Finding Our Way Through the Smoke

I live in the upper Midwest, and like many parts of the nation, smoke from Canadian wildfires has infiltrated our sky. It can turn the best day into a gray-sky day…

Likewise, for the past three years since the pandemic, we’re living in a cultural gray-zone. I’m sure you, like me, have heard plenty about how the pandemic has impacted us both individually and corporately. As church leaders, we’re trying to help our congregations find their way forward, but we’re facing complacency, weary leadership, and financial scarcity. Our bellwether experts are telling us how to move beyond these challenges and into greater vitality—how to grow in the gray zone—but so far the smoke has not cleared for us. As a Vibrant Faith coach I’ve learned to use my coaching training as a lens to help me define my church leadership challenges. So let’s explore our way through the gray zone together…

What are the questions you’re asking? 
When we discover the right questions to ask, we’re better-positioned to find the answers we need. When I’m working with a coaching client my first step is to listen to their story, usually presented as a struggle or difficult situation. I’m listening intently to the nature of the struggle, and how the individual is contributing to that struggle. The goal is to help move the person away from an outward fixation on the challenge to an inward exploration of their response to it. These questions help…

  • Why is this difficult situation impacting me so deeply?
  • What need in me is not getting met?
  • In what ways do I feel responsible for making the situation better?
  • How are my so-far responses to the situation connected to my need to feel better about myself?
  • What is the uncertainty around this challenge revealing about me and my leadership?
  • I don’t feel like I have what I need to face and thrive through this challenge—what am I telling myself about that?
  • How is the Spirit of God meeting me in this gray-zone?

Remember, there are no magic formulas…
We’ve been doing this long enough to know there’s never a magic formula for navigating the liminal space of a gray-zone. But I’d like to suggest three areas of focus for growth…

  1. Be resilient. We think of resilience as the ability to bounce back and move ahead, but I’d like to reframe this word. Think of resilience as a time to pause and embrace what you’re feeling in the midst of a challenge. When you feel squeezed, step back and assess your soul, then own what’s happening in you. Pause to allow yourself the space to understand why you’re feeling pressure, then ask some of the bulleted questions above to understand what’s going on “under the hood.” Resilience is an opportunity to learn about your feelings, embrace those feelings, and then move forward—not in the exact same way, but with more awareness and a deeper connection to yourself.
  2. Invite adaptability. Instead of fixating on changing yourself to meet the demands of the situation, lean into the adaptability of learning. This is an opportunity for you to be present to yourself as opposed to being overwhelmed by the circumstance. When I’m under pressure and doubtful of my ability to navigate through a challenge, I create stories about the situation that emphasize my inabilities. I need to stop the flow of that story, address what I’m feeling, and replace that story with an awareness of what’s happening in the present moment. Adaptability helps us hit the pause button on our spiraling stories so we can move into a place of curiosity instead. We can’t see the possibilities in front of us when we’re contributing to the smoke.
  3. Discover God’s pre-existing movement in our life, not create the god we think we need. With best intentions, we try to face our challenges by manufacturing a god that is manageable, predictable, and containable. In these moments God ceases to be God. Theologian Dallas Willard taught me to be curious about what God is doing, to be aware of those moments when the Spirit of God is inviting me to a place of greater awareness. In Ecclesiastes 3:11 we read, “…Yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Let’s keep leaning into a God who far exceeds our expectations, and open ourselves to the mystery and wonder of the Spirit’s guidance. Spirit-dependence is our crucial way forward through the smoke of the gray zone…

The challenges of the gray-zone invite us to do the deeper work of examination. When we look within, we discover a deeper reality of who we are, and we learn to love and accept that part of ourselves. Once we arrive at self-acceptance, we open the door to accepting our circumstances even when things are difficult and uncertain. Stay curious with the Spirit and make room for adaptability. Consider how resilience allows you to embrace who you are in the midst of uncertainty so you can find love and acceptance.

If you’d like a companion who is trained to accompany you on this path, consider scheduling a free 30-minute consultation with a Vibrant Faith Coach. Just click HERE to get started.

Rev. Dr. Mark Slaughter serves as the Minister of Worship Arts at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN. In addition to his 35+ years of ministry, he received a Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary, Master of Divinity and Church Music from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and a Bachelor of Music from Belmont University.


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