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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

Can A Church Hit Pause?

Go and stop buttons for an audio player.

We’re all familiar with the universal symbol for “pause.” It’s those two parallel lines we tap when we want the music or the video to stop playing. But there are also times when individuals and organizations need to hit pause and take time to consider what comes next.

I asked a congregational planning team recently, “When each of you begins to feel that something needs to change in your life—a job, a relationship, a living space—what do you do to figure out your next steps?”

What I expected

I was pretty sure what I would get, because most of us have similar go-to responses when we sense the need for change. My plan was to draw a parallel between their personal responses and what a church needs to do. The responses I expected were:

  • Research. Several years ago, when my son couldn’t leave his house because of panic attacks, he spent most of his time online researching this new and frightening thing that was happening to him. He kept looking until he found a couple of communities and approaches (cognitive behavioral, as it turns out) that helped him understand and address his anxiety. Some of us, like Daniel, research ideas while others explore numbers, but most of us need additional information in order to frame a new response.
  • Internal talk. We daydream, we contemplate whether our current life truly aligns with our core values, or we give ourselves pep talks about either quitting or keeping on.
  • External talk. We talk to others—family, friends, counselors, mentors—who we think might be able to help us figure things out and arrive at clarity about our next steps.

What I didn’t expect was the very first response I got, from someone very involved in the life of the congregation where I was working: “When I had a serious health problem recently, I realized that I had to totally step back in order to move forward. I quit all my involvement in the congregation for six months and concentrated on breathing and healing.”

Basically, she hit pause.

Some might recognize this as a meditation technique for those moments when, overwhelmed by the problems of the day, we default to our favorite unhealthy reactions to stress. We’re instructed to stop instead, to breathe deeply, and to allow space to open up in our minds. Pema Chödrön, a Buddhist, says in one of her teachings: “Take three conscious breaths. Just pause. Let it be a contrast to being all caught up. Let it be like popping a bubble. Let it be just a moment in time, and then go on” (p. 18).

The challenge, of course, is that most of us are very driven people in our institutional as well as personal lives. Whether we’re sensing that we need a new vocation or that our church needs a new direction, we tend to seek resolution in a very research-driven way—we ask what else we need to know, who else we need to talk to, how fast we need to move in order to find the perfect solution and make the perfect change.

What it looks like to hit pause

I am as guilty as anyone—I hardly ever invite my planning groups to just pause. What might a “pause” look like in the life of a congregation?

  • Time out. Sometimes during a difficult meeting, church people remember to stop and pray, and everyone is usually grateful when we do. But there are other ways to pause a meeting—silence, deep breathing, a hymn. And there are other times to pause as well. Any gathering of church people will benefit from occasional times of prayer or silence in order to disentangle ourselves from the pursuit of our task and open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit.
  • Time away. Sometimes we just need to get out of the building. Buildings in which we’ve spent a lot of time tend to produce habitual behavior. It’s just very hard to move or think or breathe in new ways when we’re in the same familiar space, especially if the space doesn’t have a lot of clear glass and it’s hard to see out. One option may be for church groups to gather more often in places that intentionally reconnect us with air, wind, water, or trees. I go to the beach every year, and I know that I breathe more deeply and think more clearly when I’m standing in the surf feeling the warmth of the sun. Maybe churches ought to spend time at the beach!
  • Time off. I wish more congregations had the ability to do as my friend on the planning team did and stop everything for a while. As congregations, we become too focused on the day-to-day and the need to survive, as if we’ve been mesmerized by our responsibilities and cannot look away. One answer may be to simply to stop doing our so-important tasks, for at least as long as it takes to reconnect with God’s purpose. Sometimes we need to have the institutional audacity to take three deep breaths and come to a full stop.

We all need to find more opportunities to pause. Pema Chödrön says that when you are completely wound up about something and you pause, your natural intelligence clicks in and you have a sense of the right thing to do. I think this may be right. When Christians pause, we leave room for the Holy Spirit to work and for ourselves to notice.

Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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