Politics, polarization, and the Coronavirus

In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt covers a range of themes about which liberals and conservatives disagree. One is the care/harm theme in which the two polarities differently attribute definitions and causes of hurt and assign the responsibilities of society toward those who are vulnerable. In another, the polarities take varying stances toward people with power.

Our relationships toward these two themes are running beneath the surface of many COVID-19 conversations. Who is to blame for the spread of the virus? Who is supposed to do what about it? How well are our leaders serving us in this crisis? Who is the boss of me and my comings and goings as recommendations for ever more stringent social distancing guidelines are urged?

Right now these questions are only helpful insofar as they reduce the spread of disease. Beyond that, they are ingredients for introducing even more anxiety into a system that is already highly reactive. Still, the questions aren’t going away.

For leaders, then, the need to self-differentiate is more important (and difficult) than ever. If we can be with our people rather than react to to them, we’ll model ways to manage self and begin to infuse the system with more stability.

What does self-differentiating in a pandemic mean? Here are some thoughts:

Listen deeply to others. When people feel heard, seen, and valued, the tension in a conversation drops.

Stay curious. Seek to understand, whether or not you agree.

Don’t try to change minds. Be clear about what you believe, but prioritize the relationship over the position.

Neither under- nor overfunction. This helps distribute responsibility throughout the system, evening out the emotions.

Balance thinking and feeling. You need both, but too much of one or the other will make it hard to keep connected with people.

Stay present with people. If you can be grounded where you are, there is always the potential for care and respect.

Take care of yourself. Self-differentiation is hard work. Shore up your support system as needed.

Your leadership matters. While others panic, blame, or scoff, your self-management is helping make it possible for those in your care not just to cope, but to assign meaning to this unprecedented experience.

Photo by cloudvisual.co.uk on Unsplash.

Scarcity, abundance, and COVID-19

On the best of days, many churches have long spent too much energy on what they do not have, usually a balanced budget and pews bursting at the end caps. The COVID-19 crisis has ramped up that fear about scarcity. Not only do we not have an offering plate to pass or full sanctuaries, we cannot safely gather in person at all. We do not even have the incarnational comfort of physical proximity.

Ok. All of that is true. All of that is hard. And, it is not the only story. Abundance still exists. You might just have to look a little harder or get more creative to find it. But once you do, you can build on it in ways that will benefit your congregation far beyond the passing of this immediate crisis. Here, then, are some places where you might take stock:

Tech savvy. Who are the people in your church who know how to connect others or disseminate information in a variety of ways by technology? What platforms or equipment might they have access to that your church could use to gather constituents virtually at various times?

Connections to denominational partners. Your denomination (including publishing houses, benefits boards, and more) or middle judicatory has probably sent information out to churches. What resources are on offer? What resources might you ask about, such as mini grants to set up online platforms?

Time. Some of your church members are extra busy right now as they work from home (and possibly try to homeschool their kids simultaneously). Those who are home and cannot/do not telecommute, though, might have availability that they might not otherwise. How might they use that time to serve others, perhaps by calling or texting individuals or hosting virtual gathering?

Individual connections. Who do the people in your church know, whether from school, work, volunteer efforts, professional networks, clubs, or businesses they frequent? How might those connections be leveraged remotely to help those in need, whether within your congregation or beyond?

Individual talents. What are the people in your church good at – whether those are life skills or for pure enjoyment – and that they might teach others to do by phone or video? What can they make and share (with proper precautions) with others, such as poetry or meals or activity kits for kids?

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does provide examples of ways to think more deeply about strengths your church can leverage in a greatly changed context. Getting creative about ways to connect has the added advantage of moving your congregation forward into an increasingly digital world – pandemic or not. And it further trains us to notice where God is at work among us, a habit that is spiritually transformative.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash.




Church in the time of Coronavirus

Let’s not mince words. This whole COVID-19 business sucks.

