This is very likely to be a stressful week. Stakes are high. People are divided. The world’s eyes are watching the U.S. elections culminating on Tuesday. Pastors, activists, priests, and chaplains are no exception. You must do what you must do to navigate local and federal politics personally. And then you, friend, are also charged with looking after the spiritual well-being of people in your care.
So how will you lead, minister, teach or provide spiritual care in this time of crisis?
We are already living in a toxic soup of ongoing stress. Eight months into the Covid-19 pandemic, the grief and trauma is piling up far over our heads. Lives and futures are lost. Economic insecurity and uncertainty are threatening. The holiday season looms with emotional intensity.
Maybe you are a chaplain in a healthcare system that is both drained of energy and resources and also stressed by new surges in the virus? Perhaps you pastor a “purple church”? Maybe you live in a community targeted by law enforcement and depleted by injustice? Possibly you are caring for the spiritual lives of students, movement organizations, or advocacy groups?
No matter your ministry location, as a faith leader in the U.S., this week is likely to challenge you and the people you shepherd.
When the presidential election of 2016 turned the U.S. into a persistent state of crisis, a new kind of wisdom emerged for faith leaders. It shocked many people out of the comfort of the status quo. The aftermath of that election taught many of us that making preparations for times of crisis is crucial.
May this gathered wisdom encourage you in the days ahead.
1) Practice Calm
“Accept chaos. Give back calm. Provide hope.” This saying from theological educator and retired seminary president, Michael Jinkins, boils down wisdom from generations of pastors and leaders.
When people are in a crisis — spiritual, emotional, financial or political — they look for someone who can offer calm. Calm does not mean denial. It does not mean platitudes or denying strong feelings.
Most of our emotional lives are minimally on edge in 2020. Pastors and spiritual leaders are not exempt. And our children and teens are especially strained right now. When we can calm and ground ourselves, we can be more present to people feeling elevated stress.
We face the possibility that election resolution will not come on election night. It might not even come in a week or a month. We need to find ways daily to practice our own calm as spiritual beings in order to be with our people.
2) Connect People
These pandemic days still make it difficult for us to be together and safe ways. Remember that bringing together people in a physical space continues to be risky in ways we must not ignore. Yet we need to be together.
During crisis, we need connection, to see and be seen. We also need to hear and be heard. Using all means possible, we will need to connect people, check in with them, and ask them how they are doing. As spiritual leaders we also need our own circle of trust and compassion. We, too, need people with whom we can let down our guard and feel seen and heard.
3) Make Space
When we connect with people, we and they need space for all the feelings and to tell their stories. Making space in this way requires our best imaginations for ritual. One pastor in the LPI study embraced the ritual of communion to lead through an internal crisis in her congregation.
We each have a wealth of knowledge and experiences about the rituals of our tradition. Prayer, singing, silence, communion, walking a labyrinth, or listening to music. Each of these can be a pathway toward making space for people to show up and bring the fullness of their experiences. And now we have three quarters of a year of learning to improvise these rituals while socially distanced.
When we imagine the space people need and cast it with word, gesture, silence, and lament, then our people can enter it. And perhaps they will breath a little easier… even through a crisis that rages on.
4) Get Rest
In times of crisis most of us are tempted to stay on high alert. It is part of the classic fight-flight-freeze-faint response that takes over the body and brain. Being in crisis mode is a normal response to a real or perceived threat. However, being in that mode it does not help us lead well.
The threats of the possible election outcomes, or public responses to those outcomes, will most likely be both immediate and long-term. The stories and rumors and official news will all have potential to trigger a crisis response. People will need your spiritual care.
So as not to become debilitated by the crisis response, we need to care for our bodies. It will be hard, but please resist that flapping anxiety over what you might miss while you sleep. Being rested means being more ready for what is to come, both in the short term and the longer term.
5) Take a Long View
We cannot predict the future. In 2020 our future stories have been crunched, diminished, or abandoned. Many people continue to live in a state of shock or desperation that diminish personal plans.
Perhaps you are reading this, and you know there is no choice about responding. It is only a matter of how. And it does not matter who wins or loses in your district of the country. The lives of your people, your congregation, your students, your family could be directly threatened by the outcome (whenever it comes) of this week’s election. Continuing plans to organize, resist, or protest will go forward because lives are on the line.
Or maybe this is the first time you are contemplating a disappointment of such social or political magnitude. Maybe you are reading this and cannot see any impact either way on your congregation or place of ministry.
Yet, no matter where you are on the spectrum of possible responses, I hope you will step back as often as possible and take the long view. We all need to take a wide angle as we assess how to lead, teach, and care for our communities.
6) Read Signs
Watch for trauma reactions in people who are most vulnerable to the threats of conflict and who are suffering already. People who know trauma intimately and may be anywhere along the pathway of recovery (or not yet able to attend to recovery) are especially susceptible to a new crisis. These folks — maybe even you, dear minister — are likely to be triggered in a high-stress and high-conflict times. Keep your eyes on them. And be ready to make referrals to mental health care.
Read the signs of your own mental, physical and spiritual health. Call your counselor or therapist. Call your medical doctor. Make that appointment you’ve been putting off. Your health and well-being matter. And you cannot lead if you cannot function.
Also read the signs of your local community. The impact of collective trauma effects everyone. And see where healing spaces and people are. Times of great change and crisis are also times of new connections, re-worked alliances, and new openings for the Spirit. Notice where those possibilities are. Then turn and move and breathe in that direction.