The word “slept” has been trending on social media—I’m not surprised. Most clergy I’ve spoken to in recent months say they are not just tired—they are “exhausted.”
Given all the challenges we face—the pandemic, political polarization, racial injustices, rising unemployment, growing inequities—it is no wonder that leading and ministering stretches our capacities and taxes our energy. But if we are willing to step out of familiar ways of coping that have not worked, these times can also lead us into deeper ways of listening and learning.
Misery loves company, the saying goes, and clergy are indeed bonding with each other through these challenges. We commiserate, support, and resource one another the best we can. Still we feel exhausted by the onslaught of so many challenges at once.
Our exhaustion is real, but it is only partly brought about by our external challenges. Another source of stress is that we try to manage unfamiliar stresses and uncertainties in old, familiar ways.
Healing from Collective Trauma
Let’s face it: we are going through collective trauma like none we have experienced before. While each of us is impacted differently depending upon our background and experiences, common coping mechanisms are to become over-busy, numb ourselves, disembody, or disconnect.
Trauma experts remind us that it is not what we experience that cause us trauma—it is being unable to process our experiences as they occur. As we help our congregations to adapt and tend to our members’ grief, loss, and distress, we sometimes fail to acknowledge the impact crises have on us. Exhaustion comes from holding ourselves together so we can serve others.
Trapped in our own efforts to catch up, to make it through, we fail to take the time to process what is happening—in the world but also in ourselves.
Releasing Ourselves from “Mindtraps”
We might not realize that our attempts to use familiar strategies do not serve us in these difficult times of uncertainty.
I find Jennifer Garvey Berger’s work on adult development and complexity theory informative. In Unlocking Leadership Mindtraps, she describes five common “mindtraps” that we use to try to simplify what is in fact complex.
In this time—what my colleague Susan Beaumont refers to as a “liminal time”—we have an opportunity to take stock of our usual patterns and acknowledge their inadequacy. In such a time, we can become better observers of ourselves as leaders.
Most of us could probably identify habitual strategies or “leadership mindtraps” we try to comfort ourselves by using. It may be helpful to explore some practices for releasing ourselves from them. Here are a few mindtraps suggested by Berger’s work:
1. We are trapped by “simple stories.”
Don’t we often cling to simple stories about what is actually complex?
Sometimes the story is about the past or the present situation in a congregation. Sometimes it says who the villains and the heroes are. Simple stories may satisfy our wish to be “on top of the situation,” but they likely oversimplify the reality.
Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. We imagine ourselves or our congregation somewhere on that narrative trajectory—when, in fact, most situations are not so predictable.
Take the early weeks of the move to online worship. At first, the challenge of “getting online” seemed technological and temporary. But as the pandemic continued, we began to recognize that “getting back to normal” may not happen in the simple ways we first imagined.
There are so many ways to simplify what is more complex into some simple, manageable story—but to address a complex challenge, we must come to appreciate its full complexity.
2. We are trapped by wanting to be right.
Rather than facing uncertainty, we would rather cling to some version of being right.
A young pastor in a Doctor of Ministry course I teach realized that much of his ministry stress came from feeling that he had to “have the answers.” He felt judged by some of his members because he didn’t fit their image of a leader with authority in his Black church tradition. He felt they wanted him to have not just answers but “the right answers.”
Whatever our age or experience, we can fall into believing, as Garvey Berger points out, that if something “feels right,” that must mean it “is right.” In truth, we need to:
- Allow for the fact that we could be wrong.
- Listen to learn and to understand rather than seek a quick fix.
- Ask ourselves and others questions.
These practices allow us to push through the tendency to latch on to a solution that may “feel right” but might not address real challenges.
Even when we have settled on the “right” solution to providing online worship technology, we may be led to some different questions such as, “How do we provide interpersonal connection and community?” “How do we minister to those who would never join us for online worship?” “What are we not seeing or understanding?”
The Psalmist asks us a question in another way: “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? (Psalm 137:4)
3. We are trapped by wanting everyone to agree.
With so much challenge to navigate, we cherish the times when members of our congregation’s leadership are aligned and in agreement. However, this too can be a trap that causes us to “go along to get along.” Responding to complexity requires us to resist the comfort of easy agreement. Instead we need to generate options, utilize disagreements, and seek ways to expand our range of possible responses rather than limit it prematurely.
In scenario planning, we explore various options for moving forward. When each scenario is given due attention, insight emerges that otherwise might not have been discovered. Focusing on each scenario in turn forestalls the rush to a solution all agree upon. As each scenario is explored and evaluated, a synthesis emerges that incorporates ideas across scenarios. Often, some creative and innovative activities and strategies arise when we can incorporate the best among the differences that might exist.
4. We are trapped by wanting to control the outcome.
Retrospectively, we may see that our attempts to lead by controlling have exhausted us. How much better it could be if we could release the motivations and the energies of others!
Garvey Berger proposes that rather than pushing for a particular outcome, particularly in times of complexity, we put our energy into influencing the group to explore and experiment with multiple possibilities.
My colleague, Susan Nienaber, shared with me some stories of congregations and their leaders who, during this pandemic, have been able to break out of their previous tendency to keep control by doing everything on their own. Smaller congregations join to provide joint online worship experiences. A food ministry program or daycare program that one congregation had sustained before so many of its members lost their jobs joins with a community foundation and with other congregations to continue. It took leaders with the courage to release control and invite others in, to find collaborative solutions.
5. The Trap and Seduction of the Ego
Often, leaders’ sense of self becomes too personally connected with “who we are” and “what we do” now. This leadership “mindtrap” may be the hardest to recognize. Leaders are now being asked, as Susan Nienaber puts it, to act “outside of their own job descriptions and to ramp up in ways that they have never had to do before.” In this situation, clinging to our old identity or role is more stressful than comforting.
Instead of clinging to who we have been, this challenging time invites us to opt for deeper listening and learning. This can be a time to ask ourselves, “Who do I want to be next?”
Leaving You with Questions
I want to leave you with some questions that might generate new energy as you imagine stepping out of the leadership “mindtraps” described above. Garvey Berger poses the following questions, which I’ve adapted somewhat here:
- What is at stake for me at this moment in my ministry or leadership?
- What is hardest about this current situation?
- What is best about this current situation?
- How do I know what is true for me and my experience right now?
I recommend you ask yourself each of these questions at least three times, by yourself and in the supportive company of clergy colleagues. Together I hope you will find ways to energize your ministries and your imaginations for what’s next—the future that wants to emerge.