A Parish Crisis: Reflections and Lessons Learned

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by Eric Bonetti

Last January, when I was elected junior warden in my parish, things started off with a bang — or more appropriately — a gurgle. Right about the time of our parish meeting, a large swath of the undercroft had flooded in the night, resulting in tens of thousands of dollars in damage and a major rebuilding project that swallowed countless hours of my time, and many late nights.

LIttle did I know that things soon would get worse. Far worse.

On February 10, our rector had a serious accident. The details aren’t particularly relevant, but he was rushed to the hospital, underwent major surgery, and was out on disability until June.

As a result, folks in our parish scrambled to care for our rector and his family, each other, and the mundane tasks keeping a large, vibrant parish running.

So why write about this topic? I’m not entirely sure, as I don’t feel like my observations are particularly insightful, groundbreaking, or even all that unique. But I hope that, by writing from the heart, perhaps I can help others who may, now or in the future, face a similar situation. If nothing else, I hope that those facing crisis may look back on this article and know that they are not alone. Others have been there, lived through it, and even seen good come of it.

My initial thought is that it truly axiomatic that you can never be prepared for a situation like this. Crises, by definition, are almost always unexpected. But it wasn’t so much the fact that the situation was a crisis; it was instead the extraordinary and unexpected level of pain and fear that came with the tragic news.

Normally, I’m pretty good in a crisis. Indeed, I’ve had several jobs in which I worked closely with people who have experienced serious accidents, life-threatening injuries, and profound psychological trauma. I’m also no stranger to personal pain and suffering; my younger brother died unexpectedly almost 20 years to the day before our rector’s accident.

The issue, I came to understand, is that pain and suffering in the context of a close-knit, loving parish is pain and suffering multiplied. One’s pain and suffering isn’t only about the immediate issue at hand; it also is about one’s grief and sense of powerlessness when confronted with the suffering of fellow parishioners. In essence, a crisis within a parish has a rawness and intensity that personal crises may lack.

Of course, one’s grief is exacerbated by the fact that there’s no real “how-to” guide for vestry members dealing with a crisis of this sort. No one calls and says, “Here’s what you should do next.” As a result, a surprising amount of time is spent figuring out who does what, how it happens, and how to make even relatively mundane tasks happen.

I also was impressed in short order by the complexity of parish life. Like a good game of tennis, in which success is marked by making the match seem effortless, behind the scenes lots of hard work goes into even relatively small parish programs and activities.

Right about now, you’re probably saying, “I already knew that,” but I can tell you this: Even as a life-long Episcopalian, I had no idea just how much work goes on behind the scenes. And my fear is that I may still not completely apprehend the full extent of this issue.

Another lesson learned is the extent — almost shocking — to which God turns suffering into good and personal growth. To be clear, I don’t believe that God causes accidents of this sort in order to teach a lesson, promote personal growth, or for any other reason. The God I know and love is one of infinite love, kindness, acceptance and inclusion. God doesn’t cause suffering, but God does turn suffering that has happened anyway towards a greater good. And time and again throughout this ordeal, I saw situations in which a bad situation resulted in positive outcomes.

For example, a close friend of mine, also a parishioner, has never been all that interested in pastoral care issues. It’s not that he lacks compassion; far from it. He’s simply never learned to proactively care for others outside his immediate family and close friends. Yet he quickly stepped up to the plate to provide meals and other care for our rector and his family, and as a result has come to embrace the joy of serving and caring for others. At the same time, his experience in caring for our rector and his family has helped him develop a sense of perspective; he has markedly backed away from chronic irritation and anger at the petty slights and controversies of parish life. In short, my friend experienced a modern version of the conversion on the road to Damascus.

Concern for our rector and his family also helped me plumb the old adage about not appreciating something until it’s gone. My sense is that, over the years I’ve developed great affection and respect for our clergy, so it’s not clear to me that our rector’s accident led me to a renewed appreciation for him and his ministry. Instead, what I did realize is that, caught up in an endless swirl of leaking toilets (pun intended), burned out lightbulbs, vendor meetings and HVAC repairs, I probably spend too little time expressing my appreciation. Yes, it’s possible to go overboard in that area, but how often do we actually come right out and express our love and respect for our clergy? I suspect the answer is, “All too rarely.”

Yet another lesson learned from our recent crisis is the value of maintaining a sense of normalcy and business as usual. Following our rector’s accident, we strove to accelerate various repair and improvement projects around the church, with an eye towards demonstrating stability and focus. As a result, we did a lot of painting, landscaping, improvements to building security, and more, all with the goal of providing a positive alternative to sorrow, anxiety and fear.

I have no empirical evidence to show whether this approach worked, but anecdotal evidence suggests that this was a useful distraction, and a demonstration of our parish as a loving, caring community that would thrive no matter what.

Overall, while there were some rough, rough moments, I have to say that the crisis brought out the best in people. Our other two priests, both relatively newly ordained, stepped up to ensure continuity in pastoral care, liturgy, worship and even pinch-hit on some building issues. Parishioners pulled together, and we got phone calls and messages from literally hundreds of former members, couples who had been married in the church, and others, seeking ways to help. This willingness to work together as a community illustrated for me the real value of parish life, which is as a place to share life’s joys, sorrows, and tribulations.

In closing, has your parish experienced a similar situation? If so, what did you learn from it? I’d love it if you would share your comments.

Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.

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Lara Dreyer
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Lara Dreyer

Thank you for sharing your experience and insights. Thanks also for your leadership and service.

Something you wrote - about realizing how much preparation and complexity is behind what we see and take for granted each day is something I think about a lot.

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