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  • Writer's pictureSherry P. Johnson


Figuring out my role with nonprofit and government folks I work with has been really confusing lately. We've lost a lot of people, either to the COVID-19 pandemic or to attrition. We've lost a lot of our drive. We're feeling deeply tired, wondering, “Okay, when are the reinforcements gonna come? When will we have more predictability or order? Where did all our volunteers and Board members go? Why aren’t any of us feeling it anymore?” And those answers just aren't there.

I'm being called in to do things like strategic plans, coaching leaders, facilitating discussions, and I can’t pretend that everything is okay. I only can rely on the contexts I’ve known before, so I try digging into those memories. I got my start in nonprofit startups and organizing, and that experience has run the gamut around most forms of leadership.

For working in context of creativity, I’ve moved from emergent strategy, where I’ve had to sense what’s happening alongside other people, gather ideas for experiments, and move into trial and error…simple interactions that shape things in positive directions.

I've also been involved in the context of the complicated: linear planning, gathering experts to come to consensus over what should happen, or advise the community and then gauge their consensus.

With nonprofit startups, I’ve had to figure out when it's time to write the bylaws, apply for articles of incorporation, draft the mission/vision/values. Some of that is governance; some of that is just about leading in the context of clarity.

And sometimes there are crises, when I’ve had to stop and stabilize the system before I could do much else.

Of all those contexts, my happy place is creativity, but I'm not feeling that right now. Everything is so confusing.

One of the folks I coach is a faith leader who is deeply skilled in this context of confusion. The other day, she shared with me that what she feels her job is right now—more than anything else—is to get people to stop, pause, and make space for grief. We talked, too, about how tempted she is to follow the folks around her who want to address impending crises, build a new plan…but her sense is that those are coping strategies right now, and that only in making this space will her lay leaders and congregants be able to reconnect with themselves, with one another, and with their faith. And only those things will renew their spirits and help them move forward as whole, fully integrated humans.

I’ve taken that to heart. I’m trying to feel my grief.

Meanwhile, organizations that I'm working with, large and small, all have a lot of unprocessed grief: not just over typical things that our ancestors have created rituals for, but also really abstract, modern things like climate change, internet-fueled division, pandemic fatigue, and diminished in-person work. Some of us are still rooted in gauging our worth through our work or people-pleasing, trapped in productivity culture, and asking, “Why can’t we get started again?” But the world will never be the same.

What do I have to offer in this context? Maybe it's just to remind you—and remind myself—that I need to be looking for those people in my life that are really good at leading in this confusing time… To be searching out those who are skilled at making space for conversations about paradoxes and unsolvable problems.

Think of those winsome folks in your life who are less interested in “getting stuff done,” and more interested in “having a sit and chat”: Folks like elders, faith leaders, conveners, community organizers, or that neighbor who’s always hosting a backyard fire circle. They can help teach us to sit in the discomfort, yet still care for yourself and one another.

Maybe you’re one of those people, especially suited for this time? Take the Leadership Orientation Quiz to explore.

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