Remember the classic Dr Seuss book, Oh the Places You’ll Go? Arguably the most quoted text at High School graduations and a favorite baby shower gift? Ultimately inspirational, it paints a seussical story of both the ups and down, trials and tribulations involved with becoming who we are meant to be. And there’s this place right in the middle of the book that is feeling very familiar right now in congregational life. The Waiting Place.
. . . for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
Or a bus to come, or a plane to go
Or the mail to come, or the rain to go
Or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
Or waiting around for a Yes or No
Or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.
First we were waiting for a vaccine. Now we’re waiting to see how effective it will be in the long term. Waiting for numbers to go down in our county. Waiting to be back together again. Waiting for families to feel safe enough to prioritize church again. Waiting tests to be widely available to everyone. Waiting for life to be normal again. . . It’s really easy to feel stuck these days, like we just can’t make decisions. Or even worse, like we’re making decisions and the next week they don’t make any sense.
Even as I write this, on March 7th, 2022 it feels like we’re turning a corner. Like maybe we’re moving in a positive direction. It’s hard to remember that just last month we were canceling conferences and plans we made last year, during a similarly optimistic period. We keep hearing the cautions - we’re not out of the woods yet, a new variant could set us back again, the most vulnerable of us are still in danger. . . But spring, the most hopeful season of all, is right around the corner, and we’re so very ready to be together. Of course our congregations and communities are looking to start up in a more “normal” way, and the words “strategic plan” and “visioning” are being whispered.
In my previous blog post A Garden Story I used a garden metaphor to help process what our communities have gone through over these last two years. I used this illustration to describe this liminal “between” time that we’re in.
And now I want to talk about that little path to the right. You know in a park when there is an area that is recovering from a natural disaster or just needs to rest, how they will cordon off the area and put up a sign to direct you to a different path? Well that’s what I think our gardens (read: congregations/communities) need right now. We want to start planting in our main garden, we’re anxious to get “back to normal”, to start our programs back and gain ground that we’ve lost. But we are changed, our communities are changed, the same formulas and landscaping we used prior to the pandemic are not necessarily going to work now. It’s going to take time, patience and experimenting to learn how to create these new gardens we’re dreaming about. We’re just not ready to pour concrete and plant trees yet!
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t important work to do in the liminal. Enter the Liminal Action Plan, or LAP. A LAP is something you do before the main event, to warm up, to keep moving, to not become stagnant. It only requires some of your energy, because if you give it your all, you’ll be too tired and burnt out when the time comes to landscape the main garden. During a LAP it’s important to recover and mentally prepare yourself for the job ahead. It’s also a time to visualize what you want to create and prepare yourself by learning new skills, dusting off old ones and practice, practice, practice.
A good LAP is
- Temporary - be clear about what is only a stop gap measure and what, with success and interest might be transplanted into the new landscape. Being temporary allows us to experi-fail and learn.
- Trauma and grief informed - at every shift of the way remember we’re still in the midst of a traumatic experience and people interpret and deal with trauma and grief in different ways. Remember that paid staff in a community are just as affected by pandemic trauma and grief as members and volunteers.
- Responsive - ask, listen, let go of assumptions of what you think people need or want. Don’t do work no one asked for just because you think you should.
- Relational - value people’s relationships and how they show up, over protocol, schedules and historical systems.
- Playful - play is an underestimated part of healing, recovery and relationship building. Find ways to play. It’s okay to do activities or events whose only purpose is to be fun and lighthearted.
- Efficient - I don’t mean succinct, I mean energy is not wasted and a little bit of effort is made to go a long way. Volunteer and staff time should be time spent for a purpose (even if that purpose is play) not performance.
- Shared - ideate together, share work, do not expect the same volunteers or staff who have been holding it all together to keep doing so; ask for help, offer help, everyone can pitch in; always offer gratitude.
- Forgiving - things will not always work out the way we imagine, we will not always show up the way we want, and yet we can be gentle with ourselves and each other, we can adapt when needed and we can always keep lookout for new possibilities.
What if we saw this time between active crisis mode (i.e. March 2020) and whatever landscape our congregational life will become, as a gift? As a time to slow down, assess, process our trauma and grief, and do the necessary healing to be the healthy, vibrant and life affirming beacons of Unitarian Universalism we envision our congregations to be? What if the theology of liminal time was about connection, play, healing and forgiveness?