Strength for Leading Through A Divided Time

It is difficult to remain grounded when division is swirling. Here are some key practices that will help.

Man praying seated in a pew, seen from behind.

By The Rev. Dr. Erin Swenson-Reinhold

Little did I know that when I accepted a new ministry position two years ago I would be faced with leading and serving in an environment overwhelmed with the burden of a worldwide pandemic, social and racial strife, and government and political unrest. In many ways, these experiences lifted the veil in our homes, congregations, and communities, highlighting the widespread anxiety that provokes us to seek control wherever it can be held. 

Our faith communities are no longer a safe haven, as they reflect our divided world and communities. Often, the refrain I hear from leaders is their grief and lament that they are asked to be mediators, arbitrators, and judges when they long to be disciplers, builders, and connectors. 

While some leaders and congregations simply want a problem solver, I’ve discovered and discerned my call to be one that equips, empowers, and accompanies. I’ve uncovered that God calls me to walk with others into the division where discomfort resides bearing witness to the Spirit’s work and accompany people through this discomfort to the freedom on the other side.

To do this holy work, I’ve found myself returning to the following principles that empower me and those I’m called to accompany. 

Pause, Breathe, Pray

Ministry is hard, holy work, and it requires us to remain grounded in our identity as beloved children of God. When we forget who we are, and whose we are, we lose focus and can even lose our way. Before entering a hard conversation (or any interaction for that matter) pause—take a deep, Spirit-filled breath, remembering who you are and whose you are —offer a prayer of gratitude for God’s holy presence and guidance listening deeply and intentionally to hear God’s holy word. 

Pause … Breathe … Pray.

Stay Connected 

One of the most powerful ways to diffuse conflict is to remember God created us to be in relationship with God, self, and others. God created us to be in community, and the holy call and invitation is to stay connected as a body of God even as we struggle to find common ground.

As I remain grounded in my understanding of what it means to be God’s beloved, I can communicate three powerful messages that help me remain connected with those around me: I see you. I hear you. I love you. Through these three simple statements, our protective forces are released, and we are invited to lean into each other instead of protecting ourselves against one another. We find a common place of connection where empathy, love, and concern are fostered, and we experience unity not division. 

Stay connected.

Manage Myself

Over the last two years, anxiety has become our constant companion often manifesting in unexpected ways. It alerts us to dangerous situations and needs reassurance that we hear the warning signs and are willing and able to move towards safety. 

Despite the gifts of this alarm system, anxiety becomes problematic when we fail to hear the warning signs or misinterpret the alarm. I’ve discovered when I fail to manage my anxiety, it is easy to slip into survival mode, which pulls me away from those I’m called to accompany. I personalize the strong emotions and fail to see them as fellow companions on this journey, and subsequently, the anxiety convinces me my companions are now my enemy. 

God calls me to stay connected and recognize the holy in those around me, and it’s easier to do this if I manage my alarm system. As I manage my anxiety, I’m more capable of distinguishing between a real fire and just a bit of warm air. 

Manage myself.

Hold the Mirror 

Finally, as a pastor and therapist, I’m invited into holy, sacred places where difficult conversations abound. As an accompaniment partner, it is not my role to tell someone what to do and be but to remind them of their belovedness and invite them into actions and behaviors that reflect that belovedness. It’s in these vulnerable places that we are asked to look in the mirror and see the truth—not the truths of the world but God’s holy truth. As those entrusted to hold the mirror, we are called to be mindful of the intersection of truth and holy. 

Hold the mirror.

Connect with the Holy

During times of conflict, it’s natural to seek comfort, security, and safety. We are hardwired to avoid discomfort and unease! Yet, scripture communicates the disruptive nature of Jesus. As leaders, we are called to create space for the Holy Spirit to show up in unexpected ways and empower others to boldly respond. Spiritual practices help us connect with the Holy, hearing God’s voice, and empowering us to boldly respond.

Connect with the Holy.

Next Steps

Even though leading is particularly challenging right now, I encourage you to lean into the steps above, connect with your belovedness, experience the freedom that results from a posture of accompaniment, embody Christ’s love, and connect with the Holy. Expect the unexpected with joyful anticipation as God claims you, Christ calls you, and the Spirit empowers you.

About the Author

The Rev. Dr. Erin Swenson-Reinhold serves as the Assistant to the Bishop in Metropolitan Washington, D.C. Synod, ELCA and manages a small private practice for those seeking clarity during holy discernment. She’s trained as a licensed clinical social worker and an ICF ACC level coach. She’s honored to be mom to three amazing people and partner to her loving and supportive spouse, Nathan.

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