Losing one’s job is a very personal experience. It taps into all kinds of feelings. For an individual there may be concern about financial security and what next steps might be. Depending on the circumstances of the stoppage of work there may be shame, or illness, or some other stressful circumstance affecting their feelings about it. Dismissal from work ranks in the top ten most stressful life events a person can experience which can potentially have long term health impacts. On the other hand, there may also be hope and anticipation, a sense of freedom or a fresh start. Walking through work transitions with a directee does not seem like something outside the realm of possibility for most directors. In fact, most directors probably feel very equipped to support someone in that season. But what if that work loss has ripple effects throughout the community? How do our questions and help differ in that context?
Sometimes the loss of one person’s job affects many throughout a community. If that person was a primary provider for their household, or the leader of a community and they are now unavailable or moving away, everyone experiences an upending to some degree. Or perhaps loss of jobs impacts an entire community at once, as when a town has grown up around a particular industry or business, or when experiencing pandemic or recession. There are a variety of reasons that we as directors may find ourselves working with people who are all from the same community. In these cases, we may begin to hear the story of these events told through a variety of lenses. When we are attending to individuals who share many aspects of their lives we can begin to look for common themes between them, especially when something happens that affects the entire community. Identifying these patterns can help us connect people with appropriate services or give language that can aid in communication with local religious or community leaders who may be meeting with the same groups. Spiritual directors can be valuable voices when communities are discerning next steps together.
If you do find yourself meeting with multiple individuals who are all being touched by changing jobs or economies, group direction is also an option. It may help bring together people who are able to empathize with and support one another in unique and helpful ways.
For the individual who’s work or vocation is intertwined into their community life, losing a job or transitioning into something different may be more emotionally loaded. How do they feel about the impact of their changing circumstances on the community? How are they reflecting their experience to their community? Are they able to share and be supported? Are they hiding what’s really going on in their heart? These additional concerns make someone’s experience more than walking through a transition because of the potential depth and complexity of relationships between affected parties.
If you do find yourself meeting with multiple individuals who are all being touched by changing jobs or economies, group direction is also an option. Starting a group may help bring together people who are able to empathize with and support one another in unique and helpful ways. Group direction may also help by providing a variety of perspectives and can give everyone a sense of togetherness and community as they discern how to handle the challenges facing them.
Whether we are meeting with one person or a group, acknowledging and caring for the complex needs that are sometimes hiding below the surface of circumstances, is the ongoing challenge and privilege of being a spiritual director.
In the current pandemic crisis, we are seeing an overwhelm of the health care system that is unlike anything we have seen in our lifetimes. The restrictions around hospitals limiting visitors (for everyone’s safety) mean that often people will be suffering, even dying, in some degree of isolation. For some there may be a nurse or chaplain that stays with them. But many will not be attended to by their family. And in kind, the family will be home without their loved one. Feelings of helplessness, anger, and overwhelming sadness will accompany this difficult experience.
IMAGE: NOVANT HEALTH
It is likely that most of us will know someone either directly or through someone close, who dies of this disease. That means we will also be coming into contact with directees who have lost loved ones in this cold and detached way. In older congregations we may see dramatic drops in members and be grieving these lonely deaths as a group. This experience of losing so many people in a way that is so outside the norm may heighten the experience of bereavement. The strong emotions that accompany grief, combined with a sense of helplessness can quickly reach the levels that we define as being traumatic. How can we help people to process through their experience in a way that helps them avoid becoming stuck? How can we help people to find comfort in the Presence of God in such trying times? How do we honor traditions that normally would comfort people with “last rites” when we cannot be physically present with the dying? Responding well to the very real and tangible losses of life around us will be part of the long term recovery process. Being intentional in our response will also help build resiliency and protect the mental health of our directees in the aftermath of this global crisis.
Different helping professions will all need to navigate their own response and how they provide care. For spiritual directors, this journey will necessitate facing theodicy, or the “why do bad things happen” question, with our directees. We will need to create space for, and perhaps provide instruction about, lament. We must allow space for tears, anger, and the heavy silence that falls when words fail. Embodied work will need higher priority.
