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.

How firm a foundation

I currently have the privilege of serving as transition facilitator for a congregation in Memphis, Tennessee. This involves coaching a team of laypeople as they lead the church through some discussions that will be intense as well as – if we do our work with great intention and trust God’s presence – fruitful and hopeful.

This past weekend I trained this transition team. We had a big agenda for our Saturday together. Worship together, bond as a team, understand the scope of the transition process, pray our way through the large physical plant, plan for our first congregational conversation, and set the timeline for our work. (Yes, I was tired, and I’m sure the team was as well!)

I was not surprised that we quickly fell behind in our ambitious schedule. The people around the table were telling stories and enjoying one another’s company. Internally, my desire to stay on task warred with my conviction that these conversations were the work, no matter what our agenda said. A key component of the day was the sharing of faith journeys. I was amazed by the depth to which team members told deeply personal stories. There were tears. There was laughter. The connections being formed and strengthened were almost visible, they were so visceral.

We were able to check off the most important to-dos in preparation for our work with the church as a whole (and still adjourn on time!). But when we reflected on the our work we had done over eight hours, there was consensus that the team-building pieces – faith stories, casual conversation during lunch, a tangent or two, affirming one another’s experiences and gifts via call and response – were where God was most powerfully at work.

This team was put together through congregational ballots that were then processed by a nominating committee to ensure as much diversity in life and church experience, perspective, age, and gender as possible. It was purposefully representational of a church that – like most churches – has plenty of different thoughts on what the next chapter of ministry should look like.

That’s exactly why this “soft” or “slow” work was necessary. (To be clear, I believe attention to relationship-building is tough and makes processes more efficient in the long run.) We were able to see the image of God in one another and note what we have in common so that we can work from that starting point rather than areas of disagreement. Now the team members can model that recognition of each person’s belovedness, that delight in one another, that love for their church as they lead the discussions that must be had if the congregation is to notice and respond faithfully to God’s invitations in this season.

Where in your ministry setting is the “real work” getting hung up by disagreement, disengagement, or lack of follow-through? I encourage you to consider whether taking a step back to strengthen relationships might be a way to move forward.

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash.

 

 

 

Eight Cs for growing trust

[Note: a version of this article first appeared on Searching for the Called.]

The most important ingredient in any process isn’t expertise or charismatic personalities or financial resources. It’s relationships. When the bonds are strong among the people involved, there can be productive disagreement, a full exploration of possibilities, deep investment in the work, and mutual support and accountability, all leading to forward progress.

The foundation of relationships is trust. Not simply predictability – I know your passions and hot buttons and how you’ll react to each being tapped – but shared vulnerability and risk-taking. Many congregational teams and committees start with some sense of predictability by virtue of the members attending church together for a long time. But most (if not all teams) will need to dig in before high-intensity work begins to develop the second-level trust that will allow for the most thorough and faithful process.

What does it look like to grow that deep trust? Here are eight Cs – from lowest to highest risk – to guide that essential work:

Clarity is getting straight within ourselves about our thoughts and commitments, then being honest with others about them.

Communication is putting our clarified knowledge and understanding out there, and in turn listening to others with open hearts and minds.

Curiosity is admitting we don’t have the whole picture and wondering about what we don’t know.

Compassion is showing care to and connecting at a heart level with others, believing the best about them as we do so.

Companionship is being present and authentic while still maintaining the boundaries that allow us to be clear and compassionate.

Consistency is showing up the same way every time and admitting when circumstances have thrown us off balance.

Conflict is being willing to disagree and to have our ideas improved upon.

Control release is relinquishing attachment to the outcome, trusting that the process will end up as it should so long as we bring our whole selves to it.

Jesus embodies each of these Cs in his ministry. He bookends his active period with a time of clarifying his identity and purpose in the desert and a prayer in the garden of “here’s what I want, but I’m here to finish the job.” His interactions with followers and adversaries alike are centered on getting his message out while asking about and listening to their hopes and fears. Time after time Jesus shows up for people, particularly the least of these, truly valuing them and radiating divine love for them. With those who want to hold on to what they know and have, he’s not afraid to offer a challenge. And in the end, he allows himself to be led to the cross so that he can expose all that is wrong with the hunger for power.

