This is the fourth and final article in the Leading through the trauma of COVID series. Today’s article will look at five factors that created stress during the pandemic and how we can help those we lead process them with practical applications for post-traumatic growth.
Five stress factors and practical responses
1. Autonomy // We all experienced a lack of control throughout the pandemic. We were no longer able to gather as a community like normal. We could not frequent most stores, small businesses and restaurants. We found empty shelves where toilet paper was usually stacked to the ceiling. Perhaps most challenging was the inability to gather in person for relationship and worship.
For leaders, this was especially painful. Not only did we experience the restrictions, but we also dealt with others’ demands to rebel against them. We were hit hard from multiple directions, thereby reducing what control we did have.
a) Make things as predictable as possible. Our congregations and communities have been through tremendous change. As leaders, we can create an environment of safety through stability. Communicate well and often, and always connect decisions with vision.
b) Invite others into decision-making processes. Listen well and authentically acknowledge input even if it is not the direction you choose to go. Build and model a culture of caring, empathy and respect.
2. Reward // Many leaders lost a sense of our work’s extrinsic and intrinsic rewards during the pandemic. We spent less if any time with our co-workers and those we serve. Some lost their jobs, including their monetary and benefits rewards.
Most leaders find great intrinsic reward from knowing we make a difference in others’ lives. When we were no longer able to gather, and when we experienced derision and conflict when we did, it removed a significant motivating factor. We also lost the relational and emotional feedback that naturally occurs when speaking to a crowd rather than a camera. We struggled with lost collaboration and vision casting as we spent our time responding to constant change and crises.
a) Celebrate every win. Break goals into smaller targets and take joy from each accomplishment. Acknowledge participation, offer praise, and be grateful for everyone involved.
b) Report regularly on how you are accomplishing your mission, vision and values through story-telling in person, in emails and newsletters, and on social media.
c) Thank your staff and volunteers every chance you get. Make sure to acknowledge all participants and not only the visible leader.
3. Connection // A lack of connection may be the most obvious challenge we faced throughout the pandemic. Many people experienced tremendous isolation and a loss of relationships, whether due to restrictions, conflict, sickness or even death. While some suffered mentally and emotionally from a physical disconnection from people, others felt disconnected from God.
Leaders struggled with how to create meaningful relationships with those they could not see face to face. We asked hard questions about what community means and how we understand the theology of gathering.
a) Respect one another’s boundaries. We are in a fragile time of reentering into community, and we must take into consideration other’s physical and psychological safety. Model and communicate empathy and respect for others.
b) Create simpler models for discipleship. Meet in smaller groups that invite everyone’s participation. Do everything necessary to make people feel safe and secure. Create communities around core discipleship principles rather than just curriculum.
c) Embrace the great outdoors. In cities and towns across the country, we’ve seen people enjoying nature more than any other time in our generation. Parks, green spaces and nature preserves have become places for social gatherings and connecting spirituality with creation. Consider how the communities you lead may gather outdoors ongoing.
4. Equity // No matter who we are or where we come from, we’ve all felt at times throughout the pandemic that something isn’t fair. No one has felt this more than those outside of the dominant culture. Unfortunately, those on the margins have suffered more than most.
Many leaders have felt their role was no longer fair. What was expected of them was not what they signed up for. Many leaders have left. Many who remain are struggling.
Our communities have struggled too. Parents with young children may not have been able to participate as they wish due to childcare responsibilities. Others who care for vulnerable elders and those with disabilities stayed away to remain healthy and available to help.
a) Create opportunities where everyone can participate in one way or another. That may mean providing volunteer roles that can take place in small groups or individually away from the larger group. Remember, everyone has a story that we likely don’t fully understand.
b) Be cognizant of offering opportunities regardless of ethnicity. This may be a highly-held value, but it’s essential to live it out authentically in ways that work for those not of the dominant culture. Consider the timing of events and whether children can be involved. Consider culture-specific language and whether the type of music played is welcoming.
c) Recognize unfair expectations of singles and people without children. Do you expect more from those without families and make assumptions about the time they have to give?
d) Create participation opportunities for people regardless of where they are on their faith journey.
4. Values // One of the main reasons why so much conflict took place during the pandemic was that people found their personal values in conflict with the values of those making decisions.
We experienced the same mandates differently based on our own insights, experiences, traumas, triggers and beliefs. We understood the meaning behind national, provincial and community decisions based on our history.
As leaders, we’ve had to navigate values conflicts more than others simply because we not only received mandates but created them for others. And, of course, our decisions may have rubbed up against the values of those we lead.
a) Communicate with authenticity and humility. Choose to name the elephants in the room. Often as leaders, we either wish to sweep awkward issues under the rug and just move on or name the elephant in the room so starkly that we make people uncomfortable. Openly speak about what it was like to make hard decisions to the best of your ability that may have hurt others. Offer a ceremonial time for repentance, forgiveness and choosing to move forward together.
b) Get back to basics speaking about who God is and who you are in Him. Teach about your mission, vision and values and how they provide a helpful grid for living life amid conflicting values.
c) Review your decision-making protocols and create policies around how to make decisions in times of crisis for the future.