Leadership in Ministry Faculty Coaches Lamkin and Maccini Share Insights About Clergy Responses to COVID-19 Part 1

Leadership in Ministry Faculty Coaches Lamkin and Maccini Share Insights About Clergy Responses to COVID-19 Part 1

When the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders caused our spring Leadership in Ministry (LIM) sites to close, our seventeen faculty members quickly strategized. The spring coaching groups are meeting virtually. We asked faculty coaches James Lamkin (JL) Atlanta faculty and Rebecca Maccini (RM) Boston faculty, to share insights from their coaching experiences.


LIM: In what ways do you see pastoral leaders responding to the COVID-19 crisis?


JL: I see us pastoral folk responding about like always, only more so. The greatest hook for me is “anxious over-functioning.” However, a non-anxious presence stands out in a crowd.


RM: I see pastoral leaders responding in creative ways. There was a huge learning curve for many regarding ‘virtual’ worship, study, and fellowship; and I have listened to many stories of clergy meeting the challenge, learning the various platforms available, using the gifts of those in their congregations who have the tech knowledge, and also doing creative fellowship gatherings. Now, four weeks in, some worship leaders are recognizing that people do not want talking heads and are ‘retooling’ again, looking for alternative online worship ways.


LIM: In what ways do you perceive anxiety is being expressed or manifested in those you coach or in your clients?


JL: Again, I’d say, anxious over-functioning. Trying to maintain a “normal” routine, but with all the added electronic connections. How much is enough? To the extent that someone or a system carries chronic anxiety, the extra heat of the virus crisis can boil over the pot. My question is always, “What is driving the temperature of the chronic anxiety, rather than focus on the last few degrees that boils over the top?” However, the last few degrees of the crisis, may make the deeper stuff, visible.


RM: Those who tend to be anxious still are. This can be expressed in trying to ‘overdo’ virtual worship, or trying to get everything in the service that was in it when people were together physically. It has been manifested in lots of stress around learning the virtual platforms. I have heard lots of ‘worry’ about not being able to go to the hospital to visit folk, and worry about parishioners in general.


LIM: Do you see pastoral leaders functioning in different ways as a result of the COVID-19 challenges?

JL: I think LIMers have demonstrated access to more recruitable resources that offer more objectivity. Also, by years of pre-existing work, more preparedness and more resilience is evidenced.


RM: I see pastoral leaders functioning in the ways they functioned previously. If they were able to self-regulate well before, they are able to self-regulate pretty well now. If they had an option of responses in light of challenging situations, they have it now. Those who need to look like they are capable of doing everything and give the impressing of managing everything, they are seeking to look like that now. Those who felt overwhelmed before are having the most difficult time trying something new. I do observe more reaching out to the denominational leaders, and seeking guidance.


LIM: What has been your approach in coaching clergy and ministry professionals during this time?


JL: The same: Stay close to the theory and ask questions.


RM: Every coaching group I have been part of has taken time to talk about ‘life now’. I encouraged folk to be aware of and acknowledge their strengths and what they bring to some of the challenges of the day and also to focus on what they can do today, which includes, among other things, looking after their own health and well-being. There has been discussion about what we can manage and what we cannot control.


LIM: One is tempted to ask how this COVID-19 crisis relates to Bowen’s concept of societal regression. What are your thoughts on that?


RM: I have been thoughtful about this in part because I have a friend who works in the world health division of Microsoft, who has done a lot of research about the U.S. health care system and its weaknesses. He believes that shutting down as it has been done is an over-reaction and that the best plan is the ‘herd immunity’ response. So, is our shelter in place a sign of societal regression? Was the society already regressed in the way we function? There is a great divide between the ‘haves and the have nots’ and there seems little agreement regarding what we have in common and what is the common good. After reading in Kerr’s Bowen Theory’s Secrets about the finches in the Galapagos and comparing their plight to the financial meltdown in 2008, I think that the present crisis signifies peoples’ greed, not taking responsibility (especially for the climate), not wanting to give up anything, and making later generations pay for our inability to change the parts of our lifestyles that are irresponsible and reckless.


LIM: What have been the most effective leadership behaviors or functioning you’ve seen during this time?


JL: Some pastors have managed to self-regulate and not mirror the frantic reactivity. Clear and frequent communication with the congregation seems to help: “Here is how I see things.” “Until (and if) the new normal settles in, I suggest….”


RM: Some governors have stepped-up and made known what is happening, obtained good counsel from epidemiologists, and other health experts. I have certainly seen teachers functioning in an effective and thoughtful way as they create online learning and stay connected with their students. The effective functioning of clergy has been to stay engaged with their congregations as they are able, and not get all consumed with what they cannot do at this time.


LIM: We often harken to the pictograph of “crisis” as being threat and opportunity. What opportunities have you seen pastoral leaders move toward?


JL: Opportunities: 1) Job clarity. Not doing the work of the church; but leading the church to do its work. 2) Discover new methods of staying connected. 3) Work on self while the anxiety arises all around. As for threats: as I said earlier, over-functioning is alluring, like lowering boundaries, taking calls all hours of the night, for example.


RM: I have observed pastoral leaders looking at this ‘crisis’ as way to call people’s awareness toward the need for connectedness and community. Some pastors have said that they have had more people engage in virtual worship than worship when they are physically present in a church building. One of the denominational leaders said that he was getting calls from folk asking medical questions and he wondered why and came to realize that he was someone whom people trusted so there has been a sense that the church can be relied upon.


LIM: What words of encouragement or challenge are you telling your coaching group participants?


JL: Put your mask on first! (as they say on flights). Keep pondering where your and the congregation’s general anxiety overlaps the free-floating virus anxiety. But, don’t focus on the symptoms, focus on growing yourself, for that is part of your own, and your congregation’s, immune system.


LIM: The LIM workshops focus on Bowen Theory as a “theory of practice for ministry.” In what ways do you see the theory being a resource for pastoral leaders during this crisis?


JL: In every way. Each concept assists practitioners in viewing all relationships with more objectivity. In this and every crisis, blinders come up, and neutrality goes down. As always, Bowen Theory gives options to “the response of the organism.”


RM: I believe that those who have engaged with the theory for a number of years have the work that they have done in their families and in themselves as a strength. Hopefully, the theory helps us focus on or get closer to what the actual issues are, and to be aware of the emotional processes going on. Knowing what the actual issues are is crucial now. It is important to have something to orient to and Bowen theory as a theory of practice for ministry certainly offers that. Connecting to those around us, family, colleagues, congregation members has always been inherent in the theory. The time of COVID-19 offers opportunities to connect with people in a different way than what usually happens in a congregation.

Registration for the Leadership in Ministry workshops are open. Join other clergy and ministry professional leaders in this peer-coaching experience.

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