April 22 – Navigating these Waters – Dr. Bruce Cochran

Navigating These Waters


Rev. Dr. Bruce Cochran, Region Minister

These are unusual times.  No argument there.  We hear much about getting back to normal, but what does that mean?  On one hand, we desperately feel the urge to move away from the present situation and get on to something else.  On the other hand, we have a nagging feeling that what we move into will be a different world.

Maybe we should pause and take inventory of just what we are going through.

Gnawing questions such as this are the topics pastors from across the ABCINKY region are considering in our weekly Zoom calls.  We schedule these calls to help us discern how to lead during, and beyond, this season of lockdown.   This past week, Dr. Steve Ivy, Adjunct Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, led discussions related to clergy self-care and congregational care.  He shared a brief assessment of the current situation from a pastoral point of view and pointed out that these are times of loss, anxiety and trauma.  Let’s take a few moments to unpack the meaning of his comments.

First, this is a time of loss.  To varying degrees, everyone is experiencing loss; loss of jobs, loss of relationships, loss of money, loss of freedom, and of course, loss from death.  At this point, it feels there is no end to the loss the Covid-19 virus exacts from us.  Loss does not stand alone in human experience, for whenever loss stomps into our lives, so grief comes tumbling after.

Second, this is a time of anxiety.  The anxiety we experience these days is due to the uncertainty of this moment. Even those we turn to for answers are scratching their heads.  Consider this comment from an expert the other day regarding the lingering presence of the virus when a person walks down the street:  “Some of our research suggests the virus might remain for as long as 48 hours.”  Did you catch the uncertainty:  “Some …  suggests … might.”  This is not meant to be a criticism of the great minds working on this problem.  They are doing the best they can and are only being honest about what is or is not known, but this highlights the uncertainty with which we wrestle.  If the experts are bewildered, where does that leave the rest of us? You got it, and this uncertainty doesn’t stand alone, for whenever uncertainty creeps into our consciousness, then anxiety comes tumbling after.

Because of the loss and grief, and the uncertainty and anxiety, this is a time of trauma.  Trauma “is the response to a deeply distressing or disturbing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feelings of helplessness, diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel the full range of emotions and experiences.”[1]  People are understandably distressed and struggling to cope with the mounting challenges, especially those families who are under dire financial strain or who are wading through a malaise of grief and fear over health concerns.   As harmful as a traumatic experience may be, even more dangerous are the physical, emotional and relational consequences that frequently follow in the wake of trauma that lead to abuse, suicide, depression and drug abuse.

 

Dr. Ivy challenged us with an important feature of this season.  He indicated that everyone encounters loss.  No one gets through life without loss and the corresponding grief.  Likewise, everyone encounters uncertainty and the consequential anxiety which accompanies it.  Grief and anxiety are part of life.  Furthermore, to varying degrees, everyone experiences times when they are overwhelmed to the point where coping mechanisms are stretched or even broken.  Yet this is a unique period because the Covid-19 virus presents these challenges to the entire population.  This is a time of wide grief, anxiety and trauma.

What is the concrete, faithful response to these challenges?  While it may be tempting to withdraw or pretend the challenge doesn’t exist and seek to conduct business as usual, Dr. Ivy reminded us that the church plays a vital role in helping individuals, families, and society recover from crises.

How can you and your congregation be the salt and light in days of lockdown and recovery?  Overall, the church is called to sow, nurture and stimulate hope.  Distressing situations tend to overwhelm our sense of the bigger picture.  The following are some suggestions which have surfaced from our discussions and other research:

  1. Be sure to connect with others. This is not only important for the members and friends in the congregation, but for neighbors.  Being secluded in our homes has helped us see how important relationships are.
  2. Invite people to process their experience by verbalizing their feelings. This can happen in dialogue, but also through prayer and journaling.  Encourage people to go beyond the shallow “I’m fine” greeting and provide a listening ear to what’s happening inside.
  3. Within the congregation, celebrate and affirm efforts to make adaptive change. Everyone realizes this is a time of learning new ways of doing things.  Suddenly, “change” isn’t treated like the dirty little word we once thought it was.  It takes courage to make changes, and so allow and encourage an atmosphere of experimentation, and praise people for their efforts whether successful or not.
  4. Revisit and reframe the important rituals in your congregation. By all means, continue to practice the ways you and your congregation connect and worship, such as through prayer, scripture and communion, but realize they may have to be practiced in a different way.  The online worship venues have been a primary way this has been maintained, but that’s not the only answer.  One pastor writes out an entire worship service for his congregation, mails it to them and they agree to go through the service at a specific time each week.  Thus, while apart, they are still worshiping simultaneously.
  5. Find safety in what is immutable. Yes, change is all around, but we still hold to those things that cannot be altered, and the hope of the gospel, the promises of God, and Scripture have been, and will always be an anchor for people of faith.
  6. Don’t quit. In other words, continue to show up for life, for relationships, and for responsibilities.  Light is found by pressing forward into each day’s opportunities.

The abundance God provides is amazing.  Challenging times prompt us to tap into the creative potential in each person, and for that matter, in each congregation.  Consequently, let these suggestions stimulate you to discover and implement innovative approaches to ministry.  Because of God’s faithfulness to us, we approach this period with assurance of divine help, knowing we are Together on God’s Abundant Journey.

[1] https://integratedlistening.com/what-is-trauma/