In a Time of Change and Loss

I called her “St. Nancy” (now of blessed memory).  She had been a member of the congregation for over 40 years. Maybe a charter member, I don’t know. She had spent her career as a hospital nurse and was steeped in service to others; there was an assertive, yet loving way about her. By the time I began my ministry in that congregation, Nancy had retired, but still active. Over the decades, she had probably taken nearly every job there was at church, from council president to leading the women’s guild. She had a heart as big as the Indian Ocean and a healthy, direct way of speaking. When she disagreed with something, she said so, but it was never mean; she was always a team player. (I’m guessing you can picture your own Nancy.)

When our parish nurse died suddenly, Nancy was heartbroken. Not only had she and Sue been friends, but she was deeply committed to Parish Health ministry. So, when we decided for budgetary reasons not to fill the position, Nancy was upset. And when the leadership wasn’t responsive to her insistence, trouble began. She took it to the streets, in that ugly way that we do.

At a staff meeting we talked about it and knew we had to address it. One of us volunteered to go talk to Nancy one on one. We discovered that replacing the parish nurse was only the cover for something much deeper. Nancy said, “For 40 years, I’ve been taking care of people in this congregation. Now that I’m old, who’s going to take care of me.” It wasn’t about filling a position or not. It was about the fear of losing something that she had been instrumental in nurturing, that we take care of our elders. It was about change and loss.

Leadership guru, Ron Heifitz, writes that it’s not change that people dread. Let someone win the lottery and they’re more than willing to change their lifestyle. It’s loss. That’s what people fear.

In this pandemic disruption, people are experiencing both change and loss. For at least 6 months now, we have experienced the loss of significant ways of being the church that have meant so much to us. We aren’t gathering for worship in the church (at least most of us aren’t; and if we are, it doesn’t look much like what we were used to). We can’t have our coffee hour, we can’t hug people on the way into church, we long to be able to sing together again. The pandemic has messed with so many of our cherished practices and traditions. What’s maybe more troubling is that some of those losses will be permanent.

So, both loss and change. No wonder people are anxious.

I fear that the dynamics of loss and change will be too much for some congregational systems to handle without spiraling down into some pretty serious conflict. The tensions between those who are pushing to get back the building and those who are more risk averse are already showing up. At first there was impatience to get back in the building; now the impatience is turning to frustration, even anger.

Here are a few things that are going to be important in the next few months as we navigate what’s turning into a much longer disruption than we expected.

Creating space for lament. Wise pastoral leadership will create space to give expression to the grief and sadness, the frustration and anxiety that we’re all experiencing. People need an outlet for the grief they are experiencing at the loss of what may never return in the form they were used to. In one of our Sunday morning Zoom conversation, I asked how folks were doing and one of them just blurted out, “This is hard. I’m having a hard time with this. I just feel like nothing is normal anymore.” Not only did they have a chance to give voice to their grief and loss, but it gave the community an opportunity to practice care for each other.

Pay attention to relationships as well as tasks. In the church, we are often so occupied with the tasks that need to be accomplished that we forget that we are fundamentally a relational community. Maybe it’s beginning the meeting with a rounds question that invites people to share something about themselves. Maybe it’s just opening the space for people to talk. We are both rational and emotional beings and while we might not be very good at expressing the emotional part of who we are, it doesn’t mean it’s not important. And we can get better with practice.

Keep your leaders close. Check in with them. Get in the habit of a regular phone call or email just to see how they’re doing.  Focus on the leaders who are calm and courageous; strengthen and support them. And don’t ignore the ones from whom we’re sensing tension. We don’t need to focus on them, but we do need to listen and pay attention.

Keep the mission in mind. Especially in these times, it’s so easy to focus on what needs to be today. I have those days when I’m just trying to get done today what can’t wait until tomorrow. We are having to make so many decisions that it there doesn’t seem to be room for one more. But while circumstances and context have changed dramatically in the past 6 months, the mission hasn’t. For us, that’s to be the sacramental presence of Christ in our community. Keeping that in mind brings clarity to everything else. Remembering the mission can help us dream hopefully about what we’d like the future to look like. It can unleash the creativity and imagination that just might launch us into a new normal that helps people to see that though we might be experiencing loss, what comes next might be better than we could have imagined.

Margaret Wheatley writes, “The primary way to prepare for the unknown, is to attend to the quality of our relationships, to how well we know and trust one another.” In the end, Nancy’s anxiety and reactivity was softened, not because we convinced her that our strategy was the right strategy, but because she felt listened to and cared for. It’s all about the relationship. In times of change and loss, paying attention to relationship will always strengthen the mission.

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