Moving From Fear to Optimism: How to heal a wounded church (or other messed up organization), Part 2

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Moving From Fear to Optimism

When I last wrote about my work with St. John’s Church (not its real name), back in March, there had already been a significant shift in clarity and focus (here is the link). After I had cleared the land and established the proper lines of communication, the interim minister began to get some traction in her work with the congregation. 

At this point, tensions from all the unhealed wounds that were under the surface began bubbling – or more accurately — boiling.   The specific trauma and issues I named in that article that were now surfacing included: 

— a recent former minister who had been removed for clergy misconduct, but whose actions were swept under the carpet, not allowing for the healing that needed to happen

— lots of unhealed pain and dis-ease that had festered ever since the removal of the clergy person

— the resulting masculine/feminine divides, which were also under the surface, but which were getting in the way of any kind of progress toward finding a new minister;

— groups that did not work together, or who appeared to be ok on the surface, but never accomplished anything;

—  a congregation that had no real coherence.

More underlying trauma

Added to that the new parish administrator, who has long-term ties in the congregation, was treating the interim minister and any representatives of the larger denomination poorly; she was also generating discord with her sarcasm, as well as her negative attitude and speech with members. 

And finally, there had been a previous search for a new minister which had failed completely about a year before.

Within a couple weeks, divisions in several key committees came to the surface, including the committee that had been established to search for the new minister.  In addition, all the unresolved trauma that had been swept under the rug after the removal of the minister was surfacing everywhere, some of it fueled by the new administrator. 

The congregation

Working approximately biweekly for the next three months, the Mending Webs work had four major areas of focus.  The first area was dealing with the grief and anxiety of the congregation, as well as the congregation-wide unresolved issues around the sexual misconduct and previous failed search.  This work involved disintegrating any remaining threads with the former minister, and working energetically to help heal the anger, grief, and fear that were present in the congregational system.    

Fractures in leadership

The second area was working with search committee and the major governing board of the church. Fractures kept surfacing, many of which were connected with what had happened around the minister who had been removed. 

Here, I initially worked with the energetic lines of power and communication, with a special focus on helping the groups work together cohesively.  I also worked with their fear of another failed search. 

It was fascinating to watch.  I would do a healing session working with the webs of power as well as the underlying emotional issues, and then within the next two weeks, leadership changed, and roles shifted within the search committee. 

Up to this point, the committee hadn’t seemed to be able to make any kind of decisions or even agree on next steps; they were essentially spinning their wheels.  Now all of a sudden, they began to make great strides in each meeting. 

Hooking up the local and regional groups

A related issue, which became a third theme was these groups’ relationship with the larger regional body of the denomination, as there was mistrust and blame from how the clergy misconduct matter had been handled.  Here I worked with both the congregation and the larger regional governing body. 

One issue was around finances and how the church had been handling them.  In one session I strengthened the web connections between the church and the regional denomination. I also forged connections between a recalcitrant treasurer and the financial resource people of the regional body. 

Again the results were astounding.  Within the next few weeks, the church and the regional group set up a time for the key financial resource person to meet with the congregational leadership. In the course of that visit, the resource person also worked with the treasurer and the financial leaders.  He helped them understand what was needed and supported them in making needed changes. 

A watershed moment

Looking back, this meeting seemed to be a watershed of sorts in the relationship between the congregation and their regional denomination.  Once those in leadership and the search committee knew that people were rooting for them to succeed, and they felt supported by the regional group in tangible ways, the search took off.

In the next few weeks, the search committee made major decisions, got the approval of the congregational leadership, and completed and submitted the paperwork needed to do a nationwide search. 

From resignation and fear to anticipation and optimism

In the meantime, the congregation perked up.  Where there had been a sense of malaise and anxiety, the congregation now began exhibiting signs of healing. 

Some key changes included greater involvement in services marking the church seasons, and more interaction between congregrants.  The tenor of the conversations shifted from fear- and anxiety-based tones (e.g., will we ever be able to find another minister) to anticipation and optimism (e.g., when the new minister comes, then….).

The differences are palpable

Nowhere is the difference more evident than to those at the regional denominational level.  Privately, there had been great concern as to whether this congregation was healthy enough to do another search without failing again.

Additionally, there was concern that if they did succeed in getting the search off the ground, whether they could attract the kind of minister needed to take them into their next stage of growth.  Those at the regional level are surprised and excited that the search committee not only did their work well, but attracted a number of excellent candidates who have the skills to take this group forward. 

Where things stand now

After preliminary interviews with a good pool of well-qualified and seasoned ministers, the search committee chose three people to bring for interviews.  One withdrew for family reasons, and so they have now interviewed two candidates. They are confident that either candidate would be well-qualified to move the church forward. 

 The congregation is full of new life.  One observer said that they appear “normal” now.  When he attends the church, instead of disconnection and apathy and fear, he sees coherence, connection and a quiet anticipation.  Instead of talking like victims, they talk like a healthy group who is ready for change and growth.

The regional leadership is both amazed and relieved.  They are excited for the future of this congregation. They also see the need for this sort of work throughout their region.  I am already working with one other congregation in their area, and I’m told there may be more coming.

Now that their job is done, the search committee has essentially disbanded, and the congregation and congregational leadership will make their decision soon.  All being well, their new minister will start sometime after the beginning of the year.

Awed and humbled

For my part, from session to session, I consistently feel humbled and full of awe.  Simply using the Mending Webs techniques I have developed, in tandem with the other healing work I do is truly powerful.  Sometimes there were dramatic shifts from one session to the next; always there were significant changes. Mending Webs took a broken and grieving congregation who were barely surviving to the place where they are truly ready to move forward and thrive. 

With love and gratitude,

Mary

PS:  I regularly do Mending Webs work with families or groups, and I have a couple spots open for that work.  Check it out here. or book a  Discovery Call so we can discern together whether I can help you and your “web.”  I will also be teaching others how to do this work soon. Be on the lookout for my upcoming online learning opportunity.

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