Of Rollercoasters and Tilt-A-Whirls

By Wren Bellavance-Grace


September is County Fair season in much of New England. In our UU congregations, September is alsoIngathering time; water communion time; returning-to-church-time after far-flung summers laden with small jars of water from our travels and foot-long zucchinis from overflowing gardens.

But this year, like last year, will likely look much different from the water communions of years gone by.

We are getting used to this. We are getting tired of this.

Among professionals who work with intentional planning for change, there is something called the Roller Coaster of Change. It’s a visual way to describe how humans respond to unexpected change, in order to help us learn how to manage our natural responses, as well as manage the pace of change that is in our control. Imagine being at the top of the first big hill of a roller coaster that you just chugged up, slowly but surely. Suddenly, your direction changes radically. This unexpected change plunges you into emotional responses - shock, grief, anger, anxiety, disorientation, longing for the past, guilt, loss, detachment. When we all suddenly closed our church doors in March 2020, you may have felt some of these, perhaps in succession; perhaps multiples of them at once!

Then, just as we hit the bottom of that hill, we reach the Perseverance Point. This is that moment where we come to accept that we are in a new place, and decide if we are going to hang in there. We make adjustments in our practices and in our expectations. And we start climbing up that next rollercoaster hill. We are taking back our agency over things we can control, responding positively, seeking out good information, developing new habits, reattaching to our communities of hope.

It’s a tried and true, predictable model of how we handle change. And we have been through a roller coaster ride, haven’t we?

Or have we?

In a recent gathering of Religious Educators, a colleague offered, ‘Forget the rollercoaster - this has been the Tilt-A-Whirl of change!’ If you’re not a Fair ride enthusiast, you may not know that in a Tilt-A-Whirl, you are locked into a small pod that spins back and forth and around, sometimes slow, sometimes fast. That pod is on a track that loops you around, careening alternately toward and away from other spinning pods. The track also goes up and down, like a mini-roller coaster. In short, you are spinning up and down, side to side, and around in circles all at the same time. Maybe that is a better analogy for this Covid-19 + Delta pandemic time.

We approach September in our congregations with members and friends who are at different spots on the Tilt-A-Whirl. Some remain in the dips of fear and anxiety as they prepare to send children back to school in person before they can access vaccinations. Some are atop a peak of hope that the worst is behind us and with careful planning it is safe to get back to a real semblance of normal.

We are still not at the “new normal.” On the day I am writing this, according to the Covid Act Now website, most of New England is in the High Risk category; Rhode Island is at Very High Risk for new Covid transmissions. Now is the time we really need the comfort and companionship of our beloved faith communities. How can we keep the connections we need with so much evidence that we are not free of the risks Covid-19 and the much more contagious Delta variant?

We, your New England Region staff team, have been leaning hard into the spiritual leadership practice of Faithful Risking - right alongside all of you! To quote my colleague Hilary Allen from the fall of last year, “{We know} we can do hard things—because we are already doing them. We can innovate—because we are already innovating. We can take faithful risks—because we are already faithfully risking.”

Faithful Risking means choosing to take action even though the outcome is uncertain and things may not go as we intend or plan. In our current reality, it means approaching September prepared to either gather outdoors in person - or not. It means asking whether we invite our people to gather at all in a High Risk place and time. If we do, how do we do so centering the core values our President Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray articulates as:

  • rooting ourselves in the values of inclusion and consent;
  • following the science;
  • going slow and staying flexible; and
  • being humane and realistic in expectations of ourselves, our staff, and each other.

Returning to the Roller Coaster theory, some say that with each successive dip of despair, we may descend to a deeper slump. I think that’s probably true. We - collectively - are so tired.

I think it’s probably also true that like the Tilt-A-Whirl, we are probably not all in the same place in this up-down-side-to-side-spinning ride. We need our communities of hope - we are each others’ communities of hope! Wherever you are on your Tilt-A-Whirl track, it’s exactly the right time to reach out.

Reach out to your church friends in other spinning pods - ask how they are doing; share how you are doing.

Leaders, reach out to leaders in neighboring communities, spinning in their own pods - are your plans for regathering - or not - in alignment? How are you deciding?

Reach out to us, your regional staff team for guidance, for support, for discernment, for commiseration. It’s another September unlike any other. While it is not the clear-sailing September we hoped for, we are still together on this wild ride, the ups of it, and the downs of it. We will get through all of it, if we remember we have all that we need: each other.

Invitation to Practice

As we prepare for more months of Covid-related uncertainty, some of us worry about volunteers leaving their committee posts. We worry that “the work” will not be done, even when the shape and scope of that work is changing. Readjusting our expectations is an important strategy for thriving right now. How can we reduce pressure on committees to perform tasks that might be nice to have done, but not essential to our core mission of caring for each other and maintaining our connections? Can we invite our committees to meet less frequently? Extend both deadlines and grace?

For our members and friends leaving their volunteer positions: we do not want you to feel guilt or regret. Leaders and staff, consider creating a ritual of gratitude to celebrate each individual’s decision to care for themselves by releasing a commitment. By caring for themselves in this way, they also care for their community of faith. Let us offer affirmation and support for each other as we navigate how we can remain healthy, safe, and connected.

About the Author

Wren Bellavance-Grace

Wren works with the New England Region team to support congregations across New England with particular experience in Safer Congregations, faith formation, and spiritual leadership.


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