Learned helplessness vs. learned optimism in congregations

In the field of psychology there is a condition known as learned helplessness. The subject is put into a challenging environment - for example, there might be a persistent, sharp sound - with no way to overcome the issue. After experiencing that initial lack of agency, the subject gives up trying to alter the condition or escape. The subject accepts the situation as permanent, and this learned helplessness induces a passivity that becomes a default response in other, unrelated circumstances.

In contrast, another subject is given the means to change the challenging condition, such as by pushing a button that stops the noise. This subject learns that the problem is temporary and that the means are available to address it. This subject bounces back quickly from adversity, because the agency claimed instills a sense of optimism.

While many studies of learned helplessness and optimism have focused primarily on the impact to individuals, I think these phenomena are very applicable to congregations. Take a church that considers itself in decline, for example. This congregation tries everything it can think of to reverse the trends, such as sending postcards to the neighborhood, hosting a community cookout on the church lawn, sprucing up the nursery, and offering a grief support group. At most, a couple of new people start attending on Sundays from these efforts. The church accepts that it is helpless to stop its slide. It gives up trying to reach out to the community, and it dwindles until a discussion about permanently closing the doors becomes imminent.

On the other hand, a church in similar circumstances might claim a sense of optimism by finding agency in its situation. This could involve the congregation naming and ministering out of the gifts that a small church has to offer that a big church cannot. It might mean reframing growth so that it is not about Sunday morning attendance and offering but about numbers of unique individuals involved in leadership in the congregation and community or the length of time it takes a youth group to name all of the ways it saw God at work during the week prior. It could entail using perceived failure as a springboard for ongoing discernment and deeper dependence on the Spirit.

Learned optimism is not fanciful or untethered from reality. It is a secular term for the hope we claim as people of faith, rooted in the partnership that God invites us into. Whereas helplessness and passivity prevent growth, optimism creates the possibility for all kinds of positive change and for relationship development and strengthening.

This grounded hope is important for congregations seeking new ministers. Most searching clergy are not interested in churches where they will simply pass the time. Your pastoral candidates want to serve a congregation that dreams, that rises to challenges, that recognizes and lives toward its calling. Where, then, does your church need to recognize its God-given agency and begin to act out of hope instead of helplessness?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.