From Powerlessness to Promise

By Joe Sullivan

happy new year

I imagine you, too, saw the unique holiday cards from the incomparable year just completed with messages like “Just say no to 2020,” “OH OH OH,” and “Merry Christmas from a distance.” Just some of the G-rated messages. We might as well laugh. Humor can be one of our more benign coping mechanisms when we find ourselves in powerless situations; when we’re at our wits’ end in situations way beyond our control. 2020 was all of that for all of us. Bringing lightheartedness has at least helped us somewhat cope.

Your UUA New England Region (NER) staff team talks about Spiritual Leadership as an orientation towards one’s deepest values wherein the person, group, or congregation navigates between their power and powerlessness to advance a vision of Beloved Community. Like you, we faced last spring with unprecedented uncertainty about what lay ahead for congregations, we weren’t certain what to do, what kinds of support would work, what answers to offer. But we knew that we could stay present for you. We could listen and observe and share what we see. So rather than proceed with planned workshops we’ve asked questions about how and what congregations are doing -- gathering with small groups of leaders or with individual leaders -- and have listened to your experiences.

Here is some of what we have observed from you during this trying year:

Needless to say everyone has felt exhausted at points throughout the year by uncertainties of this time, by widespread anxieties of human suffering and change, by having to learn and participate through new technologies, and by burdens of producing worship and programs in unfamiliar ways. You miss once familiar faces that are not showing up for online worship (or at least not at the time that you show up). You notice these impacts borne disproportionately by some among the elderly and by families with young children exhausted from Zoom fatigue. You grieve for those you’ve lost with a special grief compounded by not being able to gather for ritual celebrations of lives. You grieve and grieve more in missing that which was once familiar and cherished.

And, yet our staff team and many of you have observed that in facing sudden harsh realities and unavoidable change, people exhibited adaptability, resilience, creativity, and willingness to do new things. Some congregational leaders have reported receiving appreciation and increased trust as they’ve made hard decisions and taken necessary and seemingly risky action.

You have expressed financial concerns for families, where someone has lost work or income, and for your congregations. Some congregations feel they are at the existential edge. Even so, a few of you have pondered with us the seeming polarity of pervasive financial worry and unexpectedly high levels of generosity -- including some annual pledge drives yielding more than in recent years.

You noted that even as some people are missing, others -- former and distant members as well as new folx from afar -- are showing up. Some are showing up because of greater accessibility afforded by online participation. You’ve learned ways to touch more souls.

Some leaders have expressed relief in unburdening themselves of long-range plans and planning while focusing on the essentials of congregational life (shared worship, interpersonal care and connection) in the here and now -- recognizing the real difference church is making in lives.

We’ve observed and heard reported high energy and activity for outward service in response to pandemic-heightened social struggles (i.e. food insecurity), racial incidents and ongoing disparities, and political tensions. Some examples from our congregations are shared by our team in a recent blog post. People are living their faith and their congregation’s mission.

Powerless to halt the pandemic, congregations and their people have recognized power they have always had to change and find new ways to help those in need, to connect, and to advance causes for justice. I hope you are realizing that you have what it takes (and always have) to navigate between the whims of fate and your inherent and cultivated power in order to live your deepest values.

As we all look toward a more promising New Year, know that our access to the Holy is not determined by forces beyond our control. Resolve to grow and reinforce your power through practices of Spiritual Leadership. Your NER team promises to continue listening, observing, discerning, sharing, and supporting. We look forward to hearing from you.

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About the Author

Joe Sullivan

Joe works with churches of all sizes on a range of congregational life matters with a special interest in helping congregational boards be more faith-filled, mission-focused, and accountable in their practices. Joe joined the UUA staff in 2012 as District Executive for the former Northern New...


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