By Susannah Smith
I find that I am often talking to my friends and family about some kind of loss – loss of physical capacity; loss of a loved one or a dear pet; loss of a job; loss of a sense of direction; loss of a pastor or counselor; loss of identity that was tied to a vocation; loss of an anchoring place and support system due to a geographic move; loss that comes when old skills won’t do the job. The list goes on and on, but I’ll stop there.
This subject of loss is not new in my conversations. From the moment we leave the coziness of our mother’s womb, we encounter loss that disturbs our way of life in large and small ways. When that threat arises, our anxiety and the anxiety of others compels us to try to restore the relational system to what most closely approximates it’s familiar pattern of functioning before the loss occurred. When the matriarch of the clan dies, it’s amazing how quickly the family adapts to fill that vacuum with another family member (who has probably been primed for some time to step into the matriarch’s shoes). The same holds true when a congregation loses its pastor or another key leader. This adaptation is a natural process that arises from a system’s reaction to any change that could undermine its core identity and structure.
In Leadership on the Line, the authors state: “People do not resist change, per se. People resist loss … Leadership becomes dangerous when it must confront people with loss.” Imagine as a church leader that your challenge is helping a congregation accept and adapt to a tough reality (seems like Jesus was doing this kind of work all the time!). Perhaps it’s the reality of changing demographics in the church’s neighborhood, or a financial situation that will affect staffing, or the acknowledgement that the pastor and the congregation are on a collision course.
Whatever the situation, a church leader is wise to tread carefully, recognizing that the disturbance caused by loss could open a door into a healthier way of being. It’s a good time for leaders to be curious about how the congregation has reacted to past losses. Did it find creative, imaginative ways to deal with loss that helped it move into the future with new direction and energy? Or, in its rush to restore its equilibrium and get past its sense of helplessness, did it apply a bandaid solution that avoided painful adjustments? If the latter has become the pattern in dealing with loss, then leaders need to plot a course that puts on the brakes, avoids answers from on high, and encourages new learning and experimentation. As Leadership on the Line puts it, “You have to counteract [your congregation’s] exaggerated dependency and promote its resourcefulness.”
I think loss can be the engine of growth in our personal lives and in our relationship systems. The question that presents itself when we experience loss is, “Am I functioning through this loss in a way that leads to growth in myself and healthier relationships with others?” If your answer is “yes”, keep on keeping on!
Susannah Smith is an Episcopal priest and former participant in the Leadership in Ministry workshops. The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops in four locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, and West Virginia. To learn more about the Leadership in Ministry workshops. click on the link.