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.

References.

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

After the Disaster — Appreciative Inquiry and the Path to the Future

I am writing a little guidebook on Appreciative Inquiry and the Church during and after the Disaster of the Covid-19 Pandemic. This has been a challenging time for congregations and similar organizations. We have been unable to meet and worship face to face. We have been unable to teach and administer in ways we’re used to. We have been unable to visit the sick and homebound, to comfort the grieving, and host funerals in the ways we know are good for people. We have been unable to mark and celebrate the life transitions of birth, baptism, first communion, confirmation, graduations, weddings, and anniversaries in the ways we want. Our lives in congregations have been thoroughly disrupted.

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In the midst of the disruption, we have experienced tremendous organizational and personal resilience and even growth. In our culture, we are somewhat familiar with the idea and experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We have that experience through returning military personnel, survivors of relationship-based abuse, the traumas of white supremacy, male supremacy, heterosexual supremacy, and the maldistribution of wealth and resources in the population. We see the effects of PTSD in individuals and across generations.

Post-traumatic stress has been and is being studied in great depth and detail. We know much more than we did, and we have some modestly effective ways to deal with some of the symptoms of PTSD. In particular, the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been a boon to a number of sufferers of such distress.

On the other hand, many people who come through similar situations demonstrate great resilience and even significant growth as a result of the experience. We should be quick to say there is no fault or blame for those who struggle. PTSD is not a result of personal choice or moral failing. That antique perspective, which is still out and about in the culture, is mistaken, wrong, and destructive. In spite of the trauma, however, more than a few people come through the experience better, stronger, and more able to deal with the realities of daily life.

Until recently, few people were studying how that happens. These days the study of Post-traumatic growth is a real discipline in the world of positive psychology and positive organizational development. As we come out of the Disaster of the Covid-19 Pandemic, we can make choices about where we focus our attention and energy. That is especially true of churches.

I can’t help but think about Mary, the mother of our Lord, as I write. Today you will hear her story from Luke and wonder with her about the meaning of the words she heard. I would invite to think as well about how she came to flourish in spite of the utter disruption of her life and world. There may be some insights for us at this time in the church.

Let’s focus on the things we had to learn and learn quickly to get through this time. Many of us have learned a whole suite of skills related to the use of media in online settings. We have discovered a variety of platforms and packages, techniques and equipment, to make the best use of those settings. We have secured the equipment, set up the environments, trained the people, and created the audiences this reality requires.

What will we keep and grow from this learning?

We had to learn how to relate to one another and communicate with one another in different ways. Much of that was online. However, many people rediscovered the power of letter and note writing. Even introverts like me learned how to initiate conversations with people even if we didn’t have specific business to do with them.

We learned once again just how important it is to be in and connected to a faith community. We learned once again that there are no solo Christians. And we learned a lot about mute buttons and background activities. In fact, a whole new genre of comedy has arisen, based on the amazing things that happen in spite of our best online efforts!

What will we keep and grow from this learning?

We had to make significant changes in our congregational life quickly. I want to repeat that. we made significant changes quickly. We demonstrated that such change is not impeded by the capacity to change. Instead, what is needed is a demonstrated necessity for change and a willingness to make the change.

More than that, we have experienced the value of an experimental culture, where we tried things without knowing how they would turn out. If things didn’t work one way, we had to try another way, until we found a workable solution. We also learned that “good enough” is often good enough, and “perfect” is a luxury of the privileged.

What will we keep and grow from this learning?

We learned once again that “The Church” is more than our individual congregations. It has been a joy to be part of a number of worshipping communities over the last several months. That doesn’t motivate me to abandon ship and join another community. It does remind me that other folks are out there, part of the great cloud of witnesses.

And it does all me to see a variety of solutions to a common set of problems. We have seen the wisdom of the crowd applied to the situation of the church, and many of those solutions have been nothing short of ingenious.

This time has made it possible for me to reconnect with pastoral colleagues and to see them in action in their ministry settings. I am often skeptical and cynical about the institutional Church and the future of the ELCA.

That jaundiced view, however, is tempered every week by the amazing work of congregational leaders in our churches. I think that many of our pastors and other leaders are preaching some of the best messages of their lives under tough conditions. I feel privileged to be able to some of them in weekly. They are exercising some of the best leadership skills of their ministries. We will see the fruits of this work in the months and years to come.

What will we keep and grow from this learning?

We learned that our people are generous with their time, talents, and treasures, even when we can’t gather face to face. The amount of serving that has happened under duress is remarkable and beautiful. The ways that people have found to organize themselves in study groups, serving groups, support groups, and fun groups, has been wonderful to observe.

The variety of platforms for congregational giving is astonishing, and people have adapted to the variety. About three-quarters of the congregations I know have experienced stable or increased financial giving during this crisis.

What will we keep and grow from this learning?

I have no idea what the answer to that question is for any particular congregation or denomination. But I do know that now is the time to ask that question with focus and intention. It will be some months yet (but no more, please God) before we can return to something approximating “normal.” So we have time now to reflect on this question and start to make some plans. We have the opportunity to go forward rather than merely trying to recapture a “normal” which shall never come again.

The question is an appreciative one. It focuses on how we can build on and build out from what we have experienced. I think that Appreciative Inquiry is well-suited as a technique and worldview for such a time as this in the Church. That’s why I’m putting this little book together now.

If you’re interested in discussing the question and ways to discern answers in your setting, please feel free to let me know. I’d like to be a useful resource for congregations and congregational leaders who want to proactively ask and answer that question.

What will we keep and grow from this learning? Thanks to all of you are who part of this astonishing “natural experiment.” Nothing is too wonderful for God.