Attending to Emotions in Times of Change

Listening to sadness, fear, and anger while leaning into grief, gratitude, and wonder


Talking about money raises many emotions within congregations. Shifting funding models invites anxiety into the conversation. Letting go of some good things that have served our mission well for a long time but no longer fit our sense of call draws sadness near. Leaning into new possibilities for our mission and ministry fuel the flame of anticipation for futures yet unknown. 

How do we care for one another within our communities through changing funding structures and ministry expressions, letting go of some old things, and picking up the new? Two vital skills are:

  • the ability to attend to difficult emotions with care
  • cultivating emotional experiences that can hold the complexity of our collective lives. 

Listening to Difficult Emotions 

All emotions carry a message if we attune our communal hearts to them. No emotion is “good” or “bad.” Some emotions are difficult to experience – painful, even – and others feel better to us. Learning to listen to their messages is an act of congregational care. 

Sadness visits when something important to us feels like it is being lost. This can be an important ministry in our congregation as much as a loved one. Even when some things are necessary to let go of as our congregations shift and change, it helps to bring sadness into caring community, listening deeply and attentively to sadness’s message.  

Fear, and its emotional cousin, anxiety, show up when we sense that our wellbeing or the things we care about are endangered. Fear indicates specific concern, like a ministry we care deeply about threatened by a lack of funding or needed changes in missional focus. Anxiety indicates a more ambiguous and diffuse sense of unease that we can’t always put our finger on, like broadly changing ecclesial landscapes. 

Anger invites reflection upon how we perceive our values and the people, places, and things we love being threatened. When an important ministry, a beloved building, or a liturgical expression of our faith seems at risk, it can trigger a sense of threat in our bodies that is translated into anger. Even a simple change in a congregation’s ministry models or funding structures can register in our bodies as anger. 

Without caring attention, sadness, fear, and anger can morph into longer lasting moods or temperaments that become more difficult to constructively hold in community. 

  • Sadness can grow into a sense of despair or loss of meaning. 
  • Fear can develop into helplessness, apathy, or immobilization. 
  • Anger can morph into resentment, cynicism, and us/them thinking. 

Helping to bring these emotions and the messages they carry into caring conversations can help to decrease our reactivity and increase our compassion for others as we move through change together.

Cultivating Emotions that Hold Complexity 

In addition to caring for the emotions experienced by congregants, we can also cultivate emotional experiences that can better hold the complexity of a community’s life amid change. 

Cultivating spaces for grief allows us to hold losses with intentionality in community. Grief gives sadness and even anger space to be held in care with others who grieve alongside us. It helps us to acknowledge important losses while also moving purposefully into a new future. 

Alongside grief, stimulating communal practices of gratitude invites reflection on all that feels like a genuine gift in our lives – people, things, experiences, and ministries. Communal gratitude for these gifts moves us outward toward others and into a posture of giving. Grief and gratitude together are helpful in holding the complexities of change, loss, and uncertainty. 

Experiences that provoke wonder in the midst of our communities help us to lean into awe for all that we have and all that we’ve experienced of God’s activity among us. Wonder sparks our curiosity and lures us into the world around us and into our own futures with a sense of anticipation. Wonder can even shift us out of our focus on “self” or even “our” community and into playful, purposeful, and transformative engagement with the wider world. 

Celebrate ministries that served the community well in the past but are no longer sustainable. Give them the sendoff they deserve, holding grief and gratitude together. Use the opportunity to remember and give thanks for those who helped start these ministries – people who may no longer be among the living members of the community. Express your grief and gratitude in words, in ritual, in song. And let your hearts be drawn into your future with wonder, turning toward the wider world around you and all that God is doing with curiosity, anticipation, and awe.

  • Cody J. Sanders

    Cody J. Sanders is Associate Professor of Congregational and Community Care Leadership at Luther Seminary. Prior to this, he was pastor to Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and served as a chaplain at Harvard and MIT. He has published several books, including, Corpse Care: Ethics for Tending the Dead (Fortress, 2023) and A Brief Guide to Ministry with LGBTQIA Youth (Westminster John Knox, 2017).

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