When Big Feelings Come to Church

By Erica Baron

eggs in carton with different facial expressions

There are lots of things in congregational life that can cause big feelings. In a recent webinar, we asked participants to name some of these things, and they did! Technology, finances, music choices, covid policy, revising the bylaws, experiencing racism, anti-racism concepts and work, any kind of change… Finally, one person said, “EVERYTHING!”

Right, everything! Everything we do together in our congregations has the potential to bring on big feelings.

In UU congregations and communities, we often talk about these big feelings as “reactivity.” So we might say that a given person is “reactive” if they have a lot of visible big feelings about things. We might even imagine a whole congregation “reactive” if visible big feelings are a common occurrence in congregational discussions.

Julica Hermann de la Fuente, Meck Groot and I have been working to build a different approach to our big congregational feelings. We believe it’s more helpful to frame this as “activation,” specifically the activation of the nervous system of our bodies.

When we encounter something that feels threatening, our nervous systems activate to protect us through fighting, running away, being super still, or appeasing whoever has power. These four reactions are often called fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. Our bodies get activated in this way for genuine threats to our physical safety, but also for all sorts of other things that feel threatening. Things like change in the congregation’s worship style, conversations about how we spend our budgets, changing the way we elect leaders in our congregation, and so many others.

Let’s look at some ways that labeling this “reactivity” differs from acknowledging “activation”:

Reactivity vs Activation Model
Reactivity Model Understanding Activation Model Understanding
reactivity is a moral choice - a failure of integrity, intelligence, or will power activation as an involuntary nervous system response - fight, flight, freeze
individual has to make themself non-reactive outside the congregation the congregation has a role in supporting people working with activation
assumes that a person can will themselves out of reactivity or be talked out of it working with activation requires physical and relational tools - not will or language alone
some people are reactive and others are not (or are dramatically less so) everyone gets activated; everyone can learn tools to support self and others through activation
there’s not really anything congregations can do except to accommodate or cast out reactive people congregations can use specific tools to support individuals and the community when activation is strong and to build capacity when it is not
invites the question: "What's wrong with you?" invites the question: "What happened to you?"

Within the activation model, we can offer each other the care and love that we promise in our congregational covenants, and in our first UU principle affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person.


A future post will talk about how we offer that care. In the meantime, if you’re curious to hear more about the link between the activation model and our UU theology and practice, check out this conversation that Julica and I had with Sean Parker Dennison, Alex Kapitan, and Ranwa Hammamy. You can choose a short version (13 minutes video on Google Drive) or the whole conversation, (40 minutes video on Google Drive).

About the Author

Erica Baron

Rev. Erica Baron joined the New England region staff in 2019, focusing on helping congregations live into their missions and develop their gifts for spiritual leadership. Before joining the Congregational Life staff, she served as parish minister for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the...

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