That suckage covers a big range, too. At one extreme, there’s the physical danger to immunosuppressed people and to those living in poverty, who might have difficulty feeding themselves as schools close and shelves empty at food banks and at stores that take government benefits. At the other extreme, people lament the (hopefully very short-term) loss of all that makes life enjoyable, such as birthday parties and trips and worship services and the NCAA basketball tournament. And these are only the immediate impacts.

So we’re all feeling the pinch in some way. The mortal danger is, of course, the exponentially greater concern. That’s why institutions of all kids are taking precautions and recommending safety guidelines to leaders and individuals – including pastors and church members. Talk about the things they didn’t teach you in seminary: many a minister is struggling to tend both to concerns about vulnerable people and frustrations about closures in a context that is now changing hourly.

Fully acknowledging how much the situation stinks, there are a couple of opportunities to keep in mind.

First, the church is not the building where your congregation is used to meeting. The church I attended in seminary had (and probably still has) a sign that said, “Oakhurst Baptist meets here.” It was a way of separating the congregation from the physical location. Many a church struggles to do that. After all, how many conversations about sanctuary carpet or the color the youth want to paint the walls of their meeting space become seemingly all-consuming, to the detriment of actual ministry? With many churches canceling in-person gathering for at least the next few weeks, there can begin to be more daylight between the people and the place.

With that in mind, how can you help your congregation members see in new ways that church is about relationships, not a facility? How will you equip and encourage your people to tend to those connections in the absence of a physical gathering place?

Second, the church as it was has been dying for some time. Many pastors know that, yet it can be hard to imagine what a new iteration of church might look like. And even if we can visualize it, how in the world can we inspire our people to be courageous enough to attempt it? Well, this pandemic offers a laboratory for that. We can’t conduct business as usual. We thus have unprecedented permission to discern new ways of connecting to one another as we seek to grow in our relationships with God.

So what expressions of the scattered church have you wanted to play with but heretofore haven’t dared? If you’re not sure what you’d like to experiment with, how can those who are accustomed to relating to people who aren’t physically present (e.g. youth ministers, digital natives, tech professionals) show us the way?

I am praying for you, pastors, and I am confident in your faithfulness, compassion, and ability to innovate. Lean into those strengths – you might be surprised by what emerges. And as you attempt new things, give yourself permission not to have all the answers immediately. We’re all feeling our way along in this brave new world.

Photo by Sheldon Kennedy on Unsplash.

Workshop: managing impostor syndrome

At the height of Michael Jordan’s NBA career, Gatorade launched the “Be like Mike” campaign. If we replenished our electrolytes with the same sports beverage as Jordan, then we could hope to lead our teams to NBA titles, be named the NBA’s MVP, and take home multiple NBA scoring and slam-dunk championships.

It’s important to have role models, people who broaden our imaginations about what’s possible. At some point there becomes a danger, though, of feeling like a fraud if we compare ourselves to those role models – or even to those who don’t seem to be putting in the work yet reap the rewards of their positions – and judge ourselves as coming up short. There aren’t enough gallons of Gatorade to make up for gaps in privilege or charisma or opportunity or raw talent.

Even in 2020, many clergywomen are treated as if we are “playing at” pastoring, as if we don’t deserve to live into the fullness of God’s call on our lives and aren’t capable to exercise the fullness of God’s equipping for our vocations. While we often feel like we are treading water, toiling for our authority every day, we see others gaining bigger platforms.

Enter impostor syndrome: what am I doing here? Is someone going to realize I don’t belong and call me on it? Does my effort even matter, since I might never be recognized as the Michael Jordan of ministry? (Spoiler alert: YES.) Impostor syndrome is widespread and insidious. It makes us feel like our gifts and ministries aren’t valuable to God or God’s people. It urges us to lead in ways that are not authentic to us, which means we don’t leverage our God-given strengths as faithfully as we could. It causes us to doubt our decisions instead of using outcomes – whatever they might be – as fodder for ongoing discernment. It causes us to compare ourselves to others, which prompts discouragement that can eventually lead to our departure from ministry altogether. And that is not ok, because the church and the world need the leadership we have to offer.

