The Hope That Sings in Your Soul

Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all.

Emily Dickinson

It is late August, 2020. I don’t need to remind anyone of the forces of despair that are in the air around the world. The pandemic is still raging, creating uncertainty and fear, especially around sending our kids back to school. The economy is struggling, with millions out of work and businesses hanging on by a thread, or not. In the US, there has been yet another shooting of an unarmed Black man by police and protestors going unheard. And, to cap it all off, we are facing the most unprecedented, divisive, potentially explosive  US Presidential election in modern times. Hope seems to be in short supply.

Hope can seem naïve in times like these. Painting pie-in-the-sky, kum-ba-ya dreams that are too good to be true. Telling ourselves and each other, “Look on the bright side!” But that is not hope, that is optimism. And hope, in times like these, cannot be blind optimism. Optimism is rooted in sentimentalism. Hope is steeped in realism. Real possibilities.

All of the major world faiths lift up hope as central to their beliefs. For people of Abrahamic faiths, God is a clear source of all hope, whether it is divine destiny or a future on earth. Hope leads to greater faith and faith leads to greater hope. “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 1:11)

But what do they mean by that? Surely, it doesn’t mean ignoring reality. After all, every major world faith has faced incredibly bleak and despairing realities. From the pogroms and the Holocaust for the Jews, to the ancient Roman persecution to modern Chinese oppression for Christians, to the Crusades and post-9/11 discrimination for Muslims, it would seem like we all have reasons to abandon hope.

And yet, hope remains. What is hope in the face of terrible despair? Archbishop Desmond Tutu once said, ‘Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” Hope means being able to imagine a future that is different than the present. It is a choice to believe that what is now, is not always. And, it is the belief that individuals have a role to play in creating that future.

As Barack Obama told the 2004 Democratic convention, “I’m not talking about blind optimism here — the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it, or the health care crisis will solve itself if we just ignore it. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs; the hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores; the hope of a young naval lieutenant bravely patrolling the Mekong Delta; the hope of a millworker’s son who dares to defy the odds; the hope of a skinny kid with a funny name who believes that America has a place for him, too.”

Hope is such a powerful force that millions have been spent by scientists to study its effects. To date, there have been over 2000 empirical studies of the effects of hope, optimism and resilience. Studies have found that patients with more hope experience less pain and heal quicker. The presence of hope leads to greater resilience and outcomes for survivors of domestic abuse and child abuse.

So how do we cultivate more hope in ourselves, our congregations and our children?

First, arm yourself with the knowledge that others have gone before you and found hope in the times of greatest despair. There are so many role models, in our spiritual literature and in the “real world.” Role models such as the Biblical figure of Joseph, who never lost hope even when abandoned and imprisoned, and who used his gifts (of divining dreams) to rise above his circumstances. Or Black Elk, the Native American medicine man who, at one of the lowest points of American history for his people, gave them a vision of restoration and pride. Or Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust survivor, who believed that memory would create hope and spent his life making sure that the stories of survivors were never forgotten.

Second, recall times in your own life where you were able to make a difference. Remember that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Where can you make a difference today? Who can you invite to join you?

Thirdly, create the vision of what the future can look like. Be concrete. Don’t just think about it. Write it down. Draw a picture. Tell others. Let others share in your vision. The power of Martin Luther King, Jr. resided in his ability to create a vision of a future that we all could see together. Theologian Cornell William Brooks says about MLK’s famous mountain top speech, “Dr. King noted the enduring moral agency of his people. The sermon was a hopeful proclamation of the life that he expected us to live in the future, that “we, as a people, will get to the promised land.” He reminded us that hope is not empirically demonstrated; it’s morally chosen. We choose to believe that which scripture, our tradition, our history as God’s people — says about us and what it says about our future. And in the same way that he hoped, we yet hope. I yet hope. (interview w Harvard Gazette, Jan 18, 2018)

Hope is a source of spiritual strength – it tells us that we are not alone and that we have the power to create a new future.

Hope is possibility – it envisions a future that is different than our present.

Hope is creative – it actively creates possibility.

Hope is action-oriented – it requires us to be a participant.

