Welcome to 2023! Honestly, I just can’t believe it’s already a new year; I am still reeling from 2020! I’ve read so many articles on the collective exhaustion and burnout that we feel at this turn of the year, and I certainly have felt it in the past several months. It seems as if there is so much pressure to “get back to normal” and “make up for the lost time” of the past two and a half years without taking into account the fact that we are still experiencing serious trauma and grief. I know the anxiety we feel pushes us to “get on with it,” but the ways in which we used to operate aren’t going to work for us anymore. I need more time to gather resources before forging ahead; sometimes I want to cry out, “I’m not ready!”
Unitarian Universalists have often relied upon traditional community-building methods to strengthen bonds and grow membership. These traditional community building methods include building friendships and social networks, planning for a shared future, and working collaboratively to improve our communities. Each of these strategies has been markedly affected by the last three years and the trauma of the global pandemic.
First, we grow vital congregations by building friendships and social networks. Every community is as strong as the bonds between its members, and the deeper and longer these bonds are fostered, the stronger the net of the community is. When asked why people come to UU Churches, a strong majority of individuals will report that it is the community and the relationships that have grown there that keep them rooted in their home congregation. We also know, via Pew Research, that the number one predictor of converting youth members to emerging adult members and beyond is that each youth has a relationship with five individuals in the congregation who are not their parents. Again, it is relationships - friendships and social networks - which build and grow vital communities. Our connection to each other keeps us coming back. Congregations accomplish this task in a variety of ways: holiday parties, carnivals, lock-ins, community worship experiences, movie nights, small group ministry, potlucks, game nights, or any time people come together to meet and form relationships.
The global pandemic compounded trauma in our systems. The main hallmark of experiencing trauma is a lack of trust, which in turn erodes social cohesion. We simply don’t feel comfortable in public or shared spaces the way we did prior to our period of social distancing. Another marker of trauma is a decline in our ability to regulate our emotions. We are more prone to anger and more easily hurt. Our filters are down, and so we can more easily hurt others without knowing it. During the pandemic, relationships became critical to prevent feelings of isolation, depression, and fear. However, relationships are now more difficult because we simply don’t have a window of tolerance big enough to accommodate everyone’s pain right now. Our communities were not strong enough to provide resilience to the trauma we faced; it was just too great. Before the pandemic, we invited folks to our Sunday potlucks. We enjoyed each other’s company, we laughed, we commiserated. Lately, it seems as if people don’t show up, or they come for a short time and leave. It is more difficult to plan events, and the leaders who are extending the invitations feel distraught at the thought of putting forth the effort to plan a large event that few will show up for. This cycle, in turn, leads to our feelings of burnout, and the community bonds weaken and eventually collapse.
Second, we traditionally built community by planning for a shared future. We created visions and dreams for our congregations that included how we would be known and what our communities would look like. We spend time engaged in discernment about these statements not once, but about every seven years, or when the congregation turned over by about twenty percent, because we wanted to keep our visions current, relevant, and reflective of who we were and who we were becoming. Often we would engage in asset mapping, strategic planning, and needs assessments which would inform us about our position on our path. Our bonds with each other and our congregation were strengthened through dreaming together and building for the future. We felt connected to a shared past in the stories that we told and to a shared future we were building together.
Trauma clouds our vision. It uses exhaustion, hopelessness, and grief to prevent us from dreaming. We became unable to see a future together in the midst of all we were holding in the present. Sometimes, some of us wondered if trying to move forward and dream big was even worth it. The lack of security, reliability, and consistency that we were accustomed to in our congregational spaces was taken from us as, day to day, we struggled to follow the newest CDC guidelines or make the most informed decisions regarding the safety of our communities. Frankly, we became overwhelmed by life and the challenges brought to us by the pandemic, including, for some, income and housing insecurity, parenting and homeschooling issues, relationship crises, health issues, and death of loved ones. It is difficult to dream big when you can’t muster the energy to finish the day.
