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Reflecting on the resilience and well-being of individuals, volunteers, organisations and communities

Thursday, 18 April 2024  | Monica Short

Resilience is a popular yet complicated concept. When I think of resilience, I think of words like adaptable, continuing, flexible, functional, hopeful, persevering and having the ability to generate options within complexity - especially when experiencing adverse and uncertain situations. Social work and sociological and theological resilience literature show us that resilience may either be embraced as a strength and perceived as an essential survival resource that empowers people and communities and helps us cope with vulnerability or derided as an exploitative tool used by those more powerful to shift responsibility for wellbeing from an organisation to people less powerful whilst allowing repressive social conditions and structures to thrive. 

I do not see resilience in such a dualistic way. Instead, I think we can perceive resilience as a trait or a resource, depending on how people engage it. When used to support empowerment, resilience can help practitioners, volunteers, organisations and communities manage existential distress and trauma (E. Rush, S. Redshaw and M. Short, ‘Philosophical and spiritual worldviews and professional resilience in frontline social work and human services: a scoping literature review’, Journal of Religion and Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought 42, no. 2, 2023, 193–210). Further, as a social worker inspired by multidisciplinary thinking, in my research, I am becoming increasingly convinced that resilience grounded in the Christian faith can be a valuable part of a well-being toolkit that allows practitioners, volunteers, groups, organisations and communities to make meaning of uncertainty and complex situations.

Christian formation and resilience

When two colleagues and I undertook a scoping literature review into professional resilience in frontline social work and human services, we became concerned about the numerous situations that stretch, challenge and/or distress communities and people. In reading the literature, we noticed what appeared to us to be an increasing expectation that people, organisations and communities would respond in exceptional ways and, at times, do so with little guidance and with limited or declining resources and support (Rush et al., 2023).

It is in these situations that faith can be an immense comfort. Also, people with faith have a unique resource to help them navigate tough situations. For example, suppose someone is experiencing pressure to engage in a practice that contradicts appropriate personal, professional and/or organisational ethical approaches. In that case, they can ground or boost their resilience by remembering the Gospel and the example of Jesus, by praying and by reading Bible passages such as Psalm 20 or 121. They do not stand alone when politely declining to do the practice.

Furthermore, resilience is a recurring research theme for me. Four colleagues and I recently inquired about rural Anglican church engagements with farmers and graziers. Many rural churches are engaging with people who are experiencing complex family situations, existential crises, rural disadvantage and trauma and/or grief because of suicide. In this research, we reflected on how many rural churches are declining in congregational numbers and finances; nevertheless, the church continues to provide comfort, care and sanctuary for people (M. Short et al., in press, ‘The lived experience of rural churches pastorally caring for farmers and graziers: a practical theology conversation’, Practical Theology). For example, congregations of people faithfully continuing to meet and remember Jesus' actions and pastorally encouraging and caring for each other, despite experiencing rural decline, exemplify resilience. Another example is that people working and living in rural communities are profoundly impacted by weather conditions. In times of bushfires, drought or floods, workers or volunteers or organisations or communities can be expected to respond to distressing situations. Critically reflecting on and theologically analysing these situations can help make meaning of them, which in turn can encourage people to be resilient in the present and support thinking about the future.

These two research projects, combined, highlight for me that Christian faith matters and that Christian disciplines such as prayer can build resilience.

Final thoughts regarding engaging resilience in the community

Many theologians engage with ideas around the Christian Church, formation and well-being. Theologians such as William Temple and Dietrich Bonhoeffer remind us that we are not alone, that God is with us and that the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus have gifted us with connections and the ability to build our resilience within local gatherings. Such theologians highlight the importance of meeting together as a church, building relationships, sharing love and kindness, nurturing social organisations, providing pastoral care and promoting political constructions that empower all members in connection with Jesus (Short et al., in press). As we keep gathering, remembering the Gospel and encouraging each other, we can grow our resilience and spur one another on to love and good deeds in the most complex situations (Hebrews 10: 22-25).

Monica Short is Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Work and Arts, Charles Sturt University. She is a member and coordinator of the International Network of Co-operative inquirers, researcher with the CSU Gulbali Research Institute and adjunct Centre Scholar with the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture.

Image credits: Monica Short

Resilience provides the confidence to see the challenges we are climbing.

Resilience allows us to see there is a possible way forward.

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