Something terrible has happened, and you have to figure out the next big step. You never wanted or expected to be in this situation, but life has decided to scoff at what you want and expect. So, how do you go about deciding what to do, when you don’t know what to do, but something must be done?
I’d like to share some insights about the sacred process of decision-making, which I observed, watching the First United Church Council of Elders contend with a very difficult decision.
The Council has had to decide what financial support the church will commit to Rev. Julie Harley, our lead pastor who was recently forced to retire by a devastating illness. For the church, it’s a time of unspeakable sadness and grief, mixed with worries about what the future holds for our congregation. There’s a visceral clarity throughout the community that First United will continue to partner with Julie on her life journey, even when she is no longer employed at the church, and that partnership should include some financial support. But specifically, what should that support be? How does a team of leaders make such a decision?
In the face of a divorce, or a death, or a job-loss, or a workplace implosion, or whatever dire situation finds its way into your life, you may have to make decisions you never wanted to consider. How do you do this work well?
Observing the Church Council, I reflected on some steps that I think we can all adopt when facing overwhelming decisions. Here’s a list:
It would be nice if this was always the obvious starting point, but prayer is so commonly overlooked as an essential resource in discernment. What is it that you need in order to make the right decision? Patience? Openness? Empathy? Courage? Ask God! Where else are you going to get these things?
When trying to make the hardest choices, will you ask God for help?
Listen to God, and listen to your neighbors and partners. This requires leaving open space in dialogue, which we won’t compulsively fill with our own points and counterpoints. Really listening means letting another’s words hang in the air, to actually think about them, before voicing a response, so that the eventual decision can be shaped by cumulative and collaborative wisdom. The Council had to consider several options for how to offer financial support to Julie, and council members had differing perspectives. They had to choose a path of openness and mutual inquiry, rather than competitiveness, in order to let grace shape their decision.
Can you trust God or another person enough to wait until you have truly heard them, before moving on with a decision?
3. Know your freedom.
Most of the things we do in life are not things we have to do; they are things we’re free to do. First United Church is not legally bound to offer any financial support beyond the terms of a staff person’s employment, and yet there is a powerful spiritual desire to offer financial help to Pastor Julie. At the same time, the Council recognized that no amount of financial support can solve every problem Julie is facing, or undo the tragedy of her illness. Ultimately, for Julie, and for all of us, the only hope is to rely on God’s grace. Therefore the question before the church leadership is not “How do we solve this problem?” (we can’t). Rather, it is “How can we best use what we have to honor our pastor and emulate Christ’s love?”
When you wrestle with how to respond to a problem, are you clear about what are your responsibilities and what are not your responsibilities, as a faithful person?
See step 1.
5. Know your power.
We all have limits; no one can do everything that needs to be done. But we have the choice to focus more on what we can do than on what we can’t do. Even though we face many financial challenges as a church, the Council recognized that the resources of our congregation are substantial, and they could take actions that would have a meaningful impact. There are churches and persons with far more money than First United who feel powerless to affect tragic situations, and there are churches and persons with far less money than we, who nevertheless give boldly to change the world and expect extraordinary results. Our church must continually choose which mindset we’ll embrace.
When you are trying to discern the right thing to do, do you fully understand how much you are capable of?
6. Don’t rush.
Even when there is no time to waste, it’s important to patiently consider all the elements of an important decision, to talk through all of the financial, administrative and interpersonal concerns impacted by the decision. Some will describe this as basic prudence, but I see it as related to the sacred listening I describe above. Will God enlighten your path with a clear voice in your head the first time you bow your head? Maybe, but be prepared to receive a more subtle or incremental epiphany. When we take the time necessary to consider all the details and many perspectives, God’s word to us has many more avenues into our hearts.
When trying to figure out the right thing to do, will you trust God enough to be patient for wisdom?
7. Don’t avoid the work.
The need for patience is not an excuse for procrastination or paralysis. The same God who tells us to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10), also says in Christ, “Pick up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Many of our hardest choices are work we never wanted. Ready to draw our attention away from the things we don’t want to face. But neither our God nor our neighbor is honored by our distractibility. Instead, we must accept that we stand a position of responsibility, in the words of Mordecai to Esther “for just such a time as this” (Esther 4:14), and face the challenges before us, even if they surpass every challenge we’ve yet faced.
When charged with a decision, will you live with the tension and/or anxiety and/or fear, and do what must be done?
See step 4.
In the end, the Church Council decided the following: To pay Rev. Harley’s pastoral compensation for one month after her official retirement; to pay her health insurance premiums for a full year, and her life and disability insurance premiums for six months; and to give her a single additional payment of funds that could be drawn from the church’s finances without negatively impacting our ongoing ministries, but which would make a significant contribution toward Julie’s escalating financial needs. Beyond this support from the church’s accounts, a fund for Julie and her daughters has been established at a local bank, to which individuals are encouraged to make gifts, and the caregiving group Team Julie, which assists the family with day-to-day help with food, housework and errands, will continue indefinitely.
The council’s decision and decision-making process were not perfect; in fact, I observed them as Christians deeply humbled by how imperfect their attempts to be faithful were. And we may see truths in hindsight that were not perceived by our Elders at the time. That’s one more reason to trust in God’s grace and mercy – none of us ever gets these things exactly right. But they did what they had to do – the work they never wanted – with care and in good faith. And looking back on the discussions, in which people with very different feelings maintained an atmosphere of respect, openness, and grace, there is much I am thankful for and proud of in our leaders.
Meanwhile, faith isn’t about being perfect, it’s about being moved. If we let God lead, we open ourselves to wisdom beyond what we can aspire to alone; we’re drawn nearer to love and understanding among our relations, to peace and justice among the global family.
My prayer for you today is that when you’re trying figure out what is the right thing to say or do, you’ll reach out for God, and expect to find help. You may discover it’s the only hope you’ve got, and all you’ll ever need.