It is an exciting time to be alive. Everyone is chronically busy, but who is being truly productive? As spiritual leaders, we are being called to provide a clear contextual message for navigating the rapidly changing waters of our times and the chronic busyness that too many are facing.
Since 2006, The American Psychological Association has conducted an annual Stress in America™ report that studies sources of stress and the impact on health and well-being. Last year (2017) was the first year since its inception that there has been a statistically significant increase in stress levels of Americans. Top among stress indicators is the political situation in our country, fear for personal safety, concern about violence toward minorities, money, the economy, and jobs.
Further, numerous studies show that people with lower education have much greater free time due to not being able to secure consistent meaningful work, while those who are considered “skilled labor” work longer hours, for no additional pay, and are often expected to be virtually connected to the workplace evenings and weekends. These social trends lead to an increase in stress and an overall decrease in life satisfaction.
The outcome of these statistics is mind-boggling. The opioid crisis, the increased rate of suicide among young people, and an epidemic of depression and anxiety are social factors that need to be addressed in concrete, direct, and proactive ways.
How we respond in our ministries can help offer support, guidance, and comfort to people struggling at either end of the economic spectrum. And how we conduct our lives in relation to this cultural context will determine the degree we are growing spiritually in the midst of cultural chaos.
Here are some suggestions on how spiritual leaders can respond to help calm the chaos and increase productivity:
1. I define productivity as, “clearly and consistently taking ground on what is important to you.”
To be productive, you must have a clear sense of what direction your ministry is taking in any given year so that you don’t get pulled in multiple directions, thus adding to the chaos and stress.
I remember being board president of a Unity church many years ago when we decided to embark on strategic planning and goal setting. The first year, we established 12 different initiatives that were far-reaching and diverse, and each initiative had several goals associated with it. Needless to say, we failed in accomplishing even half of them. People felt disempowered with the lack of progress, but did not realize that they had taken on too many initiatives to be successful. Everyone was busy, but we, as a ministry, were not productive. When it comes to goals and strategic direction in your ministry, less is more.
Know your direction: Are you focusing on deepening interpersonal connections or growing the size of your congregation? Both are admirable goals, but working on both in the same year will not likely produce an efficient outcome. People will feel stressed and stretched too thin.
If you are focusing on deepening relationships, offer book groups, small group discussions, potluck suppers, music nights, and similar social/spiritual engaging activities for people to spend time together and get to know each other more deeply.
If you are seeking to grow your congregation, focus on social media presence, blogging for local news outlets, being represented in local parades or community events, hosting events of interest to the general public and getting the word out, or even Facebook advertising campaigns. You can take on a few initiatives and monitor progress (at the board level, with additional team leaders and volunteers).
Choose your direction, and then create goals to accomplish it. Engagement is increased when everyone is focused on a few concrete, achievable goals.
2. Teach congregants to have a clear focus in their life each year and each month.
In December and January, there is a buzz about envisioning the coming year. Where is that focus in the other 10 months? Use your ministry to help people stay focused. They will be productive when they establish their direction and aim. It is easy to get pulled in many different directions that nothing feels fulfilling (i.e. being busy, but not productive). Talk each month—even each week—about the power of focus and clarity. Remind them that they are always creating their lives through the choices they make. (And remind yourself of that truth, too!) If you say “yes” to everything in life, you will be saying “no” to your peace of mind. Focus. Teach people to choose. And do the same as a spiritual leader.
3. Address topics that impede peacefulness and productivity.
Our culture is awash in addictive tendencies—Internet addiction, opioid addiction, pornography and social media addictions—people from all walks of life deal with this ever-expanding disease of compulsive and addictive behavior.
I have been attending Unity churches for over 15 years and I have never once heard a sermon about addiction and the spiritual meaning of addictive patterns in our lives. You will not maintain a productive life when in the grasp of any addiction.
I believe that everyone is dealing with addiction—even if it is addiction to your own ego! Not talking about contemporary issues like this is akin to replicating dysfunctional patterns in families. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” is not a formula for creating a healthy, thriving community.
Similarly, talk about stress! Speak of the ego’s tendency to thrive on overstimulation and an excessive need to feel special—which leads to stress and drives some people into chronic busyness.
4. Be a role model for peaceful productivity!
The scope of what is asked of ministers and lay leaders is truly astounding. In any given week, ministers will need to manage congregants’ problems; sit in on a budget meeting; deal with facilities issues; write a great talk and deliver it with passion, clarity, and humor; create great social media content; offer pastoral care, and never appear stressed or unpleasant. Given this, how do you live a life that is free of chaos? You do so by asking for help with what you cannot do, and if there is no one to help, you consciously choose to do less and communicate that decision with clarity.
Express your values. Let people know that you are committed to living a balanced, joyful, peaceful life that includes ministry, well-being and spiritual practices, an enjoyable social life and rest. When you do not have all of those elements in your life, you cannot minister to those who are also trying to calm the chaos in their lives.
Decline to take on a new initiative unless you can see where the time will fit into your schedule. Deal with your compulsive need to be liked and to help others. Helping others to the detriment of your well-being is being of service to no one.
Calming the chaos is a critical issue. You cannot continue to believe that the way our culture operates is a cogent path toward spiritual maturity and evolution. I heard a mother of a black man slain by a police officer speaking on television recently. She passionately stated, “I thought we were supposed to be evolving as a society. We are not evolving, we are ‘devolving,’ and it’s time we all wake up to that fact.” As we apply the principles in this article with clarity and commitment, we can all evolve toward the Christ consciousness from which we came.
Calming the Chaos by Jackie Woodside
American Psychological Association, Stress in America 2017 Snapshot: Coping with Change