting go of some cherished hopes and dreams, for surrendering our anger, and for taking down the barriers we have built between us.

Above all, we must live in this time—not the past and not the future we once hoped for. As Tilden Edwards, founder of the Shalem Institute, wrote in Living Simply through the Day,

I need to let go of the endless obscuring attachments still with me and see the Kingdom in the midst of daily life—pray for the grace that lets this surrendering and seeing happen. There is no place to go but here and now. ‘Here and now’ is our teacher if we allow it to be. . .

Susan Nienaber brings a background as a psychotherapist and mediator and combines compassion with independence when working with congregations. She embraces an unwavering dedication to the health, vitality and mission of congregations and of the leaders and institutions that support them. She serves as District Superintendent in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church and consults with congregations on issues of conflict, crisis, personnel matters, professional misconduct, leadership, and interpersonal dynamics.

Share this article