Waste Not, Want Not

“Never waste the opportunity,” wrote Niccolo Machiavelli, “offered by a good crisis.” You can always tell the quality of a quote by how often it’s been stolen and then attributed to sources. This one is credited variously to Sir Winston Churchill, Rahm Emmanuel, and economist, Paul Romer.

These words have so many adoptive parents because they uncover a critical reality. A crisis is the ideal time to make constructive changes in an organization. Unfortunately, it is the time when we are least likely to do so.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

A crisis is the best time to make changes because the organization’s solid status quo has “thawed,” and people may be more open to trying new things. It’s the best time to critically examine what’s working and discard what isn’t. After all: crisis, right? What is there to lose by losing the things that brought us to this point? And while we’re at it, we can pitch some of the other junk that’s taking up space and doing little good.

It’s like what happens when we get out Christmas decorations at our house. They’re always buried under some other tub full of stuff. We uncover the Christmas decorations and sort out what works and what doesn’t, what we want to keep and what we don’t, what we’re adding and what we’re donating. While the other tubs are out, it’s a great chance to go through the others as well and reduce the inventory. Never waste the opportunity offered by a good closet cleaning.

Why do we waste so many such opportunities in our organizations? We misunderstand the fixed nature of the arrow of time. This may be a revelation to some, but time does not operate in reverse – no matter how many Star Trek episodes are the based on the fact that it might. We cannot “go back to normal.” There’s no “going back.” And there are a number of things about “normal” that probably should not be reclaimed. After all, if “normal” was such a great thing, how did we get to yet another potentially wasted crisis?

The arrow of time only goes forward. We return to our troubles in a new historical moment. Or we can build on our strengths to create a new and more vital “normal.” Those are the options for us as individuals and as organizations.

Going forward, however, seems difficult for church people. There is a whole genre of Lutheran “light bulb” jokes dealing with change. My favorite is this one. How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? It takes ten – one to change the bulb and nine to ruminate about how much they liked the old light bulb. It’s my favorite because it is spot on.

In some Lutheran congregations we seem to be in the “apology” season of preaching. I have heard half a dozen sermons from folks saying how sorry they are that we can’t have Christmas the way we want. I’m all in favor of acknowledging our grief and sense of loss. So, I’m sure these sermons are necessary for a moment. What I’m waiting for, however, are the sermons that challenge people to make the best possible use of the current crisis. Let’s not waste this one.

The October 8, 2020, edition of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) features an opinion piece entitled, “Pandemic-Driven Posttraumatic Growth for Organizations and Individuals.” Kristin Olson, Tait Shanafelt, and Steve Southwick (all MD’s and teachers at powerhouse medical schools) acknowledge the intense stress and pressure health care workers have experienced and continue to experience during the ongoing pandemic crisis. Some health care organizations are responding to the personal needs for support and recovery for those dedicated professionals. That support is critical simply to maintain any current capacity to respond to this catastrophe.

The authors then encourage readers to look ahead. “In addition to these traditional forms of support for acute distress,” they write, “there may be potential for accelerated personal and organizational change and growth that would often take years to occur.” A good crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

I long for congregations to hear this message and respond to it with positive action. The good doctors are encouraging “Organizational Posttraumatic Growth” (OTPG). Post-traumatic growth is a topic for study and research in the field of positive psychology. Studying that topic in the field of organizational development is a less well-developed discipline. But I think we will see an explosion of research and resources in OTPG as we come out of this crisis and live through a huge natural experiment as organizations flourish or die in the aftermath.

Wouldn’t it be cool (and novel) if congregations were at the forefront of OPTG study and experimentation?

“When organizations are affected by adversity,” the authors note, “they often use crisis management with the goal of restoring the system back to its normal level of functioning.” That is, we try to make time run in reverse. It’s as if we think we created an organizational “restore point” (Windows users will understand the reference), and all we need to do reset to that place and act as if the crisis never happened. That never works – and it never works because it is impossible. Time marches on.

“In contrast,” the authors continue, “organizational posttraumatic growth refers to a process by which organizations are not only restored, but achieve a higher level of functioning as a result of addressing and learning from the traumatic event” (my emphasis). This is my prayer for congregations, judicatories, and denominations across North America. I am not optimistic, given previous history, but the article offers specifics on how this happens in organizations.

Congregations, like all organizations, must ensure that basic functions are needs are addressed before considering the future. When that state is achieved, the authors suggest the following steps which I briefly summarize and apply to congregations.

1. Engage a healthy group of congregational leaders to assess how the congregation has been affected by the pandemic and what can be learned from the experience.

2. Find and study role models of congregations that have grown through adversity. There are likely examples of such growth in the congregation’s own history. There are numerous stories of congregations that have flourished after fires and floods, tornadoes and earthquakes, hurricanes and derechos, malfeasance and misconduct.

3. Practice reframing the current situation “as both a trauma with consequences, as well as an opportunity to ‘reinvent’ or improve on the status quo.” Congregational leaders can learn how to frame positive and appreciative questions about the crisis and about the future.

4. Discern how the experience has deepened connections in the congregation and between the congregation and the community served. Begin to imagine how to sustain those deepened connections.

5. Take the time to notice what has been missing, to discern what is most important, and to be grateful for those gifts. “Gratitude is what makes optimism sustainable” (Michael J. Fox).

A judicatory can assist congregations at several points in this inquiry. Staff can share this perspective and these questions with congregational leaders and offer to facilitate conversations based on these questions. They can point to stories of congregational resilience in the face of adversity and lift up those stories in judicatory outlets. They can point congregations to resources and facilitators who will assist congregations in positive reframing and Appreciative Inquiry. Judicatories can continue to support professional and lay leaders spiritually, emotionally, and institutionally during this hard and productive work.

Judicatories and denominations can and should do this work themselves. Congregations need to see models of “adaptive coping” rather than models of “avoidance coping.” The authors note that avoidance coping “may involve withdrawing through denial and distraction, disengagement, depersonalization, anger, blaming others, substance abuse, reduced work effort, withdrawal, and isolation.” That’s a painful sketch of life in a number of congregations at this point.

“Adaptive coping,” they note by contrast, “does not withdraw but rather engages with the experience and with others. Adaptive coping,” the authors suggest, “is optimistic, flexible, social, action-oriented, and focused on problem-solving.” Adaptive coping is a strategy that takes advantage of a crisis to learn and build new realities while holding close the things that matter at all times.

The concluding paragraph of the column says it well. I adapt it for congregations.

“Posttraumatic growth does not minimize the seriousness and severity of what has happened but can emerge from adversity through active management following the important process of grieving. Can the current pandemic set the stage for beneficial personal and organizational change that creates a better future and brings renewed meaning and purpose to [congregational life]? This is a question only” congregational leaders and congregations/synods/denominations can answer (my emphasis).

I am positive the answer can be “yes” in many settings. I cannot help but think of Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 4:7-12.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. So, death is at work in us, but life in you.

Afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed – this is personal and organizational posttraumatic growth. It is Spirit-filled and Spirit-driven. And it is testimony to resurrection power – always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

It is my prayer for our Church and churches.

Lowell Hennigs, 12/22/2020

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