Talking with another clergyperson recently, we bemoaned the current spike in COVID-19 infections and the Delta variant. Congregations were moving in the direction of “opening up” again for indoor worship and activities. All systems were go, it seemed.
But then many congregations, in an abrupt retreat, slowed down or modified reopening plans. The ink on books about the “post-pandemic church” was hardly dry as we found ourselves thinking about a possible longer arc of this health crisis.
Suddenly my colleague blurted out, “Maybe I don’t want to do this hard thing.”
We both caught each other’s eye and laughed. We both knew the song, “You Can Do This Hard Thing,” by singer-songwriter Carrie Newcomer. The song had carried us through this pandemic. Some of us had even quoted it in prayers or sermons or had it sung in worship services:
You can do this hard thing.
You can do this hard thing.
It’s not easy I know,
But I believe that it's so.
You can do this hard thing.
“This hard thing” was beginning to feel too hard. To admit we might not want to do this hard thing any longer was—in and of itself—hard.
Getting Through This
Pastors are often called upon to help people to move through hard things: death, the loss of a job or a marriage, even the loss of faith.
Pastors often draw on the “five stages of grief” described by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross when counselling members or their families. The five stages are: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
But what if the person needing care is us?
In our quick-fix culture we often want to “get through” things rather than “be with” things—especially hard things. Even pastors, when we deal with our own challenges, want to talk ourselves into a quick cure—so we can get on with helping others.
One thing we’ve learned through navigating this pandemic is that as soon as we figure out what to do, it can change. We have to be resilient and stay with the challenge.
“Get Over It”
When we choose a quick, “get over it” response instead of tending to our underlying grief, we are soon reminded that the stages of grief—even our own grief—are not hurdles to jump over but stages to address with patience and persistence.
God only knows, these times call us into a deeper and deeper presence with others—and ourselves. If we attend to our inner dynamics, we may see that we move through grief stages not in a straight line, but in a spiral. To revisit the same stages of grief does not mean we are regressing; it may mean that we are actually doing the emotional work each stage requires.
C.S. Lewis offers an alternative and useful perspective in A Grief Observed:
For in grief nothing “stays put.” One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral?
But if a spiral, am I going up or down it?
Those of us who are driven—or even possessed—by a hyper-achieving tendency may be discouraged by this understanding of grief as a spiral. We want to believe we are propelled by our emotions, rather than dragged down by them
In Faithful and Fractured: Responding to the Clergy Health Crisis, a study of clergy health, Rae Jean Proeschold-Bell and Jason Byassee document some of the reasons clergy suffer from poor health and study some programs meant to address the underlying issues. Clergy health problems are both an individual issue and a result of unexamined patterns in professional ministry.
One hope the authors provide comes from Barbara Fredrickson’s extensive research of the impact of positive emotions on physical and mental health. Just as fear and anger can lead to downward spirals in wellbeing, Fredrickson points out that cultivating positive emotions can create a foundation for what she calls “spiraling up.”
Building a positive emotional foundation through cultivating joy, contentment, gratitude, awe, and amusement can help clergy to “spiral up” into better functioning in our life and work.
Utilizing Our Emotions
I have already seen a number of new writings about the “post-pandemic” or “post-quarantine” church. Each point to ways we can adapt to a new reality for congregational life, post-pandemic. For some, these writings will produce excitement and innovation. In others, they will provoke disappointment, depression, or anxiety.
My teacher on utilizing emotions in leadership coaching is Dan Newby. He defines emotions as the “energy that moves us.” From his perspective, emotions provide opportunities for us to learn and gain wisdom if we pay compassionate attention to emotions as a source of action or direction.
Usually each emotion has a story and a purpose. If you or a colleague are feeling anxiety about this new congregation year, here are some ways to “double-click” on that emotion—that is, make sense of what the emotion may be telling you:
- What is the story behind your anxiety? When we are feeling anxious, we may say to ourselves, “I believe something may overwhelm or harm me, but I’m not sure what.” What is your anxiety’s inner story?
- What is your impulse or reaction? Typically, the stories we tell about anxiety lead to worry or circular thinking. What reactions or impulses is your anxiety stirring in you?
- What is a purpose for your anxiety? The emotion of anxiety warns us about possible danger—even if we don’t know what the danger is. What precautions is your anxiety leading you to make?
What is the Hard Thing?
The hardest thing for many clergy about this current situation is not knowing what to do or when to do it—or whether it will be enough. As I listen to my colleagues, I try to attend to the narrative, the impulse, and the purpose of the emotions behind their concerns.
Emotions are, as Dan Newby has put it, “energy that moves us.” In what ways are your emotions guiding you to take an action?
When I was feeling overwhelmed by the current situation of reopening, I created a compass to help me channel my feelings of overwhelm into four directions:
- Reconnect with one another and our wider community.
- Rebound as we bounce back to increased levels of participation and service.
- Redevelop all of our offerings as a highly inclusive, engaging multiplatform congregation.
- Renew our commitment to our mission and our generous support of that mission.
What compass points will guide you in the months ahead?
Lawrence Peers partners with religious organizations and leaders across many faith traditions to help them lead from a sense of purpose and innovate by aligning strategy and spirit. He draws from a rich array of methodologies as he facilitates whole systems, participatory strategic planning, staff team coaching, clergy coaching, and retreats. Larry joins the Congregational Consulting Group and some of his former consultant colleagues from the Alban Institute after four years as director of the Pastoral Excellence Network.