by Bob Sitze

Before We Start

When Alban published my little “field guide to hope,” It’s NOT Too Late, I imagined an audience of clergy leaders who might appreciate some hints about how to find hope in these times. What motivated me was simple: I saw evidence out in the church that “eco-despair” was starting to take hold. Leaders who had worked for years in matters of justice and the environment seemed to be getting close to despair about ever moving past square one. So I wrote the book to remind them of all the places and ways in which hope still flourished, perhaps even inside themselves.

This article moves that proposition a little farther still. I want you to consider how you can be a “hope leader.” Consider that you could be someone whose hopeful actions motivate others into activities that defy the both the slimy grasp of despair and the gooey grip of Pollyannaish hope. Since I wrote It’s NOT Too Late, I’ve seen strong markers of hope in a growing body of literature and testimony about hope in the worlds of sociology, psychotherapy, neurobiology, and personal narratives. What follows here is a reflection I hope will be helpful in your ministries. Perhaps these paragraphs will help you continue to make your hope leadership sturdy and robust.
Some Thoughts about Hope

Defining hope is a good thing to start with, but it can become the destination instead of an oasis along life’s way. That may be happening right now to the church’s presumed zeal about many of its long-held visions and causes. Endless dissection of any concept can become an excuse for your frontal lobes to ignore what the rest of your brain is telling you: “Do something about this ideal!”

That being said, I have been heartened to discover that hope:

  • Likely exists as a deep-set function of the human brain, probably the structures drawn together under the idea of “the social brain”.
  • Is almost universally rooted in the many manifestations of spirituality throughout the history of civilizations.
    Is founded—emotionally and rationally—on faith.
  • Can be best discovered, felt, known, practiced, strengthened, habituated, and internalized within human relationships.
  • Is not manifested only in gosh-darn, all around niceness or positive feelings. (Your congregation’s curmudgeon’s are likely hopeful people!)
  • Finds expression in observable behaviors and a host of related attitudes and behaviors.
  • Can easily morph into garden-variety narcissism and materialism. (Recall the furor around The Prayer of Jabez.)
  • Works best as a disciplined habit that can counteract addictions to fear, anger, and despair.

One Part of Social Change Theory

Neurobiologists, educators, and behavioral economists are telling us consistently that people change because of other people. Examples abound: The power of suggestion, the “cloud wisdom” of social media, our innate ability to mimic others, or the location of motor neurons throughout the brain. These phenomena seem to indicate that in an information-overloaded culture, people still pay attention to what they see in others, especially their observable attitudes and behaviors. And here’s a big wow! The church—your congregation, to be specific—is a likely and even ideal place for hope to be learned, strengthened, encouraged, habituated, and rewarded.
Becoming a Hope Leader

As you move from merely being hopeful towards acting as a leader who helps others towards hope, you might consider some of these almost-axioms.

Think of hope leadership as a discipline. Yes, right next to prayer, generosity, and Bible reading. However you are making those “discipleship markers” into dependable habits, try the same strategy with hope leadership.

Watch what you say. Conduct an audit of your spoken and written communications. (For a balanced audit, ask someone you trust to assist you.) The default position for conversation in these times seems tilted toward language that is not hope-filled. (For example, consider the emotional temperature of anonymous online “trolls”; how fear and anger have characterized political discourse; how “planning” is usually approached as a problem-solving activity; or how any of the uses of the Law can crowd out the Gospel.) You, too, might have slipped into word-smithing that fosters too little hope and too much despair. Ask your assistant what you could stop or start doing differently.

Start with one change. Because the proof and strength of hope is in its doing, pick one place in your leadership life where you can strengthen and practice hope’s wise attributes in ways others can see. (Those hope-connected life skills include patience, altruism, generosity, willingness to defer gratification, compassion, humility, moral reasoning, etc.) Start with something small, habituate it, and then gradually add other traits or behaviors. (A habit can be formed in as little as two weeks.)

Check your face. Ask a friend, spouse, or trusted other to observe your facial expressions over a period of time. (We humans copy the emotions of others because of what we observe in the faces of others!) These observers will look for ways in which your face and body language show hope. Use a mirror to help you strengthen your face—whatever that might mean to you and your mirror!

Unload your secret burden. If you’re a hope-destroyer—leading people into anger, fear, and despair about most everything—consider confessing that sin and asking for forgiveness from the people you have most damaged.

Stick with the hopeful ones. Increase the amount of time you spend with hopeful people. Start with children, perhaps some really wise elderly folks, those who have come through either of the Great Depressions, or some colleagues who have moved past de rigueur professional whining frenzies. Ask these folks why they are hopeful, and then adapt their implicit suggestions into your own behaviors.

Take care of your body and mind. Over-worked, hypervigilant, or completely selfless leaders run out of hope soon enough. Start by getting enough sleep and exercise. Take a short sabbath from the major stressors in your life. (That might include people, denominational attention-grabbers, your work style, caffeine, or bovine bloviators on television.)

Pray, pray, and pray some more. Maybe take some time to walk and meditate, perhaps with another hope leader.

Speak of the hope that lies within you. Tell people—witness, testify—about the reasons you behave in hopeful ways. Expect wariness at first, but keep at it. And then invite others into the same ways of thinking and behaving in their own daily living.

Explore the nature and practice of hope. With others, read and consider honestly some of the resources I’ve listed here. As you converse with others, avoid mere “discussion” and try to expand the circle of conversants. Add food and libation to the experience!

Be ready to pay. Consider your and others’ sometimes mucking around in despair as part of the cost for being a hope leader. “Cheap hope” doesn’t work much better than “cheap grace,” so acknowledge your occasional embrace of despair perhaps as part of the cost for being a hope leader. Remember Christ’s sacrifice—and Resurrection—as part of the payment that’s already been made on your behalf..

Engage in one risky behavior. (No, not that kind of risky!) Think about the lively hope—and courage—it would take to “speak truth to power” close at hand, or close down a congregational program that’s draining hope. Perhaps you could visit all the “inactives” in your congregation and ask how the congregation could change to become more deserving of their own hopes.
Resources for Hope Leaders

The following resources have helped me in the writing of the field guide and in my own struggles with despair:

Hall, Stephen S. Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neurobiology. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.

Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010.

McKibben, Bill. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. New York: Time Books, 2010.

Scioli, Anthony and Henry B. Biller. Hope in the Age of Anxiety: A Guide to Understanding and Strengthening Our Most Important Virtue. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Terkel, Studs. Hope Dies Last: Keeping the Faith in Difficult Times. New York: The New Press, 2003.
Questions for Reflection

  • When or where have you experienced hope lately?
  • Where could hope be happening that you might be missing?
  • How can you turn you hopefulness into a way to lead others toward hope?
  • What one area of your life could use the most hope? Is there an area of sin in your life that is keeping you from being hopeful?
  • Who is the most hopeful person you know? How can you reach out to that person in order to learn to be a hopeful leader?

Congregations, 2011-04-01
Volume 1 2011, Number 1