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#christmastriggers #holidaystress

By The Rev. Dr. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MA, MDiv

“This isn’t what I asked for!” “Why do you have to act like this on such a special day?!” “Can’t you stop being like this just for one day?” “For some reason this day always makes me sad.” “How long do we have to be at your parent’s house…we’re always there too long?”

Christmas triggers: The Christmas season is so full of triggers. What’s a trigger? It’s an event, a situation, a feeling, a series of thoughts that “trigger”

emotional pain, conflicted relationships,

or difficult behaviors.

As much as we may love the Christmas season and Christmas day, both can trigger pain, loneliness, sadness, conflict, and so much more. So here are some ideas that may help.

Slow Down and Be Intentional: As joyful as the holidays can be, they’re stressful simply because they add so much to our already full plates. We go to more events and parties. We consume more unhealthy food and drink. We feel pressure to find and give “perfect” presents. We rub against each in ways that cause friction.

Slowing down and becoming more intentional helps. This means distinguishing between I want to do, what I need to do, and what I should let go of. Be intentional about what you say yes or not to. Be intentional about what you’ll eat and drink. Slow down so you can make good choices.

Focus on the Positive: This is incredibly hard to do when things become negative, but we can choose how to respond to triggers. We can react in typical negative ways, or we can choose other ways of thinking. Focusing on the positive means appreciating what’s good rather than lingering on what’s not. Appreciate the lights, friends, what’s good. Don’t deny what’s not good but pay more attention to what is good and be grateful for it. Gratitude is part of my spiritual life. I’m intentional about thanking God for all that is good.

Mature Understanding: Can you be more understanding simply of how people are? I’ve found this to be a powerful tool for getting through the stress of anything. The more I recognize that others are responding to triggers, causing them to be sad, create conflict, and feel stressed, the more I can become patient, compassionate, understanding, and respond in more helpful ways.

Be Responsible for Yourself: There was a phrase that really influenced my life when I was being trained as a drug and alcohol counselor. It has to do with two Alcoholics Anonymous steps 8 and 9, which have to do with making amends to those we’ve harmed. A recovering alcoholic said to me, I’ve learned that it’s my responsibility to make amends and ask for forgiveness. But I’m not responsible for getting them to forgive me.

The same is true for Christmas triggers. We can only be responsible for how we react and respond to them, not for how others do. So be responsible for your own responses and forgiveness for others.

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A pastor I meet with for coffee once a month asked me a pointed question: “With all the work you’ve done over your career in turning around churches, what’s the one thing we can do to get churches to grow again?” Before I had a chance to think, I blurted out, “There’s nothing we can do to grow our churches, but there’s a lot of things we can do to grow our churches.”

We both paused and said, “Wow, that captures it!”

Too often pastors and churches have sought ONE thing we can do in our churches that will turn everything around. Is it being missional? Being spiritual? Being contemporary? Being contextual? Being biblical? Being relevant? Being justice-minded? It’s none of those things,… it’s ALL of those things.

There may be no magic bullet, but there are a lot of mini-bullets we could, can, and should be employing to turn our churches around. Unfortunately, there are strong emotional factors that stop us. The main two are fear and grief.

Pastors and leaders may want change, but we’re afraid of our long-time members and big givers who remind us that if we change things, they may retaliate by not giving, leaving the church, or making life hard by constantly criticizing us.

Also, with change comes grief. Change means giving up parts of church life that we love, such as certain rituals, music, and cherished but ineffective program or missions. We know we’d grieve their loss, so we resist change.

For example, during the past year I preached in a struggling church. A group of members approached me afterwards and asked, “Would you be someone to help us grow again?” I responded, “Are you a church that’s open to change?” One said, “I think we are.” I responded, “Okay, the first thing you’d have to be open to is changing your music.” The woman to my right said, “That’s not going to happen. We love our music.” They were singing out of a hymnal from the 1980s. Fear of change and anticipatory grief over loss.

Recently the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB) released their study of the state of congregations over the past 10 years. They found that while America’s population grew by 7.5%, Episcopalians and Methodists declined by 19% each, Lutherans by 25%, and Presbyterians (my denomination) by a whopping 40%. Yet I see almost no sense of urgency across denominations sparking tangible, effective change. Why? Fear and grief. We fear making the changes we need and have anticipatory grief over what we may possibly lose. Meanwhile, non-denominational churches have grown by 72%.

So, if there is no thing we can do to get our churches to grow, what are some of the lot of things we can do? A significant part of my work for Samaritan’s Caring for Clergy and Congregations program is working with pastors and churches to answer that question. Here’s a list of pragmatic things we can do that can spark other “things”:

  • Begin to create a sense of urgency in the church board about what the future of the church will look like in 5, 10, and 20 years. There’s ample material to draw on. The simple reality is that if leaders aren’t discussing their future, the church won’t have a future. But don’t just discuss. Get them to commit to addressing reality.

