Problem Solving in the Midst of Change and Loss

By Dr. Richard H. Gentzler, Jr.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, church leaders have experienced great change in how we do effective ministry. In some cases, the loss of face-to-face gatherings with social distancing, changes in the way we greet people (without hugs and handshakes), celebrate Holy Communion or holy baptism, or even in passing of the peace during worship services can be troublesome. Problem solving in the midst of change and loss takes on a whole new dimension for leaders during this crisis. Perhaps church leaders can learn something about problem solving by using the SOC method of coping with change and loss.

Selective Optimization with Compensation (SOC) is a strategy for improving health and wellbeing in older adults and a model for successful aging. It is recommended that seniors select and optimize their best abilities and most intact functions while compensating for declines and losses. For example, an elderly person with fading eyesight who loves to sing could focus more time and attention on singing, perhaps by joining a new choir, while cutting back on time spent reading. Overall, this model suggests that seniors take an active approach in their aging process and set goals that are attainable and meaningful.

Accepting the reality of a loss does not mean you have to just put up with losing an activity, role, or hobby of value to you. Instead it can mean you work to find a new way to keep it in your life. In the face of the changed circumstance, continuing to do the same thing in the same way you did before may not be possible or may result in frustration or other problems. We can’t be blind to the deficits of aging, but we needn’t wallow in them. The important question is how best to deal with decline in ways that bring satisfaction. In research, people who use SOC have reported better life satisfaction.

Paul Baltes, the eminent psychologist, loved to tell a story about Arthur Rubinstein, a famous pianist. Rubinstein, who continued to perform professionally late into his life despite having been physically affected by the aging process, illustrates how each element of SOC can be used. One day, when Rubinstein was 81, an awestruck young TV interviewer asked him how he had sustained his virtuosity so far into an old age.

Rubinstein mentioned three strategies: First, he reduced the scope of his repertoire (an example of selection). He played fewer pieces and limited himself to those he loved and was still able to master. Second, he practiced this restricted-repertoire more intensely than would have been the case if he still played a larger repertoire of pieces (an example of optimization). This meant he got better at them through more practices. Third, to counteract his loss of mechanical speed he used a kind of impression management, such as playing more slowly before fast segments to make the latter appear faster. This illusion of speed gave his audience the impression of greater dexterity than was actually the case (an example of compensation).

Could using the SOC strategy be an affirming way for church leaders to deal with the changes and losses congregations are experiencing during this crisis? I believe it is a method for coping with change that is worth exploring.