Sticks & Stones

By Wren Bellavance-Grace

stressed light skinned woman looking at computer screen

“I will not sink to your barbaric behavior.” I was ten; my sister was six. I knew more multisyllabic words than she did and she leapt at me with her little fists. I just sat there until mom arrived and punished her for hitting. Of course I loved my sister, but I’d already learned that words can be weapons.

There’s a dangerous trend sweeping through congregations. Maybe it’s political polarization. Or the scarcity of resources. Maybe anxiety about our post-pandemic future - whenever that will be. Likely it’s a confluence of all of these, plus the dopamine rush we get when posting to social media and watching the “likes” roll in. As leaders in your congregation, maybe you’ve also seen an increase in weaponized words.

Regrettably, I’ve been on both the sending and receiving end of this phenomenon. Years ago, my church board decided to halt a favorite spring tradition, wherein helium balloons were tied to the backs of random pews. Children and adults pulled on the strings, the colorful orbs bobbing throughout Sunday worship. One year the board made the decision to end it. They cited the danger of broken balloon scraps to wildlife and latex allergies. I had some feelings. I became activated. I had one thought: How can I make them keep the Balloon Service?

I became a blowhard. And Oh, did I blow! I talked to other parents - didn’t their kids love the Balloon Service?? Yes, they did! My family and friends loved Balloon Sunday. “Many people are against this plan,” went into my letter to the board. “People will leave the church over this!” I warned. A board member caught me in the hall to tell me that someone in the church with a latex allergy prompted their decision on the Balloon Service. But I had an answer: Mylar balloons. And that person could just be sure to only touch the string, not the balloon! I cringe admitting to thinking this; I grieve that I said it aloud. I centered my preference over someone else’s safety. I forgot the religious mandate to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” to center the needs of community over personal preferences. It was divisive. It undermined trust in my church’s elected leadership.

I got my way - sort of. Balloon Service was reinstated with mylar balloons that year, and maybe the next, but the board had been right. That tradition, beloved as it was, no longer served.

Soon after I was elected to the board myself, and experienced how easy it is to weaponize words from the receiving side.

How is it in your church today? Is someone blowing hard? We hear from leaders like you feeling a lack of trust in their leadership. Accusatory emails are increasingly angry and copied to would-be supporters to gin up outrage. Horrible accusations of conspiracy fly through social media. It’s a reflection of much that ails our wider culture.

We don’t know exactly what leadership through this kind of crisis in Faith looks like, but we know it calls for strong boundaries. Leaders can model ways to redirect triangulated communication. (This video is a great tool to share with committee chairs, too!)

Our people are not immune to the ambient anxiety and cultural polarization while we are feeling our way back into the habit of church. We long for things to feel familiar, but the change is obvious. There are empty pews; volunteer tasks left undone. It’s scary.

So we hear veiled threats—“people are saying….,” “withdrawing pledges…,” and “splitting our church!” Weaponized words conjure armies of disaffected congregants ready to overthrow their leaders. Threats can work because we do fear the loss of pledges and people; but fear is not a good grounding for decisions. Fear is an unfaithful weapon to wield against elected leaders, an unsteady grounding for faithful decisions, and a rejection of our fifth principle.

These are hard times for faithful, differentiated leaders.It is hard to maintain covenantal communication. You’ll be forgiven if sometimes you too fall into the fear and anxiety you feel around you. We invite you to engage the practice of doing your own inner work to bring you back to your spirit’s core values. Breathe through the anxiety. Discern what is in your power to change and what is not; from there to determine how your leadership team will navigate the way between your power and your powerlessness.

High anxiety blowing hard through your community may carry the day, at the risk of leaving behind devastation in our spiritual lives like a hurricane. But the trajectory of our shared faith is longer and deeper and wider. It will survive this awful moment. And we can too, if we remember why this faith matters to us; why we have loved our church home and each other. Turn to each other and the members who remain faithful, patient, and kind. Turn to your neighbors in faith to strengthen your spirit, and offer your balm to them. Turn to us for witness, for support, for commiseration, for consultation, for coaching through these strange hard days. We are in them together.

Spiritual Leadership

Here are more blog posts we offer to strengthen your practice of inner work, and other practices of Spiritual Leadership for this time.

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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