Compared to closing down in the early days of COVID 19 the next phase of slowing returning to public gatherings is going to be complicated. A “stay at home order” is clear – it means stay at home. Reopening our public spaces and gatherings is presenting new, ambiguous challenges. Lack of clarity raises anxiety.
Some amount of anxiety always flows in every emotional system – families, congregations, workplaces, and the broader social culture. These systems all interlock and interrelate. As anxiety flows, it can increase. If anxiety increases to the point where an emotional system can’t process it, there are predictable results – conflict, withdrawal, blaming, even physical illness. The emotional system gets stuck, less able to deal with difference, leading to more conflict, blaming, withdrawal… the cycle goes on.
The challenges of leadership at any time is to stay aware of how anxiety is working on one’s own self and to behave thoughtfully, not reactively.
- It involves thinking through the leader’s guiding principles about themselves, life, the mission of the Church and their local congregation.
- It involves understanding how one’s own reactivity works. What are the “tells,” often subtle physical clues, that one is beginning to react rather than remaining thoughtful?
- It involves the ability to think through issues for oneself rather than take on the opinions and ideas of someone else.
- It involves one’s growing ability to stay in meaningful emotional contact with people who think differently and are guided by different principles.
Anxiety will eventually land somewhere – it will get attached to an issue or a decision. It often lands on a person. In a congregation it can easily land on the pastor. In some congregations the leaders – the Congregation Council or some other group – make decisions without engaging with the pastor’s thinking and principles. In others the pastor is put in the decision making position as other leaders succumb to the anxiety and don’t hang in and work out a plan together. When disagreement arises about the plan – there will always be disagreement! – the pastor can end up out on a limb.
Here is a story: A Congregational Council was having a heated conversation to come up with a reopening plan. The pastor observed and resisted getting pulled in. After a while when the pastor asked, “I wonder who will be ready to come with their families to worship?” There was silence. They each agreed that they were themselves not personally ready to take that step. At that point the discussion moved into a more productive, calmer direction and first steps were decided.
The Congregational Resource Team has been formed to assist with leadership dilemmas. More on this next time.
+ Pastor Stephen Cook, Synod Minister for Equipping Congregations.