From 11:00 am -12:30 pm central time on May 13 I will be offering an interactive workshop for clergywomen on managing impostor syndrome. Within a theological framing, we’ll name what impostors are. As counterpoints, we’ll discuss how we came to be where we are, what our impact is on our ministry settings, how we can remember our worth, and how we can develop mutual support networks to bolster one another when symptoms of impostor syndrome emerge. Participants will take away awareness and practices they can put in place to live out of God’s call on their lives and their love for God’s people rather than out of the (sometimes internalized) expectations of others.

The cost for this workshop, which will take place via the Zoom online platform, is $20. There will be an option to add on three 1-hour coaching sessions, at a discounted rate of $225 (total for all three sessions), to help you apply what you learn. Click here to sign up.

Understanding conflict

There is more than one way to assess the dynamics at play in conflict. We have the intrapersonal elements: what is going on within each person? Internal struggles are sometimes good fodder for conversation with a therapist or counselor, a professional who helps individuals understand how their current reactions are shaped by past experiences. Once that awareness emerges, healing becomes possible.

In conflict there are also the interpersonal aspects: what is happening among people? I don’t know of an approach that offers more insight into relationships than family systems theory, which explains how different emotional units interact in healthy and unhealthy ways.

To be certain, the intra- and interpersonal overlap when conflict threatens to boil over, and a basic grasp of both is essential to pastoral care at multiple layers. But I think an additional filter is helpful when we’re dealing with issues at the congregational level. Otherwise we can quickly get into the weeds, analyzing who is where in the system or what each person’s triggers are, so that it’s hard to zoom back out to the big picture. Meetings grind to a halt and initiatives die because we’re so focused on managing problems at the micro level.

In my mind, then, congregations live on an x-y axis. Individuals are points on the plane. Family systems theory orients us along the horizontal axis, helping us see how one person relates to the next. The vertical axis can in turn offer us a deeper though perhaps simpler way in to focusing what’s going on by taking us from symptoms at the surface to underlying issues.

At the outset we deal with logic. What are the arguments the involved parties are making? What are the counterpoints? If conflict is not resolved through reason, through adding up pros and cons and taking the most apparently advantageous path, then something else is going on.

The next level down to probe, then, is emotion. Who is feeling what and why? How might those feelings need tending? Whose heart or relationship needs mending?

If conflict remains after working with logic and feelings, then there is a struggle for power, whether or not it’s acknowledged as such. Who has control in certain situations? How did they get it, and how do they maintain it? What would it look like to give some of it up, and who would benefit? What would it take to convince the powerholders to cede some of their stake?

This approach, adapted from Sarah Drummond’s book Dynamic Discernment, provides a more streamlined on-the-spot assessment and offers a way to think about what it would take truly to get conversations and plans moving in a helpful direction. So the next time you’re blindsided in a conversation or banging your head on the conference table during a stalled-out meeting, travel the vertical axis of reason-emotion-power, taking care as you have breadth to tend to the pastoral care needs of individuals and emotional units.

Photo by Cristian Palmer on Unsplash.

Re-imagining ministry and re-inventing yourself

Many clergywomen find themselves in the position of needing to re-invent themselves at some point. There are many reasons why. We are geographically limited. Or congregational ministry positions are drying up as church budgets shrink. Or we have small children or aging parents who need more of our attention than full-time congregational ministry allows. Or we’ve been scarred by church work. Or we have yet to find a venue that fully utilizes our gifts. Or God is at work in us, shaping a vision of what we’ve been made for. 

And so we dream about – or are forced to consider – what an out-of-the-box ministry could look like. Let me say (as someone who has been there) that I am in your corner. I’d offer these steps to you as you mull and plan.

Define your purpose in ministry. What is it that God is nudging you to do? The specific tasks aren’t as important at this point as what your overall aim is. “I create spaces for people to grow their relationships with God and one another.” “I help churches navigate change with clarity and hope.”