Hope is positive – it sees potential and goodness in the future.

Hope and fear cannot occupy the same space. Invite one to stay.

Maya Angelou

Phase Three: Time for Self-Care

Lately, in my coaching sessions with pastors, I’ve been noticing the same phenomenon. I call it “Phase Three.” Phase One of the pandemic was the initial panic that we all felt during the first few weeks. Pastors were busy scrambling just to provide quality on-line worship services. We had to learn quickly, decide whether to do live or recorded, decide how many people were “safe” to include, and, in many cases, learn to record and video edit our own sermons. It was daunting, but pressing, business. We had to figure it all out by Sunday. Sheer adrenaline kept many folks going.

Phase Two started a few weeks later, after we had figured out best practices for online worship, solved most of our tech glitches, and were getting into a routine. In Phase Two, pastors started to address the social and fellowship needs of their congregations. New Bible studies were started, fellowship times set up on Facebook Live or Zoom, congregational care teams reached out. It was a time of trial and error. Some online offerings worked, others were not so successful, and it took several weeks to figure out how to connect the needs of the congregation with the, often limited, resources of the church staff and volunteers.

And now, I’m starting to see the inevitable result of twelve weeks or more of constant stress, long hours and pressure to “be present” for our congregations. I’m seeing, and hearing, more and more stories of burnout, exhaustion and frustration. We have discovered what many work-from-home pioneers could have told us – working from home often involves more hours than we put in at the office, the line between work and home becomes blurred, and everyday starts to look pretty much like the last day. And, worse, there seems to be no end in sight. Where once we thought that crisis would ease and life would get back to normal quickly, the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths continue to rise. Going back to “church as normal” will not be anytime soon.

As a result, most of my recent coaching calls have included the same mantra: it’s time for self-care. It’s time to reschedule your time off and invite a guest preacher for a week or two. Even if you don’t feel comfortable traveling to a vacation spot, you can step away from the ministry and enjoy a staycation. It’s time to allow yourself a few days to indulge in your favorite hobby, or read a book (just for fun!), or learn a new skill that you’ve been itching to try. It might be as simple as asking your spouse for a few hours of childcare to take a bath or have a pedicure. Whether you choose to take an hour a day for personal time, or you can schedule an entire week, pastors must continue to take care of themselves.

I know that these suggestions are not original or new. But what I want to stress is that pastors need to allow themselves the time away. Pastors need to love themselves enough to take care of their own emotional, physical and spiritual needs. Taking a break isn’t a sign of weakness. Taking a break during the pandemic is not abandoning your congregation. Taking a break is making sure that your congregation has the most effective leader that they can have for the long haul.

As Eugene Peterson paraphrased: “Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.” (Matt 11:29-30)

New Boundaries for Our WFH Life

cat lying on the notebook at floor

Now that many of us are more than ten weeks into working from home full-time, I am starting to hear from clients that they are experiencing more mental fatigue and burnout. The rush of adrenaline that accompanied the initial pandemic announcement and our “stay-at-home” orders have given way to anxiety, tiredness and lack of focus. Given that many of us will be working from home for some time to come, it is probably time to start to examine our personal and professional boundaries and create new routines that will keep us focused and grounded.

Henry Cloud, in his Boundaries series of books, talks about boundaries being a combination of what we create and what we allow. We function much better with the boundaries that we create – ones that we have put thought into and have clear purpose – than we do with the boundaries that we just allow. If we allow ourselves to be interrupted by co-workers, or in my case, my needy dog, we will get less done (with more resentment) than if we had firmly decided upon, and announced when and under what circumstances we could be interrupted.