  • Create a church task force devoted to the future of the church that will study the present cultural landscape, explore what other churches are doing to grow, and make suggestions for how your church can adapt. I’ve written extensively and in detail about how to construct and lead such a task force in my book, Becoming a Blessed Church (Chapter 8), which is easily found on Amazon or elsewhere online. If you contact me, I can also talk about how to do it and send articles on it.

  • Pastors, you need to adopt a different preaching style to reach those who’ve walked away. First, pastors need to study YouTube, Tik Tok, Facebook videos and more to see how younger people are accustomed to being spoken to. Behind-the-pulpit, manuscript preaching no longer reaches people. Younger people are hungry for the connection with God, but not for theology about God. Again, you can find guidance on how to reach these people from my newest book, Preaching to Those Walking Away (also found on Amazon), which is based on my 22 years of growing a church by attracting people who had given up on church.

  • We need to adopt a collective “growth mindset” where we’re willing to grow together in exploring how we’re called to be in the 21st century rather than continuing to lament the passing of the 20th century. Too many churches and pastors have adopted “preservation” and “survival” mindsets as they try to cling to the past. They’re troublesome mindsets. They lead churches to be constantly inward focused. We can’t be mission-minded if we’re always just trying to preserve and survive. What does a growth mindset look like? It means embracing technology rather than fearing it. It means purposely talking with those who’ve walked away through intentional conversations and focus groups to learn from them what’s caused them seek God elsewhere.

Embedded in these four ideas are pathways that open us up to “a lot of things” we can do to get our churches to grow. With all this said, if we don’t develop a sense of urgency over the present plight, in 10-15 years we won’t have to worry because there won’t be enough churches to matter.

Remember that Samaritan’s Caring for Clergy and Congregations program is one that has helped pastors and churches turn churches around.


The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

Executive Director

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#counseling #psychobabble #trust #grahamstandish #understandingpeople #healing

By The Rev. Dr. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA Executive Director

A favorite detective show recently got me thinking about how misunderstood counseling is in so many people’s minds. The detective’s partner had been shot and killed. Recognizing the detective’s growing rage, his supervisor kept bugging him to see the department therapist. The detective delayed, saying, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m gonna do it.” But he never did.

Confiding to his new partner he said, “I don’t need any of that psychobabble crap! What am I supposed to do, talk about it, and that’s supposed to make it better? My partner’s dead!” The new partner replied, “It made me better.” The detective looked at him, shook his head, and said, “Probably because you’re a headcase already. Not me!”

Dismissing therapy after trauma has been a familiar theme on television and film for decades. It’s an easy target because most people don’t really know what happens in counseling. Unlike regular medical care where we and others can see tests, procedures, and treatments, in counseling, healing takes place privately, behind closed doors.

Yet counselors are as skilled as any in the medical field. They use a combination of scientifically proven techniques and artfully crafted skills. Counseling practices are rooted in empirical studies demonstrating what works best, but counselors are also students of human thinking, emotion, and behavior. They’ve devoted their lives to understanding people and relationships.

So, what really takes place behind the therapeutic walls?

First, counselors focus on building trust. Before any real healing can take place, a client needs to trust his or her therapist. So, the first few sessions are devoted to building a trusting relationship. It explains why you’ll hear some dismissively say, “Yeah, I went to therapy for a few sessions. It didn’t do anything for me!” Of course, it didn’t. The therapist was mostly listening in order to build trust.

The person coming to counseling is struggling with issues built on decades of accumulated pain and struggles. These can’t be fixed in two or three sessions, and the more resistant someone is to counseling the longer it takes to build a trust deep enough to go deep.

Next, counselors explore with us. The deep work of counseling is exploring—exploring present problems, past experiences, and possible futures. Exploring someone’s past is hard work because memories aren’t factual. They’re emotional. It takes time to sift through how past events have shaped and even misshaped our present lives. Counselors identify how these experiences have created emotional and mental reactions to triggers, and how they’ve formed unhealthy actions and habits.

Counselors also explore possible new futures by helping people reimagine what a different life might look like They help us detach from painful pasts and unhealthy thoughts that have led to bad choices and explore better choices for a happier life. Then they help us consider healthy futures.

Finally, counselors help us reconfigure our lives. They help us change our thinking and doing so we can realize a new future. Reconfiguring is extremely difficult work because it’s so easy to feel trapped by the decisions we’ve made and the lives we’ve lived. We may have to end a toxic relationship and embrace a new path that’s unfamiliar and scary. Maybe we’ll have to leave a job or vocation to take on an unaccustomed, healthier one. Maybe we’ll need to let go of unhealthy, addictive habits and to form seeming alien, healthier ones. Maybe we’ll have to change how we remember and regard ourselves, our pasts, the people in our lives, and the world around us so that we can see everything and everyone, including ourselves, in a renewed light.

All of this takes time. It takes building strong relationships with counselors, exploring past and future, and then making decisions to change lives.

What we’re so proud of at Samaritan is that we are a center of highest quality counselors who heal from the highest levels of compassion, commitment, and competency. I hope this helps you understand what we do.

Be blessed.

The Rev. Dr. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA

Executive Director

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