Free yourself up to think broadly about ministry. Many seminaries are geared to drive students toward traditional congregational ministry positions. There’s more than one way, though, to live out your purpose in ministry. What way(s) suit you and your strengths?

Consider the environment you need. What kind of space does your ministry require? Do you work best with people or on your own? What supports and/or accountability will allow you to make the most of your gifts? What equipment or resources can undergird your efforts? How important is location to your success?

Think about your financial requirements. Creating your own ministry often means leaving the world of steady pay and benefits. How much fluctuation in income can you tolerate, at least in the short term? How will you secure health insurance? Remember too that business expenses will now likely come out of your gross income, and be sure to figure that in to your projections.

Identify to whom your ministry would be good news. If God is inviting you to consider a new venture, your efforts will be valuable to others as well. Find those people, tell them what you’re mulling, and listen deeply to the feedback as you gauge their level of excitement.

Pray on it. After you’ve done all of the above, turn your data and your shoulds and coulds over to God: that would you have me do? This is a time for discernment, not decision-making.

Promote yourself. “Noooo…” you might be thinking. “I don’t want to do that. I can’t do that.” But remember those people you talked to who saw great potential in what you were thinking about. Letting those who need your ministry know that your help is available is a service to – not a burden on – them.

Set attainable targets for yourself. You have very little control over whether you net a certain number of new clients per month, so a goal like this is a recipe for frustration. You can absolutely make so many new contacts or spend X number of hours per week working on a particular project, though. These kinds of mileposts keep you moving forward.

Celebrate the flexibility you have when times are lean. Hustling is hard. It requires tenacity. You will wonder many times if you heard God correctly when you stepped out on this limb. And, you will be so glad when you don’t have to plan time away, whether it’s to attend an event your child’s school or to get away for a few days, around a million other concerns.

Find colleagues. Even if you work well alone, don’t allow yourself always to be alone. Look for people with whom you can provide mutual encouragement, space to vent, and brainstorming time.

Keep learning and growing. There’s a lot of trial and error in starting up a new venture. Instead of letting the errors discourage you, use them for further discernment. What about this particular try helped me be faithful to my purpose? What distracted me from it? Use those reflections to refine your ministry.

Be patient with yourself. You are brave. You are wise. You are innovative. You have much to offer. And, it will take time to build your ministry. Release yourself from the expectation – and the pressure that comes with it – of going from 0 to 60 in a few months.

I have found great joy in reimagining what ministry looks like for me. That does not mean it’s always been easy. It took a long time to build toward sustainability, but I can now confidently say it was worth the effort. So all the best to you in your new season of ministry. Know that I am here to help if you need it.

Photo by Kristin Brown on Unsplash.

Understanding how people arrive at different beliefs

Have you ever wondered how someone in a similar life station can experience the world or believe so differently from you?

Or have you ever been in a conversation that seemed benign until the other party exploded, leaving you to think, “Well that escalated quickly.”

An organizational psychologist named Chris Argyris developed a model called the ladder of inference that might be helpful for understanding what’s happening in scenarios like these.

Basically, each of us filters the world around us in a different way. We select among observable data, often without thinking much about it. We add meaning to that slice of data according to our personal experiences or cultural background. Those assigned meanings lead us to make assumptions, and we then make conclusions accordingly. As conclusions pile up over time, they solidify into beliefs. We act based on those beliefs.

The ladder of inference explains how even in a congregation that averages 100 in attendance – or in a discussion between two people – the parties can end up having very divergent perspectives. It can also help us learn to explore situations through others’ eyes. How might differences at each rung of the ladder lead to ranges of beliefs and actions? Where are potential points at which further discussion might result in understanding and collaboration?

The ladder of inference could be a useful tool for committees or teams that are having trouble coming to agreement. Start at the bottom and work your way up. What are each person’s observations? What data do they choose to work with? Keep going up. Note where there are divergences. Hearing from one another is the starting point for real collaboration.