Cultivating Hope

I am confident denominational leaders, clergy and lay leaders, speak of their longings for “when things get back to normal” or “when things are like they used to be”, out of a desire to offer pastoral care and a sense of solidarity, but these phrases – and the sentiments they reflect and expectations they build – are bound to create frustration, failure and long-term grief: “Frustration”, because we long for a rose-colored past that wasn’t really all that great, and is therefore neither repeatable nor worth repeating. “Failure”, because pandemics – both medical (Covid-19) and socio/cultural (racism) – change reality in such a way that attempts to “go back to what was” will inevitably (and rightfully) fail. “Long-term Grief”, because longing for a reality that cannot be means never being satisfied with what is, so that loss of what was continuously replays itself in our psyches.

Rather than perpetuate a cycle of frustration, failure and long-term grief, leaders have the power: in their pulpits, liturgies, study groups, pastoral care visits and personal prayers, to shape their own and their peoples’ expectations, as well as their congregation’s and community’s unfurling reality – for the better!!

First, play a game with yourself and other leaders: see what a difference it makes to your personal feelings and attitudes – and the congregation’s – if you choose your words with intention. What if this wasn’t a time of “loss” or even “change”, but a special time; an apocalyptic time; or a liminal time?

Research shows that smiling makes us feel better. Thinking of our current reality as liminal time and space allows us to consider this as a time of opportunity: for transformation, new life, a chance to participate with God in determining a new future for our congregations and communities.

If we can see this as a time of opportunity (which has lots of biblical precedence!!), we can be more open to the Spirit’s leading and more open to seeing – and creating – moments of hope, joy and contentment.

Here are some ideas for developing delight, encouraging resilience and engaging your whole congregation in lifting one another up in hope:

  1. United Theological Seminary invited community members to reflect on the following questions [adapted for congregational use]: What do you see? What do you hope for your community? For this congregation? For the world? What images, words, gestures, or sounds might capture your prayers and petitions? Where are you already finding beauty? Creative/artistic responses to these questions were gathered and posted on United’s blog. Invite your congregation to see reality as it is and at the same time, discover joy in creating their own responses, sharing them with one another and the world (joyful, hopeful online outreach!!!) and developing delight by experiencing one another’s responses.
  2. There are lots dire predictions about clergy gloom and grief, which are wholly understandable as faith leaders usher others through individual, communal, and institutional despair – while only tangentially attempting to manage their own. Rev. Dr. Cameron Trimble suggests letter writing – to yourself – as an antidote. Rachel Macy Stafford suggests cultivating delight. Either exercise might bolster leader morale; writ-large, so to speak, and shared on a congregational level, they might help develop gratitude, resilience and delight on a large scale.
  3. In our neighborhood, there’s been a recent uptick in curbside household stuff – furniture, gardening tools, etc. Some has come home with us to support our daughter in moving into her own apartment (thanks, neighbors!). Other items have gone to the dump. Phyllis Tickle suggests that every few hundred years God invites us to a Divine Rummage Sale. What ministries can get set on the curb – to be repurposed by others or simply thrown into the trash? What uses of your physical space can get thrown out or rethought? My family has found a sense of long-distance quarantine bonding and hope in rethinking how we use our shared family cabin: renovations and dreams for the future have given us joy and a future-focused energy. These can be uplifting conversations: finding new purpose frees people of responsibilities that have begun to weigh on them, unleashes dormant creative juices, and infuses new energy into efforts that have come to the fore in this liminal time.

Covid and burgeoning awareness of systemic racism will continue to impact the life of congregations for years to come. As Carey Nieuwhof writes, “There’s hope for the future…” And, leaders who embrace reality as it is “get to a better future so much faster”.

I hope you can find excuses for delight, vistas of hope, and opportunities to pass them both along!