For those of us who fill a dual role as minister/shepherd/pastor, or who consider ourselves part of an institution or congregation, attending to the communal experience will also require tender attentiveness. There is so much loss in this season for everyone. Each of us has and will experience different affects on our emotional, physical, spiritual, fiscal, and relational health. Senses of “normal” and security have been and are being threatened. There is so much grief work to be done. Finding the grief connected to losing a loved one and holding it in context of all the other losses swirling around will call for patient and precise care.
If you have not already begun to meet with directees who have lost loved ones, consider that it is likely that you will in the future. Begin to prepare yourself now, both in heart and in training, to walk alongside a level of unique grief, unknown to most of us. This is a new chapter. We are preparing the way for what spiritual direction will look like for decades to come. Discuss this with colleagues. Bring it to supervision. Perhaps the resurgence of interest in being trained as a spiritual director that we have seen over the last decade or so, was for just such a time as this.
As COVID-19 continues to sweep the globe we all find ourselves in uncertain times. Our daily lives, the routines and rhythms that we had taken for granted have been upset. Some people are finding joy and adventure in the process of discovering new ways of being. Many are facing financial difficulties. And most of us are facing some level of anxiety that changes from day to day. Spiritual direction will necessarily be changing as well. How does spiritual companioning change in light of current safety recommendations? What are we invited to as we walk with individuals through one of the largest shared human experiences in generations?
As always, structuring our self-care to allow us to serve from a place of abundance is paramount. While we are not immune to anxiety, financial distress, or health concerns, it is important for our sakes’ and our directees’ that we continue to be in touch with the Infinite Resources available to everyone. Maintaining your own practices and disciplines during this time can allow a sense of continuity and consistency. It is also important to attend to your own health, physically and mentally. To “put on your own oxygen mask first,” so to speak. Are your needs being cared for? Are you getting a chance to exercise? Are you able to be outdoors at all? Or even by an open window for some portion of the day? Are you connecting with friends and loved ones? Are you continuing to eat well? What do you still need? How are you experiencing the Divine in these times? Now is an important time to be maintaining a supervision group as well. Continue to practice good self and ministry care for increased flexibility as new norms present themselves.
Structuring our self-care to allow us to serve from a place of abundance is paramount.
In terms of ministry, you may find that for a season many of your directees may need more psychological first aid than spiritual guidance. Right now many people need help with managing anxiety and adjusting to new ways of life. Companionship may take on a new form for a time. If it is safe and your local weather permits, consider meeting outside and maintaining recommended distance with directees if you still desire to be in person for sessions. Additionally for many of us, companionship may also mean exploring new mediums.
Virtual meetings will also likely grow in popularity in the coming months. Consider reaching out to colleagues who have been practicing virtually already to see what advice they may have to offer. Practice your digital skills by having virtual calls and “meetings” with family and friends. Ask them for feed back on your presence, pay attention to your own facial expressions, and practice trying not to look at yourself! Platforms such as Skype, Zoom, FaceTime and others still allow for a sense of being face-to-face. If you often incorporate music into your sessions, Jammer is one platform designed to not experience lag when trying to sing or chant together. If you are meeting with groups, setting up a simple Google Hangouts can allow you to share imagery easily and require less administration than sending logins to every participant. It is also possible to still have embodied sessions while remaining distant. Email directees coloring pages, art, or music links ahead of time so you can share in those mediums together during a session.
You may find that for a season many of your directees may need more psychological first aid than spiritual guidance.
Communicating a sense of presence and containment over the internet will require honing a new set of skills. Often we use a read of our directee’s body language as an indicator of unsaid emotion. Similarly, we use our own body language to communicate calm or attentiveness. When we only have faces, or in the case of a phone call only voices, we will need to lean into developing vocal tone, good facial affect, and grace for mediums that can at times feel artificial or impersonal compared to being physically together.
This is a new time for all of us. A season of what may feel like never-ending change. Some will find new practices to be most helpful, some will require the familiarity of the old. Many of us will be brought face-to-face with new depths as we come to the ends of ourselves, our expectations, and what we thought was normal. There will be deep grief and great joy. For all of us, there is a long road ahead. May we have grace, and may we do it together.
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