By Doug Talley
Now that COVID infection rates have dropped significantly in the U.S. and summer is in full stride, many are so desperate for a return to normalcy that they want to ignore the impact of what happened over the last 17 months. We’d like to shake it off as a bad dream or maybe treat is as just a small blip on the radar. But it was so much more. If we are going to move beyond the pandemic and grow through other stressful events of that time period, then we have to have a deeper understanding of what happened and how it has affected us.
In April 2021 Indiana Ministries joined three other state ministries to sponsor a webinar with Karl Vaters. (If you missed it, email firstname.lastname@example.org for a link to the recording.) Karl, who will be in person with Indiana pastors in April 2022, said something on the call that connected a lot of dots in my understanding. He said that the pandemic has been a trauma. And it wasn’t the only trauma during this time period. There were multiple traumas.
I had never associated the word “trauma” with what we’ve all been experiencing in the past year and a half. How did I miss that? During the pandemic, I read The Body Keeps The Score by Dr. Bessel A. van der Kolk, which is a lengthy book with incredible insights about trauma and its effect on the brain and body. The COVID-19 pandemic is the first time since WWII that the whole world has been immersed in a common trauma. The brokenness of our world has overwhelmed us with challenges that have exceeded our capacity to understand, and to a large extent, cope.
The pandemic is not about just one trauma. Racial and social injustice have brought trauma. Millions of people have been traumatized by the loss of a job and/or the loss of a family member. Medical and service people on the front lines have been overwhelmed with crisis after crisis after crisis as they kept serving even though their own lives were at risk. Politics was more bizarre than any of us had ever seen. Pro-mask, anti-mask, pro-vaccine, anti-vaccine divisions erupted. Life was so disrupted at multiple levels that many people were dealing with three or even four traumas simultaneously.
It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning during a trauma. Unpleasant emotions are stirred. Internal alarm systems in the brain and body are triggered. Our ability to comprehend what is happening is compromised. We experience a loss of self-regulation and self-control. Brain researchers tell us that trauma releases stress hormones and produces other physiological changes that actually rewire our brains. No wonder there has been so much chaos in our world, our churches, and our lives.
When we experience trauma, we go through the five stages of grief as identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. These are:
- Denial. There has been a lot of denial as a number of people, including some in government and public service roles, have said the pandemic is fake news. In their denial, they’ve sown distrust and lies.
- Anger. There has been a lot to be angry about this past year. At times it has felt overwhelming.
- Bargaining. When trauma happens, some try to fix it. But some things can’t be fixed easily. Instead, we have to work through them to get in a better place.
- Depression. This involves a freezing of distressing emotions and can lead us into a very dark place.
- Acceptance. This is when we work through the emotions of the other four stages and emerge in a healthy place where we are facing reality – adapting and adjusting.
Since we are facing multiple traumas, a person can be at a different stage with each trauma. Because the traumatic events are so powerful, our tendency is to want to stay at one stage and camp there. That is incredibly unhealthy but tempting.
When people are in trauma, they can’t hear explanations. The reasoning part of the brain shuts down and the limbic system that controls emotions fires almost endlessly. That’s how people can read scientific explanations of the COVID-19 virus and hear news reports about how dangerous it is yet discount it. Logic becomes noise when we are in trauma. The more trauma there is, the less people can hear and process. Think of it this way. During trauma, the brain shuts down and channels all the body’s energy to emotion and action.
Since the effects of trauma are still prevalent, what do we as leaders do? Karl Vaters explains that when times are normal, leaders inspire change. That’s the primary job of the leader. But when times are disruptive (think 2020-2021), leaders must provide stability. We are in perhaps the most disruptive season any of us have or will ever face. Though I am wired as a change agent, I have to embrace that my role right now is to provide stability, to be a non-anxious presence.
Does this mean we should circle the wagons and just play it safe? Not at all. Change is a constant. We cannot freeze frame our lives or our ministry. But we can be very selective in what changes we implement. It is called being strategic. Implement the necessary changes so that your church stays focused on its mission. But emphasize things that are familiar to people to help establish stability amidst the chaos.
I’m hearing that we have 2-5 years of challenges ahead of us. We are just starting to feel some of the aftershocks of the pandemic slowing down. It seems like every restaurant and business is looking to hire new workers. People’s work patterns have been disruptive. People who have not been paying rent will have to catch up on missed payments. We are likely to see more bankruptcies and divorces than normal. I’m seeing a number of lead pastors beginning to change churches. And some churches will likely close due to fallout from the pandemic, especially those who were already struggling when the pandemic hit.
All of this means taking care of yourself (self-care and soul-care), your family, your church, and your relationships has never been more important. Connecting with other pastors and colleagues in ministry is vital if we are going to thrive. Now more than ever we need mentors and coaches to help us establish and maintain healthy practices. We need to be more diligent protecting our calendars, taking time off each week, taking vacations, and identifying ways to refresh ourselves physically and spiritually. If we have 2-5 years of challenges ahead of us due to the pandemic and other trauma, then we need to be diligent about how we live and take care of ourselves for at least the same period of time. I’m not encouraging you to be lazy and tread water. I am encouraging you to be wise, manage the multiple dimensions of life carefully and develop a plan for taking care of yourself. Also, monitor your health, your walk with God, your relationships, and your free time. This is a time to be resilient. By the way, if you haven’t read Al Ells’ book The Resilient Leader, there is no better time than now.
Indiana Ministries is praying for you as you navigate today and tomorrow. If we can help, let us know.