Learned helplessness vs. learned optimism in congregations

In the field of psychology there is a condition known as learned helplessness. The subject is put into a challenging environment – for example, there might be a persistent, sharp sound – with no way to overcome the issue. After experiencing that initial lack of agency, the subject gives up trying to alter the condition or escape. The subject accepts the situation as permanent, and this learned helplessness induces a passivity that becomes a default response in other, unrelated circumstances.

In contrast, another subject is given the means to change the challenging condition, such as by pushing a button that stops the noise. This subject learns that the problem is temporary and that the means are available to address it. This subject bounces back quickly from adversity, because the agency claimed instills a sense of optimism.

While many studies of learned helplessness and optimism have focused primarily on the impact to individuals, I think these phenomena are very applicable to congregations. Take a church that considers itself in decline, for example. This congregation tries everything it can think of to reverse the trends, such as sending postcards to the neighborhood, hosting a community cookout on the church lawn, sprucing up the nursery, and offering a grief support group. At most, a couple of new people start attending on Sundays from these efforts. The church accepts that it is helpless to stop its slide. It gives up trying to reach out to the community, and it dwindles until a discussion about permanently closing the doors becomes imminent.

On the other hand, a church in similar circumstances might claim a sense of optimism by finding agency in its situation. This could involve the congregation naming and ministering out of the gifts that a small church has to offer that a big church cannot. It might mean reframing growth so that it is not about Sunday morning attendance and offering but about numbers of unique individuals involved in leadership in the congregation and community or the length of time it takes a youth group to name all of the ways it saw God at work during the week prior. It could entail using perceived failure as a springboard for ongoing discernment and deeper dependence on the Spirit.

Learned optimism is not fanciful or untethered from reality. It is a secular term for the hope we claim as people of faith, rooted in the partnership that God invites us into. Whereas helplessness and passivity prevent growth, optimism creates the possibility for all kinds of positive change and for relationship development and strengthening.

Where, then, does your congregation need to recognize its God-given agency and begin to act out of hope instead of helplessness?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

Pastoral leadership in troubled times

Last week I had a front-table speech for Brian McLaren’s early-morning keynote to a room full of clergy cohort conveners. When he dove into his very meaty content, I was glad I was already 2/3 of the way through my coffee. He had some challenging words for faith leaders who are very concerned with the direction of our congregations, denominations, and/or country. In these chaotic, divisive times, McLaren said, we must be intentional and honest about our pastoral approach. In choosing our tack, we have four choices:

Offend no one. We can limit our preaching and teaching to “safe” topics. (I imagine this list of subjects is pretty short!) McLaren noted that we will nevertheless discover new ways to offend people every week, because the Gospel is political.

Go where the wind blows. We can listen to what the people in our care want to hear, then echo it from the pulpit. McLaren warned that there is grave danger in this approach, as our constituents are being tugged by opposing forces, not all of which are in line with the Gospel. We might find ourselves espousing – or at least leaving unchallenged – convictions that are contrary to the core of who we are and what we believe.

Push the congregation. We can prod our parishioners on the core issues of the dignity of all people, stewardship of the planet, caring for the poor, and ushering in peace – what McLaren considers the four core issues of faith. This is a bold move for those of us who pastor purple churches and/or who worry about making ends meet if our congregations can’t tolerate our stances.

Lead by anxiety. We can share our concerns about the fissures in our culture from a personal perspective, such as “I am worried about the normalization of bullying in our country.” (This is permission-giving for people to acknowledge their own concerns in a safe container, not a handing-off of our own worries.) After we have surfaced the tensions, we can discuss with our members what a faithful, corporate response might look like.

I have talked with many ministers who are mulling how to navigate our charged climate. What does it look like to be faithful both to our personal beliefs and to our call to the setting we serve? How do we exercise our prophetic voices in ways that our people can hear? How do we model ways of listening deeply to one another? How do we balance our desire to be engaged – even activist – citizens with our responsibilities as pastors?

I have struggled with these same questions as a guest preacher and a clergy spouse in a more-red-than-purple congregation. I found Brian McLaren’s framework helpful for making a more conscious decision about my own approach. Maybe there’s a nugget in there for you too.

Rising Strong: integrity is where compassion and boundaries meet

Compassion is the heart of the gospel. When Jesus gives us our charging orders to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the prisoner, he is explicitly telling us to note the suffering of others and – rather than turning away from or pitying them – to be as kind to them as if they were Jesus himself. He is implicitly reminding us that we have all known suffering of some sort, that we have all longed to be connected and to be understood.

It’s not easy to see pain in others’ faces, though. Not only do we have to do something once we note the pain, we have to admit that those who suffer are just as deserving (as much as any of us “deserve” grace) of connection and understanding and help as we are. It’s more comfortable to tell ourselves the story that the sufferer made poor choices to get to where he/she is. That obviously we made much more responsible decisions to be in the position to choose our targets of compassion.

BUT. What if instead we went about our lives believing that people are doing the best they can, that some folks are trapped in systems not of their making? What if we loved these folks as they are? What if we remembered our low points and connected with those in need out of our shared humanity?

This is the framework that Brené Brown suggests we operate out of. It is not a call to doormat-dom, however. It is not wearing ourselves down to the nub. It is a balancing act. It is knowing and honoring our limits so that we can do the hard work of looking pain in the eye and extending compassion.

What would it look like if we believed the people who exasperate or frighten us are doing the best they can? The person who calls the church every month for help with the utility bill. The congregational antagonist. The ministry leader whose life is spiraling out of control. What inner work would we need to do first to be able to extend this generous interpretation? And what difference would it make in our individual and collective lives if we could look at others – all others – through these Christ-colored glasses?

Creative Commons "And may they rise up! #compassion" by Leigh Blackall is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Creative Commons “And may they rise up! #compassion” by Leigh Blackall is licensed under CC BY 2.0.