Bible Study: Resilience in the Parish

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Resilience is the material property of being able to bounce back, spring to form, or recoil. Applied to individuals and institutions, it refers to the capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties. The secular sciences have observed strategies, techniques, and habits that anyone can implement to gain resilience. Resilience is one’s ability to adapt to stressors and rebound after suffering through adversity, setbacks, and a wide array of stressful circumstances.

Intentional attention to resilience sharpens us to be more effective and to find greater satisfaction in our lives and life together. Applied to our congregation and school, we can develop better habits of responding to challenges in ministry, parish, and classroom. And as Christians, we have a deep well of wisdom in Jesus’ Word that the world cannot give. Remember how Jesus told the disciples on the night He was betrayed, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27).

Resilience is not the ability to avoid or pre-empt distressing situations. While we can be attentive to ourselves and our congregation to develop physical and mental resilience, Jesus has not promised that our lives will be without trial, tribulation, and suffering. Our sin is a regular cause of distress. We sin against each other, making a mess of every human relationship. We suffer our abuse of each other, marriage, family, congregation, and society. And because we are baptized into Christ Jesus, we can and should expect to suffer in the same ways He was in His earthly ministry and continues to be attacked and accused even now. “Indeed the hour is coming, yes, has now come, that you will be scattered, each to his own, and will leave Me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me. These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:31-33). 

There are many threats to our resilience to both earthly and spiritual attacks. The first is being an “achieve-o-matic” or Type A personality. Physically, you cannot do everything and you will often meet resistance or fail. Spiritually, the Church is the responsibility of God the Holy Spirit. Yes, He will use you as instruments in His work, but any good that happens in our congregation is His responsibility and achievement. 

The next is negative self-talk. How you think of the congregation of God’s making is revealed in how you speak about it. If your default mode of speech is to tear down, disparage, discourage, and demean, you have opened up both yourself and the congregation for spiritual attack. Note: This is not to be confused with the accusation of God’s Law that shows us our sin, a necessary work of the Word and Spirit. Sin is exposed to be healed by Christ’s forgiveness. 

Another threat is catastrophizing. This is another mode of speaking that denies the promises of God for the Christian congregation. It can be subtle, where the failure of an effort of the congregation to care for faith and life is projected to be a failure of the entire ministry. While real catastrophes can come, Jesus has promised to preserve whatever is necessary to keep you with Him today and always. “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand” (John 10:27-29). 

Perfectionism is a threat that opens you up to attack.“The perfect is the enemy of the good” (Voltaire). Perfectionism is a pride or fear-based compulsion that either fuels our obsessive fixation on doing something perfectly or paralyzes us from acting at all — both of which often result in the harmful neglect of other necessary or good things. “…This Man, after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:11-14). We are God’s workmanship and He will accomplish what is good, right, and true in us and even despite us. Our perfection is in Christ’s forgiveness, not in our work.

When faced with great challenges of life and faith, we are tempted with avoidance or withdrawal. It’s easier to surrender than to engage. Surrender is active and yet you will consider yourself the passive victim. Or if the heat gets too intense, you might seek cooler climates, greener grass, or whatever proverbial utopia you falsely think exists. But no faithful congregation is without daily afflictions from the world, the devil, and our own sinfulness. But do not give up! The preacher to the Hebrews exhorts us, “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). 

Resilience is a trait rooted in thoughts, choices, and behaviors. Spiritually speaking, the means for resilient people and congregations are already yours. The Spirit is at work daily to return you to Jesus, to listen to His Word, and to guide your words and deeds. Immediately after Pentecost, the Spirit-gathered Church was given the gifts that make for resilient people—people who would be persecuted, slandered, attacked, and even killed. All but one of the Apostles died a martyr’s death, yet remained faithful unto death. “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers… And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved” (Acts 2:42-27). 

What are the common characteristics of resilient people and congregations? They have persistence in the presence of a “can do” attitude, trusting in Jesus’ promises. They are motivated to accomplish meaningful goals for the building up of the Body of Christ in Word and Sacrament. They have the ability to consider change to congregational traditions and explore new ideas to deliver Christ’s gifts. The Christian congregation that is resilient embraces hope in response to all difficulties. It makes an honest appraisal regarding its strengths and weaknesses, gifts, and resources. The membership is expected to be faithful in hearing the Word and receiving the Sacrament. The congregation develops reasonable problem-solving skills, strategies, and techniques to be responsive to attacks. It interacts effectively with sister congregations, other Christians, and its community. It is vigilant and mindful of its physical and especially spiritual well-being. And it is self-aware of its capacity to encourage and uplift (or discourage and depress) each other’s spiritual state. 

Anyone can acquire strategies to enhance their creaturely resilience. And Jesus never ceases to preach His Word to you, to “convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2), so that you will be daily prepared to be resilient in Spirit, too. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day. . . . In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Ephesians 6:13, 16).