An enormous pastoral task awaits the religious community on Nov. 3, the day after this year’s presidential elections, no matter the outcome. Now is the time for religious leaders to anticipate this challenge and to prepare ourselves to respond to the inevitable fallout.

Election 2004 is being described as the most important crossroads in modern American politics. Interestingly, both sides employ the same language: “The future of our country hinges on the outcome of the election. It’s winner-take-all. This is a battle between good and evil. Losing is not an option.”

The religious community needs to anticipate the inevitable: one candidate, along with all his supporters, will lose on Nov. 2. Close to half of those who vote in our country will likely be hugely disappointed, and many in serious grief, when they wake up on Nov.  3.

This will be a strategic pastoral moment. What should pastors, counselors, chaplains and denomination leaders of all stripes anticipate? How can we be ready? Following are some suggestions to begin the conversation.

–Stay connected. In order to care for all members of our flock, we must rise above philosophical and political differences in the few weeks before the election and value each person as a beloved child of God. Ministers who have taken strong, public partisan stands will be less likely to act as a healing agent for all members of the congregation. Pastors must work to preach gospel truths without lapsing into partisan politics. In the remaining months, let us choose words that unite rather than polarize.

–Be prepared. As community leaders we must be prepared for the election results, and have personally dealt with our reaction even before the votes are tallied. You might lose. Or you might win. Regardless, we’ve got pastoral work to do amidst our grief or relief. We don’t have the luxury of waiting until election night to begin working through our personal feelings of joy or despair. We must deal with some portion of our reaction in advance, in order to be farther down the emotional road than those we serve. Somehow, like the candidates, we must approach Nov. 2 with both a victory speech as well as a concession speech in our pockets, only ours must be more pastoral than political.

–Think theologically. Let us continue to remind ourselves: the Kingdom of God does not rise or fall on this election. Despite the assertion that much rides on the outcome, and it does, the losing party’s followers must be invited to view the bigger picture. We must challenge despair. We must resist isolation from brothers and sisters of the other party.

–Anticipate effects. Obviously, the election results will affect those most deeply invested in the process: politicians, campaign volunteers and people with strong convictions about what our country needs. This will include many of our churches’ and agencies’ leadership and employees. Anticipate that Nov. 3 will not be a highly productive day.

Election losers will likely go through various expressions of grief–denial, anger, resentment, depression, isolation, hypersensitivity–in the way most people do, which is erratically and vaguely. It will require patient, persistent pastoral care to restore hope again.

Election winners will likely feel euphoric and vindicated, and will deal with this in the way most people do, which is also erratically and vaguely.

–Note underlying issues. In addition to legitimate political concerns, response to the election will also be shaped by the high degree of competition that colors the American psyche. In this “winner-take-all” election, we can anticipate some badly damaged egos on Nov. 3. What a shock to accept that the candidate they were certain would win, lost. This means they lost too, and as the recent Olympic Games reminded us, Americans hate losing.

–Reaffirm Common Ground. Political campaigns are about distinguishing one candidate from another. Opponents are demonized and minimized, while one’s champion is heralded as the true patriot. This rhetoric, like campaign placards that litter the landscape, is no longer necessary on Nov. 3, and so, predictably, the political olive branch will be extended.

The church must do better than this. Our country is deeply divided. It has been some time since Americans have visited our common ground. The church can articulate this common ground, and should begin reminding our congregations about it in our prayers, hymns and proclamation in the remaining weeks before the election.

–Encourage Restoration and Reconciliation. Churches could begin now to plan community services of worship for the days following the election. A single service of worship that attempts to bring both sides together may seem too ambitious. Perhaps a community could offer separate Services of Hope, one for those who lost, and a second for those who won.

Just as congregations needed worship in the aftermath of 9/11, many will violated, isolated and afraid after 11/3. Churches could announce that their sanctuaries will be open as safe havens for prayer and reflection following the election.

A Service of Hope for those who won could guide worshipers toward God’s larger call to all nations and not just America. It could remind citizens that our ultimate trust is in God, not in political or military victories.

It would be a beautiful witness to the reconciling work of the gospel if the order of service for these community gatherings were formed in advance by clergy of differing political persuasions, using identical hymns, scriptures and litanies, even if the tone in these services are understandably different. It would serve as a reminder that in joy and despair, through it all, we are one.

A great deal hinges on the outcome of Nov. 2, 2004. But much more hinges on how the church responds to the aftermath.

Joseph Phelps is pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.

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