What the Hell Just Happened? Congregations and Pandemic Sensemaking

A few days ago I posted a discussion titled “Waste Not, Want Not.” How can congregations and similar organizations move beyond surviving the current crisis and into flourishing in the future? I am certain that “getting back to normal” is neither possible nor desirable. Instead, now is the time for active discernment of the opportunities for vitality and growth that have been uncovered during the crisis of the last nine months.

This is not what most congregational leaders will want to hear or do. Covid fatigue is real, understandable, and powerful. I do not want to skip over the need for grieving what has been lost during this time. That’s necessary for moving forward. But it’s not sufficient. Organizational Posttraumatic Growth (OPTG) does not and will not happen “naturally.” Congregational leaders will need to choose that path if it is going to happen locally. In the post I mentioned, I outline in general, some ways that local leaders can be intentional about this.

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The first step in this intentional process of OPTG will be “sensemaking.” Maitlis and Christianson define sensemaking in these terms: “a process, prompted by violated expectations, that involves attending to and bracketing cues in the environment, creating intersubjective meaning through cycles of interpretation and action, and thereby enacting a more ordered environment from which further cues can be drawn.”

That’s a mouthful and a half, but here’s the deal. We’ve been through a bit of organizational hell that has turned things upside down and inside out. During that descent, we’ve had the chance to observe and learn things about ourselves and our community that we would not otherwise have noticed. Now we need to construct a story about that journey, discern the unexpected gifts that can take us into a vital and healthy future, and design actions to make it happen.

That’s how not to waste a good crisis.

As individuals, congregations, judicatories and denominations, we will try to make sense out of our experience during and after the Covid-19 pandemic. Making sense of our experience is not optional. Making sense is what we humans do.

The question is, “What kind of sense will we make of our experience?” Will we make sense in such a way that we will move toward greater congregational health? Or will we make sense in such a way that we will continue (at least in most cases) our previous gentle, and now accelerated decline into irrelevancy and oblivion?

In Deuteronomy 30, God challenges the Hebrews to move forward into the Land of Promise. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.” (Deuteronomy 30:19, NRSV).

This is a challenge for the people of God in that moment to discern God’s blessing both in the past forty years and in the challenges sure to come. It is a matter of choosing how and what to see. If we choose to see life and blessing, we can then find the ways to act that give vitality and hope. If we choose to see death and curses, we can then find ways to act that give decline and despair.

The covenant renewal ceremony is Deuteronomy 30 is a “sensemaking” ritual. It is a way to account for the struggle and sacrifice of a generation. It is a way to build on that sacrifice and struggle as they enter the Land of Promise. But that sensemaking is not a “given” thing. It is a “chosen” thing. Congregations are, I think, in a significant “choose this day” moment.

“Sensemaking” is the term of art for those who study organizational development. This area of study has been an academic focus only in the last forty years. It has been the work of human religious, philosophical, and wisdom traditions for as long as such traditions have existed. I think a word we Christians might understand for “sensemaking” is discernment.

Sensemaking and discernment are not mere synonyms. Sensemaking is an act of individual or social construction. It neither assumes nor requires a pre-existing ground of meaning and/or being. So, sense is “made” rather than uncovered.

Discernment, on the other hand, assumes a pre-existing ground of meaning and/or being. In the Christian tradition, we name that pre-existing ground of meaning and/or being “God” (or God’s will, plans, desires, etc.). Discernment uncovers something previously unseen rather than creating something that wasn’t there in the beginning.

Sensemaking and discernment operate in two different frames of reference. However, I think we can make translations from the one frame to the other. I think we can use information and insights from the study of sensemaking to help us discern the congregational disruption, discernment, design, dreaming, and destiny linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In “Waste Not, Want Not,” I described five areas of inquiry to help us make sense of where we’ve been and where we’re going. I want to refine those areas into more specific questions. I think these can be useful questions for dialogue with congregational leaders and groups as we come out of The Pandemic and construct the meaning of the experience as well as possible paths into the future.

