January 2004
Uncertain Times

Wisdom Gathered, Lessons Learned

There ARE crises that come along that you have to meet. Most of us fumble our way through and manage not to sink the boat while we’re doing it. Trust that in most cases, even the most terrible crisis will look different in a month, and may be forgotten in a year. Take a deep breath. Do the best you can. Here are suggestions of things I’ve found helpful:  

Work as a vestry/clergy team on building the team. Work on simple skills — how to treat each other decently in the middle of tensions; how to listen to what other people are saying — both their words and the emotions behind the words. Avoid getting impatient and pushing for decisions before others are comfortable with what’s up. Look out for “ganging up” by one “side” of an argument against the others. Be sure you have clear rules about how you make decisions. Make sure that committees and working groups include people who don’t agree with each other. Don’t let somebody’s panic infect the whole vestry. Don’t let the loud voices push actions or decisions prematurely.

Keep your eye on what members of the congregation really care about. Keep the roof on the place. Be sure the pastor is freed up to do the pastoring people need, seeing that visitors are received hospitably, and looking out for people who society neglects (the poor and homeless).

Work on keeping some perspective:

  • Be sure you get to church regularly and pitch in to the worship. Sing your lungs out. I find that when I’m tense-est it helps to get to an extra Eucharist (early morning, sometimes in another parish is what works best for me). 
  • Do some reading that gets behind the uncertainty of the times. See the resource section below. 
  • Look out for “the common wisdom” or “what everybody wants us to do.” Although those words can seem compelling, it is remarkable how often they are wrong. In dealing with a big issue (war and peace, sexuality, abortion) we often do the very thing we’ve found out works least well — gather up proponents of the different points of view and launch a debate. Almost always that strategy, which seems so simple and useful, only exacerbates the issue and makes people madder at each other. There are ways to work at those controversial issues while building our sense of community with each other. Debates don’t do that. 
  • Remember that the work of the vestry/clergy team is to build ministry. Not to fix everything. Not to determine who or what is “right.” Uncertain times by definition are uncertain. No amount of shouting at one another will reduce the uncertainty. Indeed, if you are in a boat in turbulent seas it doesn’t help to jump up and down or try to throw some folks overboard. That’s likely to capsize the boat, not fix the problem.

The turbulence of the seas comes from the wind, not from how the people in the boat are acting. Christians have several stories of boats in turbulent waters, and we ought to remember Who is really in charge. Not us. We do the best we can. We lean to the oars. We try to keep our nerve. The final outcome is not up to us. Our job is to hold steady and to use this challenge to become a stronger, steadier team for the NEXT storm, which is surely just beyond the horizon. 

The author of numerous articles and books, The Rev. Loren Mead served as founding president of the Alban Institute in Washington, D.C. from 1974 to 1994.

This article is part of the January 2004 Vestry Papers issue on Uncertain Times