Pandemic Ecclesial Leadership: It’s Now and Later

Deborah Stollery

So far in this blog series where we are looking at HOW to think about all that needs thinking about in a pandemic, we’ve looked at reading the signs of the times, identifying the kinds of leaders the signs of the times need, and then assessing your current leadership team to see who has what’s needed and what new leadership skills you need.  That brings us to the next steps in “how” thinking:  taking care of today’s needs while looking ahead to the future. 

It’s easy to lose sight of right now when faced with all the unknowns of tomorrow.  It’s equally easy to get bogged down in right now and fail to be prepared for what is coming.  Leadership in uncertain times requires an elegant balance between these two behaviors.  So let’s take a look at how to pastor your people now…in the big picture.  You will have to figure out the particulars to suit the people God has entrusted to your care, but begin thinking about pastoring your folks now by considering:

  • Providing some certainty to balance the uncertainty. The Christian narrative has some very certain beliefs within it, that when shared lovingly, can take the anxiety edge off uncertainty.
  • Offering some methods to stave off fear. Jesus said 365 times to not be afraid.  Look to biblical stories and practices to see how things like memory, ritual, combining assets and resources, dealing with only today, and practicing gratitude can all stave off fear.
  • Suggesting ways to connect to balance the disconnection. We belong to one body in Christ, one supernatural, Spirit infused body.  Help your parishioners discover those connections.  Give them simple ways to connect to one another.  And remember the power of stories to foster connection!
  • Speaking hope to balance the grief and sorrow of all that is lost. Scripture stories, the Catholic Church’s treasury of prayers for the sick and dying, and music are all avenues to speak hope.
  • Visioning for tomorrow. People need leaders to help them see all that is possible as tomorrow dawns.  What light do you see shining in the darkness today, and tomorrow?

While you are carrying out those kinds of pastoral activities among your people, leaders also must look to the future.  What medium and longer range scenarios will you be required to lead?  And what do you want the future to look like for your parish?  This is the time to engage in contingency thinking.  If this…then this…with these consequences (unintended as well as intended.)  However, concrete planning right now will need to be extremely contingent/fluid, if you do it at all.  That does not mean to refuse to think and dream.  It does mean to lay out those contingencies so that you are prepared to create plans based upon the guidance that will surface from both governmental and diocesan authorities and based on the direction of your Spirit infused dreams.

At this point, many of you are thinking that contingency thinking is a waste of time.  Let me assure you otherwise.  Here are the benefits of contingency thinking:

  • It forces you out of reaction and into concrete action, thus reducing anxiety.
  • It demands collaboration, thus building your leadership team’s cohesion as they work together to think.
  • It provides an outlet for the Spirit’s innovation and creativity.
  • It removes stasis: that frozen feeling that comes when everything is uncertain by giving you something concrete to do.
  • It helps dissect the struggles, breaking them into smaller segments so that you can think about them systematically and then as a whole, thus reducing the “too big to think about” phenomenon.
  • It allows you to assure those you are leading that you are watching the signs of the times, checking knowledge streams, building contingencies and working together to serve them…thus providing some certainty amidst uncertainty.
  • It gives you a starting place from which to plan, and some deliberate thought about the consequences you will need to address once directives come from government and ecclesial leadership.

How to think about all of this?  Figure out what your people need now to know they are loved by God by being loved by you and your leadership team, and then begin to work with others to engage in contingency thinking.  This will serve your community, ground you, create a more cohesive team, and prepare you to move when given permission to do so.  You will be sensitively pastoring and creatively leading…wrapping your head around this systematically.  I hope you will…and if you’d like some help with any of this, we’re happy to assist you and your teams as you think systematically about leading in pandemic times…for now and later.  Contact us.

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