When We Pause

By Wren Bellavance-Grace

scrabble pieces reading PAUSE BREATHE RESUME

Leadership in our dominant culture tends to evoke images of politicians inspiring crowds with fiery speeches, or breathless heroes leading the charge. But church leadership isn’t a political campaign or an action movie.

Many of us engage in church life through meetings — of boards, committees, covenant and support groups. To paraphrase an old saying, wherever two or more are gathered, there are meetings! And there are differences of opinion; values in tension with each other; heated emotions that deepen conflict.

And where there are meetings, there are opportunities to engage in the practice of spiritual leadership that we call Doing Our Inner Work.

NER staff have heard from many congregations across New England where anxiety is high. There's a lot to worry about: the health and safety of our children, our parents, the elders in our church we haven’t seen for three years. We worry about when (or whether) families will come back to worship, and about how we can stretch our budget to heat the building.

Worries, like pennies in our pockets, add to the weight we are carrying. The more the weight, the less capacity we have to carry even one more thing. This can manifest in a lack of patience, and lower trust between and among us. It can lead us to react, instead of respond. It can cause us to dig in, instead of lean in and listen. All of these are common human responses.

This month, we want to share a practice of Doing Our Inner Work that we have used on the New England Region team. Maybe you’ll find it useful in your church community or in your workplace. It’s also a practice you can teach children. It’s never too early to begin claiming one’s spiritual leadership!

We call it Practicing Pause. Here’s how it works:

Calling PauseWe sometimes reach frustration in team meetings. Perhaps someone has used a word or phrase that has caused harm (a microaggression, for example). As individuals, we respond: some get louder, others stop talking. Some get defensive, or feel attacked. We feel stuck in a downward spiral and can’t find our way back. Something happened that threatens to break our trust in each other and in our team. At any point when one of us notices they are activated, that person calls Pause. We then move away from the agenda, because our relationships and our team covenant are more important. We turn to our team covenant, and each of us names a word or phrase there we want to invoke to guide us through the rest of the process.

PausingThe meeting stops for five minutes. On Zoom, we turn off our cameras (in person, we might go to different rooms, or take a brief walk outside). We use the pause times to reflect on our covenant, or what happened in our meeting, or simply to breathe, meditate, regulate our bodies and spirits.

ReturningWhen we return, the person who called Pause asks one of us to serve as Process Holder to facilitate. That person invites us to proceed with open hearts and curiosity. Then the person who called the pause describes, with specificity, what happened for them.

Pause againRather than respond immediately, the Process Holder invites us to another 5 minutes of reflection. We don’t want to argue with the Pause Caller’s experience or become defensive. We want to manage our reactivity as we absorb what we’ve just heard. We ask ourselves, what happened? Is there work for me to do? Is there a cultural divide happening? What is it? How is it manifesting?

Listen and LearnWe ask questions we need for clarity. We listen with open hearts. We share our own experiences. We acknowledge there may need to be one-to-one conversations beyond this group time for repair. We wonder what a way forward may look like. Anyone may offer an idea we might try to respond to what happened.

Closing the PauseThe Process Holder takes the temperature to gauge when the team might be ready to close the Pause process. We might be able to return to the agenda, with gratitude for the trust that has allowed us to listen deeply and share fully. If we aren’t, we make arrangements for urgent agenda items to be tended to, and postpone non-urgent items. We make a plan to return to our unfinished work.

Yes, it means we need to hold our agendas with a lot of flexibility. Yes, it means taking the faithful risk to bring our whole, vulnerable selves to our work. Talk about counter cultural! It also requires us to believe that tending our relationships, tending to our team, trending to our trust in each other is our work, every bit as much as the items on our monthly agenda.

How might you experiment with or adapt this practice?

What other ways do you use to tend to your inner work? Let us know! We love to hear stories about how you are engaging your spiritual leadership in your congregation

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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