If you’re a congregational leader, you may be wondering why you can’t do anything right and it seems like someone is always angry with you right now. It’s not you. You’re not alone. And you’re not alone in feeling the burden when you’ve been working so hard to support your congregation and you’re also hurting and exhausted.
As we enter the twenty first month of this pandemic, I am noticing new levels of frayed nerves and congregational tension. We are all exhausted and doing our absolute best. And, each of our families has more needs than the rest of can fill. We need more connection, more normalcy, more joy, more singing, more togetherness, more rest. More childcare, more help, more support.
Anger usually covers other emotions and unmet needs. There are many reasons to be angry! Angry at all the failures of local, state, and national government to manage this pandemic. Angry at the continued overburdening and traumatizing of our nurses, doctors, and health care providers. Angry that those who could protect themselves by being vaccinated but are not. Angry that exhausted and traumatized teachers are being asked to pretend like everything is cheerfully normal and “recovering” kids’ academic performance is the most important thing. Angry at being forced back to the office in ways that don’t feel good or safe. Angry at groups who decide it’s now okay to take off masks when we or our families are still at risk. Angry about every cold or flu-like exposure that keeps our children home from school and day care while we wait for PCR test results. Angry at how bone deep exhausted we are, especially parents, and how little help there is for us. Angry that capitalism and racism and climate change chugs on wreaking yet more havoc and trauma.
Most of us feel powerless with this anger. We don’t know what to do with it or how to make a difference. But we do feel like we can be heard and make a difference in our congregations. We feel safe enough to say what we want and to express our feelings. And the presence of our unmet needs for connection, care, and normalcy in a place where we most expect nurture and care can feel untenable for some of our congregants. And so they’re lashing out at you, their leaders.
So they’re mad at you, their leaders who have worked so hard to keep the congregation together, to find connection through small group ministry and outdoor worship while trying to figure out the technology for multi-platform worship and analyze air exchange rates. You who are trying so hard to balance the needs of so many, including those with compromised immune systems and families with children, while trying to limit the impact on hospitals and schools. All while living through this pandemic in your lives with your families.
Yes, people are mad that you aren’t doing exactly what they most need and want. That your congregation’s plan is not exactly the level of risk they are willing to take for their own health. That you cannot, perfectly, meet their needs.This is their trauma speaking. And they feel safe sharing, or even imploding, in their congregation, even at you.
It’s also a trauma response to try to pacify people who are angry. Or to disappear during this hard traumatic time. Or to act helpless: Many congregations have people angry at leadership but are unwilling to volunteer or take action even though multi-platform worship takes more volunteers than all in person or all online worship. Or are demanding that in person worship happen and then not attending when it does. (Most congregations having multi-platform worship are not filling the available seats).
There is no easy answer in this hard time. No easy way to meet everyone’s needs and dispel the anger. The answers might feel like they’re the same as they’ve been throughout the pandemic, but maybe even more now:
- Find easy, low effort ways to help people connect to each other. A playground meet up, drop in small group ministry, or short hike. (If you’re also attending, get someone you appreciate to also come so if no one else shows, you get someone to connect with.)
- Listen and empathize. Even if you can’t change anything.
- Recognize people’s trauma and realize it’s not about you.
- Steward your own energy: Do less and work less hard. Take a Sunday off. Do not make things complicated or have events that take too much time and effort.
- Play! Find joy. Laugh.
If your congregation is facing tense conversations do reach out to your primary contact. We’d like to support you and help your congregation find ways to have a process that lessens the chances of harming each other.
There is hope on the horizon. We will come through this long Delta surge. Children are being vaccinated. Vaccines for the youngest are coming. In the meantime, everything we can do to not harm each other out of our pain will help us come out of this stronger than if we wound each other more now.
To that end, for you as a leader, I want to offer some sustenance and care for your anger:
Foothills Congregation in Fort Collins Colorado did a series on rage and anger earlier this fall. You can listen to their podcast beginning with the first in this series featuring Rev. Karen Hutt on rage, grief, goodness, and being human and experience a meditation on connecting to your anger led by Rev. Sean Neil-Barron. If it’s good for you, there are several more podcast episodes continuing this theme.