The eight Cs and the resulting trust can strengthen relationships not just within the team but between the team and congregation. The effects of deepened connections, in turn, extend beyond the process itself, cultivating beloved community with the Source of love at its center.

Photo by Skye Studios on Unsplash.

Dealing with the shoulds

Do you have a case of the shoulds? (I have a chronic condition that I struggle to keep in check.)

“I should finish this sermon before I go to bed.”

“I should visit my homebound member, even though I saw him two weeks ago.”

“I should count my calories more closely.”

“I really need to marinate on my response some more, but I should send this email reply now anyway because my board chair is expecting it.”

“I should go to that third evening meeting this week, regardless of whether I have much to add to the discussion.”

“I should tackle that pile of dirty clothes in the floor.”

I should…I should…I should. 

Now, there are a few worthwhile shoulds. I should eat more veggies. I should make an appointment with the dentist. I should be kind to everyone I meet. But in most cases, this is how I’d describe that big pile of should:

Originality: How do I know what I’m capable of if my life is ruled by shoulds?

Understanding: How will I grasp who I am, what my call is, and where others are coming from if I’m too busy doing shoulds?

Leisure: How will I ever get time to rest and re-center if I’m playing whack-a-mole with shoulds?

Deeper connections: How will I ever create time and space for knowing and being known by God and my loved ones if there’s always – and there is – one more should to check off the list?

Shoulds are loud, persistent, confidence-kicking tyrants. Next time a should pops into your head, ask:

Who says I should do this?

Why is it important to that person that 1) this get done and 2) that I do it?

What do my head, heart, and gut tell me about this should?

How will fulfilling this should help me be the minister, family member, friend, or person God has called me to be?

You are valuable, you are beloved, just as you are. You don’t have to earn it.

Safe for whom?

In several of the communities that I value, there are intense discussions happening about the nature of safe space. Whose sense of safety are we protecting? It’s an important question, one that is rooted in the reality of privilege. All of us are socially located at the intersection of our gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and other factors. Those of us with more privilege are accustomed to others deferring to our safety. I have been wrestling a lot lately with the nature of my privilege as a white, straight, cisgender, Christian, middle class person and the ways my obliviousness to that privilege has harmed others. I want to do better. I must do better. I am grateful for courageous voices that are calling me out, even if the new awareness they spark makes me uncomfortable. After all, what change was ever catalyzed by comfort?

The interactions that are urging me to examine both my innermost self and her outward manifestations are complicated. Listening and speaking can both be shut down quickly, hence the discussions about what makes space safe, and for whom. So what are some of the conversational skills that can help us hang in with one another in the midst of these tough, revealing conversations? Here are some of the thoughts I’ve had from my location as an ever-learning, trying-but-still-stumbling person of privilege:

Clarifying rather than (or at least before) advocating. Most of us speak to be understood before seeking to understand. Reversing that order – asking before telling – can stop a lot of arguments before they start.

Challenging rather than shaming. When we share our own perspectives, what is our goal? Is it to inform, to help our conversation partner grow (challenging), or to make him/her feel bad about her/his status or opinion (shaming)? Information and challenge can strengthen relationships. Shame rarely does that.

Defaulting to belief rather than doubt. Assume that the person saying something hard to hear is telling the truth.

Using “I” rather than “you.” “I” statements (“I feel angry when…” as opposed to “you make me angry”) are basic communication skills, yet we rarely use them. Starting a sentence with “you” tends to put hearers on defense. “I” signals I’m about to talk from my experience.

Avoiding exceptionalism. Don’t leap to self-defense when someone calls out privilege. Instead, take a moment to consider whether s/he might be right.

Striving for unity rather than uniformity. We will never all agree. That is ok. But we can look for shared values and purpose to rally around. And in doing so, we will better get to know one another, our histories, and our points of view.

What would you push back on, delete from, or add to this list?

Creative Commons image “listen (069/365)” by Tim Pierce is licensed under CC BY 2.0.