Right, Left, and Center
Recently, I gathered around our dining room table with my daughter and her 7-year-old to play a game of Right, Left, and Center. It’s a portable game involving dice and chips that get shifted to the right, left, or into a center pot. As bedtime neared, we packed the dice into their box and my daughter handed it to her child, asking her to bring it to the spot in the living room where they keep their games.
You might have thought this was as impossible a task as climbing Mt. Washington barefoot.
“Mommmmm! Can’t you do it??”
“No, I put it all in the box. You go put it on the shelf please.”
If you’ve ever had an overtired 7-year-old -- or been one -- you can imagine the dramatic cascade of cajoling that followed.
But why do I have to do it?
It’s so far!
It’s dark in there!
I don’t know where it goes!
I’m too tired!
I was about to stand up and put it away myself, but my daughter’s words kept me planted in my seat. She responded with well-practiced calm, “Hey now, when you talk to me with that voice, it’s not polite. Can you take a deep breath please? Good. I’d like you to talk to me nicely, like I’m talking to you, okay?”
“Sorry, Mama,” she said, the drama visibly draining from her little body.
It turns out, she was afraid her mom and I would do something fun without her in the thirty seconds it would take her to get to the living room and back. It wasn’t about it being dark in the living room, or being overworked, or feeling too tired (well, it might have partially been too tired). I think the real reason for her upset may have been news to her as well as to us. She needed that moment of breathing - of centering - to understand the source of her anxiety.
Here on the New England Region staff team, we have been fielding many calls from church leaders who are trying to manage anxiety-fueled communication in their congregations. We hear stories of members making angry phone calls, or recruiting friends to sign petitions, or sending emails demanding actions from their boards or church staff that are cc’d to a broad swath of church members and friends. Our world is polarized, seemingly full of anger, distrust, and fear, and our congregations live and breathe in that same toxic atmosphere.
I don’t think it’s coincidental that these anxious communications are accelerating this spring as we collectively navigate our way back to in-person church after two long years of covid disconnection. Some of us feel like we are rushing back in person too soon. Some of us think we’ve waited too long already, let’s go, go, go!! Most of us are worried about our congregation’s future.
What about the pledge drive?
Where are all the children?
It’s dark out there, and we’re so tired!
When I feel compelled to act with urgency, I know it’s probably time for me to stop, breathe, and center myself. What is the source of my urgency? Is it grounded in reality? How can I check?
This is part of the practice of doing my inner work.
My daughter didn’t know it, but this was a practice she was encouraging her child to do. And it had the effect of helping her move from a place of reactivity to greater self-understanding and resilience. Truly, the gifts of spiritual leadership are available to all of us, regardless of age or social status. It’s never too late - or too early - to include these practices in our lives.
We are all tired, beyond tired, really. So let’s remember to take a good deep breath, and before we pick up the phone or hit send on that email, let’s slow down, and have faith. Faith in the people we have elected and hired to act in the best interest of our whole church family. Let’s remember that being together in a faith community means taking seriously how we show up in collective spaces - including cyberspaces. Let’s be aware of when our egos try to trick us into doubting the intentions and motives of our church leaders. Let’s bring more curiosity and fewer accusations when decisions are made that we disagree with or don’t understand.
And if you are on the receiving end of an email that’s critical of a board decision, take a deep breath. Chances are there is a fear standing behind what feels like criticism. We can’t be afraid to say to each other, when you communicate to me that way, it’s not nice; it makes me feel defensive. Can we both take a breath and try again?
We have to be brave enough to stop, breathe deeply, and find a way to try again.
It’s going to take us a while to build our resilience back, but we will get there. Along the way, inviting ourselves into a practice of doing our inner work will strengthen us individually, and will build our congregation’s capacity for resilience.