Leading in Lockdown: lessons of resilience and wisdom

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Leading in Lockdown: lessons of resilience and wisdom

As the first lockdown hit, the Revd Sarah Hancock, who trained at Ridley in 2015-17, was preparing to move into her title post. A year down the line, she looks back on what she learned about the true nature of both leadership and resilience in lockdown.

March 2021

Sarah Hancock trained at Ridley in 2015-17
Sarah Hancock trained at Ridley in 2015-17
I had big plans at the beginning of 2020. I was winding down my time in curacy and excitedly contemplating incumbency posts. And in March, everything shifted.

Lockdown began and a set of skills I didn’t know I needed, were suddenly called upon. Everyone was taking their services online. I’m not confident with technology, I certainly do not like seeing myself on screen and the thought of having to record, edit and upload a sermon, a service, or prayers with my face on the screen filled me with dread. To make matters worse, my timeline on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram were full of competent clergy with beautiful set ups of lights, cameras and what seemed like perfect homes recording inspiring and encouraging services and sermons.

The comparisons quickly set in. Even in normal times, comparison easily creeps in. Part of being a leader is that you hear what other churches are doing and think ‘Perhaps we could do that?’, Or you hear about the successful church down the road, the one with no finance problems, a growing congregation and a thriving children and young people ministry. But when it’s down the road and you only hear about it via deanery meetings or occasional chats when you bump into them at a Starbucks queue you think, ‘that’s great for you, I don’t have to feel the pressure to compete, I know my setting, my local needs, and can deal with that’ but when you are faced with it every day on social media; it’s a different story.

When your Facebook feed lights up daily with numerous churches doing daily prayer, children’s activities (Alpha groups, prayers meetings, social, support groups, and on and on) you can’t help thinking – ‘I’m not good enough, I’m not doing enough.’ I had to remind myself of the words I’d heard often from my friend Revd Andy Croft, ‘Comparison steals joy.’ Leading, whether in lockdown or not, is about doing what God has called you to, in the place you find yourself living in, with the people who live there too. It’s not looking at your neighbour and trying to copy them, or worse, compete with them.

A prayer tree set up for the community during lockdown
A prayer tree for the community during lockdown

I quickly learned that rather than compare, I needed to consider what my people and community needed. In my curacy church in Luton, not everyone had access to the internet, not everyone had a smart phone, or a laptop. And a pad is something you write on. We had to do things that suited our context. We did the basics, newsletters each week for those not online which included a service they could read. Phone calls each week to those who were on their own. Services recorded, edited and uploaded – a skill I learnt very quickly – for those who could access them. As well as learning not to compare myself to other leaders, however, the major learning curve in leading in lockdown wasn’t about computers, online ministry, or even developing the phone ministry - it was how to support people through a pandemic when you are also trying to process what is happening.

Congregations look to their leaders for support, prayer and what to do. They ask questions such as ‘How long will this last? What happens next? When do you think lockdown will end? When can I come back into the church building? How will this affect my family, myself, my job?’ and the questions just keep coming. People look to you for support and in the midst of trying to lead a church, support people and all the screen time of Zoom meetings, you try and find time to process that you, yourself are in a pandemic.

The reality is that you may find that tasks take a lot longer to complete. You may feel productive at 10am and by 10:05 there is nothing left in the tank to give out. You go to the shop (once a week) and you feel like you’ve been in a battle, avoiding people, making sure you follow the arrows the right way, trying to be patient as people literally push past you to get that last can of beans on the shelf.

Leading in the first lockdown was tough. It was tiring, it was scary, and yet it had moments where God moved. People’s faith deepened and their prayer life got better. I had one small group leader tell me how she now had a set time each day that she prayed. And as the restrictions lifted the thought of life getting back to normal was in sight…but what was around the corner was more lockdowns, more restrictions, and confusion upon confusion about tier systems. The tiredness persisted; the tanks of resilience were depleted. The comparisons lessened as it was just too tiring to see what other churches were doing.

‘Resilience’ is often tossed around as a key characteristic necessary for an effective leader. If there was ever a test for it, this was the year! But, more than resilience, the key thing I would say clergy leaders need is wisdom. Wisdom to know when one more Zoom meeting is too much. Wisdom to know that today just sending the one email and the retreating to bed is ok. Wisdom to admit that we as clergy find it hard to process the pandemic as the next person. Wisdom to know that in the middle of this year that has had too many adjectives to describe it (unprecedented, unusual, difficult), God remains the same. It was the wisdom of relying on our unchanging God that kept me anchored and grounded. Wisdom that has sustained me throughout numerous lockdowns and a move up north to begin life as the Vicar of All Saints Cheadle Hulme.