What can we learn from our own history and/or from other congregations about surviving and growing after traumatic disruption? How can we apply those learnings to our life after The Pandemic?

Where have inertia, tradition, and fear kept us from considering new ways to carry out our ministry as a congregation? How have we (if we have) overcome obstacles to engage in new ways of being and doing church during The Pandemic?

What strengths did we uncover and/or enhance in surviving The Pandemic? How can we sustain and build on those strengths for the future?

What has this time of traumatic disruption told us about how we understand our mission as a congregation? Is that the real mission we want to pursue after The Pandemic?

How have we supported and nurtured our leaders, staff, and volunteers during the pandemic? How will we intentionally thank them for their service “above and beyond the call”? How will we help them recover and then flourish after The Pandemic?

If you use some or all of these questions for self-reflection and/or for conversation with congregational leaders, I’d love to hear the output of such reflections. Will we discern God’s call for new life after the crisis? Or will we close our eyes and ears to that call?

Discernment is not the end of this conversation or process. Rather, it is the beginning. I want to suggest that it is the beginning of the process of Appreciative Inquiry in congregations. That method of change management lends itself quite readily to organizations seeking to move from crisis to flourishing. I’ll be sharing more in the coming days.


Maitlis, Sally, and Christianson, Marlys. “Sensemaking in Organizations: Taking Stock and Moving Forward.” The Academy of Management Annals, 2014. Vol. 8, No. 1, 57–125, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/19416520.2014.873177

Leadership — Asking Good Questions

Let’s talk Leadership. What is it?

I’ve been given the opportunity to return to some work and reflection on Appreciative Inquiry and congregational health. Here’s a resource piece I have worked on several times over the last few years. Perhaps it will be helpful.

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9 NRSV)

How much time does your congregation spend “thinking about these things,” as Paul puts it? That’s the basic leadership question.

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Leadership is about asking the right questions. Leadership, framed this way, is an adventure of discovery and not an unsolvable puzzle. And when framed in this way, we know that anyone can be a leader, because anyone can ask questions. When we ask questions, we initiate change. Inquiry is intervention. The questions we ask determine the answers we get. Forming the right questions in the right way is a primary task of leadership. A powerful way to ask productive questions is called “Appreciative Inquiry.”

Congregations grow in the direction of what they persistently ask questions about. Persistently asking unproductive questions results in stagnation, decline, and destructive conflict. Persistently asking productive questions results in health, growth, and constructive conflict.

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This is a deficit-based approach to change. Answering unproductive questions is like watering the weeds instead of the grass. All you can ever do is pull the weeds with one hand and tip the watering can with the other. Is it any wonder that ministry is so frustrating in this framework?

Productive questions fall into the category of “What’s right with our congregation?” These questions are always looking for the root causes of congregational success. These questions work on an unknown rule of congregational life – Build on the strengths and what’s wrong often takes care of itself.

This is an asset-based approach to change. Answering productive questions is like watering the grass instead of the weeds. The grass grows and gradually chokes out the weeds. The weeds never go away, but they are less and less of an eyesore. Ministry is much more fun in this setting.

Unproductive questions assume that congregations are problems that require fixing. Productive questions assume that congregations are God’s answer to problems in the communities we serve. Unproductive questions focus on weaknesses, deficits, and scarcity. Productive questions focus on strengths, gifts, and abundance. Focusing on weaknesses, deficits, and scarcity deforms congregations. Focusing on strengths, gifts, and abundance transforms congregations.

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Here are some activities for reflection and discussion:

1. What are the three most persistently asked questions in your congregation? Are those questions “depreciative” or “appreciative”?

2. Think about how many positive and how many negative stories you have heard and/or told about your congregation in the last month. What is the ratio of positive to negative stories in that time?

3. Tell yourself or someone else a story about a time when you experienced your congregation at its best. What is one way your congregation could get more of that?

4. Is it popular to be positive in your congregation (be honest!)? Why or why not?

5. Meditate on this text and what it means for your congregation’s ministry and mission.

“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21 NRSV)