+Pr. Stephen Cook, Synod Minister
“Flatten the curve” was the challenge in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. It worked! The medical systems were not overwhelmed. Because of individual and collective actions, a cautious reopening of the economy is possible. However, there are signs of a different curve we need to flatten – the curve of increasing conflict in some of our congregations. This rise in conflict is understandable. It is as if our social emotional system on every level was a soda bottle that has been shaken for three months. The cap has been cracked, and it is easy for things to get messy. When emotional systems become agitated, reactive behavior is likely to happen and pressure for a quick fix increases.
This novel virus has instantly brought new factors into the relationships of pastors and congregations. For example, I have a chronic medical condition. With treatment it is very well managed. However, the treatment suppresses my immunity. My condition, now that it is treated, has never had impact on the performance of my ministry, and I do not recall ever bringing it up with congregations I have served. It was just never an issue.
If I were serving a congregation now, I would have to make this known, and it would need to be considered as we plan for gathered worship, funerals, visiting and such. That news about me could easily become the focus of reactivity. If the anxiety in the emotional system of the congregation was maturely managed, my news would be calmly considered, and we would make plans around it. If the system were not functioning maturely, this news might provoke reactivity. Since there are always people in a congregation that do not appreciate their pastor, this could increase pressure on my ministry in general.
Pastors feel responsible for the safety and welfare of the congregation and community. There are many vulnerable people around us. Pastors have responsibility for the care of their own families which may have vulnerable members. This is the pastor’s narrative. Others will operate from a different narrative about the disease. Once again, the pastor may get tagged with anxious responses. It is often easier to engage in conflict over the pastor than it is to work together on becoming a more vital congregation.
In the early days of the pandemic we saw congregations functioning up. Even places where we were aware of conflict seemed to calm down. In the last two weeks we have seen a sudden uptick in reports of conflict. It is easy to see how this fits into the larger emotional context. In addition to the pandemic the murder of George Floyd has agitated the soda bottle.
For the health of our mission to be communities of Jesus followers, we need to flatten this curve of conflict, so that our systems of response are not overwhelmed.
Let me suggest places to start.
What if we start from the reality that there is not one simple roadmap forward? We have lived in an increasingly complex reality for mission for years. The pandemic and the resulting economic downturn have added even more complexity. Uncertainty will continue and might increase. Whatever we decide to do in the short term, let us admit that there are no easy answers.
What if we grew our individual abilities to be in meaningful relationship with people with whom we disagree? As the larger American emotional system continues to polarize around partisan identities, what if we celebrated the diversity of our local congregations, where God puts us in relationship with people we would be unlike to meet otherwise – and expects us to realize we are siblings in Christ?
What if we all just took a breath, relaxed a little, when we feel out tension rise? It might help if we remember that God has got this situation, and us too. As the future unfolds it will be easier to do work on real issues we face in mission. The curve we can flatten is the internal pressure we all feel for clarity and simple quick results.