“I could never have made it through without your support.” After investing hours and hours listening to and praying with my friend Tsion, I was relieved to know that it made such a difference. Tsion Abera’s decision to step down as executive director of a street children’s NGO in Ethiopia had provoked an organizational and personal crisis. As an old friend, she came to me in intense pain and confusion asking for help. I remember our times together as an emotional rollercoaster, smeared with tears.
Time to move on
Tsion helped found Serve All twelve years earlier with the last six years as executive director. She led a close knit team whose members put their heart and soul into the work. The intense, family-like organizational culture tried to live out Jesus’ teachings about unconditional and indiscriminative love and sacrificial service. As in many families, however, not everyone got on. There was a fair degree of tension. Tsion felt that after twelve years, she should move on. She believed God was leading her to new things. She dreamt of setting up something with a similar vision, but in a different format.
Tsion’s resignation came as a bombshell to the staff. It triggered huge emotions. Staff felt betrayed – particularly because Tsion’s new initiative was in the same field and with some of the same founders of Serve All. People polarized quickly into two sides – in simplified terms, those who felt she was undermining Serve All, pushing it to the brink of collapse and those who felt the two initiatives would complement each other. Staff, associates, partners and the beneficiaries were divided. Confusion, misunderstanding and anger reigned.
Soul in distress
Tsion felt torn apart. She had thought this was a God-inspired stride in her life. She was deeply hurt by the fierce criticism from colleagues and former friends. One particular colleague vigorously attacked her for trying to sabotage the organization as she was leaving. Tsion took it very personally. She knew she was responsible for what had happened. Yet she also believed in her decision and the vision she cared for.
Tsion was reeling in a storm of conflicting and raw emotions. She felt misunderstood and mistreated, but she regretted the timing and the way she had informed people. Many people were confused about how now to relate to her; yet she was trying to do the right thing. She was trying to save relationships that mattered and at the same time clear her name so that she could still contribute to the future vision…. Her soul was in chaos.
A safe space
Tsion turned to me for encouragement and advice. Although already over-busy with my day job of leadership development and coaching, I could not refuse a friend. I had to do what I could. So I tried to provide her with a safe space to vent her pain, to air out her concerns, frustrations and hurts. I tried to understand her – why and how she decided to leave. I tried to make her feel heard. I tried not to judge her motives; nor force her into what I thought was the right way to handle the situation. But I did seek to encourage a positive interpretation of comments and remarks coming from ‘the other camp.’
Tensions in counseling
This led me towards conflict resolution. I thought I might be able to help by fostering discussion and understanding between the two sides. I listened to the thinking and feelings of the others as well. I tried to mirror the other side’s positions and interpretations with Tsion so that she would better process them and take them into account. I challenged Tsion that she needed to own up to her mistakes with staff to encourage greater understanding and promote peace. I felt she had to take the lead in encouraging reconciliatory discussion. But Tsion remained unconvinced. She believed the core issues were to do with individual personalities which cannot be handled or changed through discussions. She felt that the passage of time was most needed to heal the relationship.
I could not insist. I could not force her or manipulate her to do what I thought was best. I realized then that my main role was not to give advice, but simply to be there for a friend in need. So we continued to meet, talk and pray together. We prayed for healing for Tsion’s emotional damage. We prayed for wisdom for her to take the right decision in going forward.
As we continued, the intense pain of hurt and loss began to subside. As the emotional turmoil lessened, Tsion’s strength gradually returned. Tsion found our discussions helped her see other options. She felt in a better place to make better decisions, anchored on her core values and vision. From the emotional chaos and ruptured relationships in leaving, she is now filled with hope for the future.
It has been a privilege to walk alongside Tsion at such a difficult time. But it has been costly. Such transitions are never easy. Leaders need all the support they can get.