Some common areas that need boundaries are:

  • Time management – This is perhaps one of the most common “lack of boundary” that I am currently seeing. Now that we’re working from home, some folks are looking at that as an invitation to work 24/7. No wonder people are experiencing burnout. Unless there is a crisis, working from home hours should be no different from working in the office. The nature of our work hasn’t really changed, just the location. Decide for yourself what your “office hours” are going to be and try to stick to them. Create a policy for yourself about answering emails or checking Slack. And, if you need to, schedule time for de-stressing: a run or hike, a long soak in the tub, an episode of your favorite TV series.
  • Interruptions – Constant, am I right? Just knowing that my husband is in the house and might be doing something interesting is distracting enough for me. And I remember what it was like to have kids home for the summer. Again, create some policies about who can interrupt you and when. I recently (pre-pandemic, so long ago…) saw singer Brandi Carlile perform at ACL and her young daughter came along. Brandi explained that her daughter was allowed to come on stage for one hug per night. Adorable! And a great boundary!
  • Communications – Create a personal policy about how you prefer to communicate with your team. Which things can be sent through Slack or email, and which need a phone call or Zoom? Which audiences are appropriate for what topics? How quickly will you respond?
  • Interpersonal relationships – This boundary has to do with managing other people. How will you respond to complaints or criticism? Since we all will experience this occasionally in our working life, it helps to have a plan to respond. Some people need to step back and think before they respond. You may decide that certain things need to be put in writing, rather than brought up in the middle of a meeting. Everyone will have different triggers and different responses, but again, creating the boundary ahead of time will help prevent a “fight or flight” stress response in the moment.
  • Meetings – If you are like me, you are already so done with Zoom, or Microsoft Teams, or BlueJeans, or any form of online meeting. And there is nothing worse than one that goes on and on while accomplishing very little. While you may not have total control over meeting policy, now is a good time to go over your company or team policy and to make sure that agendas are tight and kept.

Being a great leader means creating great boundaries that allow you and your team to function at your peak. You probably can identify additional areas of your life that need more intentional boundary setting. And, remember that boundaries need to be readjusted as circumstances change. Leading others through this challenging point in history is going to require leaders that know how to manage not only others, but themselves as well.

Resolve to Set Better Goals in 2020

24489927 - two female runners finishing race together

One of the questions I dread is the inevitable New Year’s Eve party conversation opener, “What’s your resolution?” In the past, I’ve been put on the spot, blurting out “Lose weight.” Or “Exercise more.” Or “Write a book.” And, of course, while I’ve made some progress (and regression) in each of those areas, at the end of the year, if I even remember my hasty response, I really have no way of determining my success. Usually they are forgotten by January 3.

New Year’s resolutions fail. Isn’t that what conventional wisdom says? A 2017 survey found that less than 10% of New Year’s resolutions are ultimately successful. That is due to a variety of factors, but one of the primary reasons, in my opinion, is because most resolutions are vague, uninspiring and easily forgotten.

That’s why I am declaring an end to “resolutions” and a firm reliance on “goals” in 2020. While the two terms are essentially interchangeable, I’m choosing to define them differently. For me, a resolution is an indicator of personal effort – “I resolve to eat better.” But a goal is a concrete point in the future that I plan to reach – “My goal is to eat vegetarian at least one day per week for the next year.”

I usually advise my clients to follow the SMART goal system in which our goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic (or Relevant) and Time-bound. This prevents us from making those wishy-washy “resolutions” such as “I want to eat better.” Better than what? How often? By when?

I also like to add two more aspects to goal-setting, in addition to being SMART,

Is it inspirational? Is this goal something that is going to inspire you or your team to happily work toward it? Is the end result something that you will be proud of? Does it have a definite purpose in your longer term plans or vision? Well, eating vegetarian inspires me because I believe that it is better for the planet, and is part of a longer-term vision of living more healthily and sustainably. I think that it is something that I will be happy to add to my routine.

Does it build on past successes or skills? Every goal has to have something to build on. No one runs a marathon without some past success in running a 5K or half-marathon, or at least without building up their skills over a longer period of time. This is related to the “realistic” aspect of the SMART goal, but also helps to build confidence that your goal can be achieved. I’ve eaten and enjoyed vegetarian meals in the past, so consciously dedicating one day a week to vegetarianism should be something I can accomplish.

The last advice that I can give about goals is that you should do everything you can to make them visible. Don’t let yourself forget them. Write them out. Post them where you can see them. Share them with someone. Set interim review points where you can assess your progress. Even the best, most carefully constructed goals will end up like my hasty New Year’s resolutions if they are out of sight, and of course, out of mind.