Finally, we build thriving UU communities through working collaboratively to bring about positive local change. We discerned together what our service was, our work, our mission. What was the purpose of us as a congregation? What did our community need that we were particularly positioned to provide? A little free pantry? A PFLAG gathering? An Allies for Racial Equality group? Public Forums that were important to the municipality? A volunteer base for the local women’s shelter? A community garden? Health and sexuality education for the whole community as an alternative to the school district’s abstinence-only program? A sanctuary for undocumented individuals or families? Each congregation, being the institutional incarnation of Unitarian Universalism locally, got to decide what their community needed, and then had the privilege of providing that service. We built strong bonds over the work that we did, side by side. We came together in the pride of making a real difference. We responded to human need and, in turn, were filled with the joy of spirit. We looked at each other and saw co-workers and co-conspirators. We knew we were not alone, and so we came to the place, again and again, so that we may create Beloved Community.
The trauma of the pandemic was destructive to this method of building community for two reasons. First, human need became so great that it seemed to overwhelm our efforts. We became paralyzed in our work because it seemed impossible to make a difference. With a lack of social capital built in our friendships and a lack of vision for the future which provides hope, succumbing to this overwhelm felt inevitable. Our own needs, both physical and emotional, grew and became unmanageable as well. We didn’t feel as if we could take care of ourselves some days; it was simply impossible to care for others. Second, this overwhelming feeling of human need leads to disempowerment and scarcity models within communities. We feel disempowered to lead, lost, adrift. We begin to fight over tiny amounts of money or become invested in the smallest of decisions in an effort to exercise control over anything at all. Combined, these two factors erode our communities and create holes in the center where once there was love, hope, and service.
So by now, you are probably closing this window, sighing heavily, and getting ready for a nap. But don’t wander in despair! We have a simple tool, an easy starting place, where we might begin to repair our communities and once again, slowly slowly, start to build out communities. And, yeah, it’s unconventional and weird, but at this point, what do we have to lose?
I propose that we begin very simply, easing into community building in the same way that I’ve built communities of youth who experienced trauma. When I was in graduate school, I worked at El Tesoro de la Vida, a grief camp for children and youth aged 7-17 who had experienced the loss of a parent. The way we started the week was a tested trauma therapy method called Parallel Play.
The basic principle of Parallel Play is to offer activities and experiences that individuals can participate in which are meaningful but not vulnerable, proximate but not interactive, and restful, not stressful. Many times, the directors of El Tesoro would use art, music, stories, or poetry as centerpieces of Parallel Play. In our congregational settings, we can use worship, ritual, and religious education as methods for Parallel Play as well. For example, a congregation can come together for an hour which may include a reading, a silent reflection, and a journaling exercise. There is no expectation that individuals acknowledge or interact with one another, making an experience very different from a co-creative worship experience. Perhaps a group has an art experience at the church, such as painting, drawing, sculpting, or making chalices. Again, there is clear instruction, and everyone is there to complete the activity at their own pace. There is no need to interact; the offerings create both an individual and community experience, thus opening the door for a relaxing, healing space free of the pressures of relationship.
As strange as it may seem, Parallel Play has many advantages. First, it is simply the beginning of post-traumatic relationship building. Certainly, once a community begins to relax into a space and trust that they can be whoever they are at this moment in it, interactions will begin to occur and relationships will be built naturally. The “weirdness” of Parallel Play actually adds to the feeling of comradery that those experiencing it feel, making it easier to bond over it. Second, it is easy to offer Parallel Play activities in a hybrid fashion, using both in-person and online options. This helps to expand your community and create a sense of shared space and experience, which in turn fosters relationships. Third, Parallel Play offers a space of trauma recovery that is desperately needed right now. It slows down our systems and interrupts the fast-paced, “get back to normal” oppression that is causing so much burn-out right now. It gives us permission to create community in this reality, responsive to the trauma we have experienced, and rejecting the notion that we have to move four times as fast or “make up for lost time.”
Over the next several months, I will be creating a set of trauma-informed activities for congregations wishing to focus on building what is new and next. This set of activities will begin with some Parallel Play activities that I hope will be helpful in what comes next for your congregation. In the meantime, if you’d like to discuss using Parallel Play in your congregation, with your Board or Staff Teams, or with any group in your congregation, feel free to contact me!