“Nothing Has Prepared Us for This”

“Nothing has prepared us for this.”

It’s a refrain I’ve heard over and over from clergy colleagues and congregational leaders.

“This,” of course, is the pandemic and all the disruption it has caused, including how to do church and be church when so many things we have cherished, so many things that have been central to our practice of church are not possible right now. I’m sure I’ve said it to myself more than a few times.

And I’m starting to shift the narrative. What if, instead of “Nothing has prepared us for this,” we reframed it? “Everything has prepared us for this.”

Think about it like this. An accomplished jazz musician is able to improvise well only because she has practiced the rudiments of her instrument so long and so hard that they become second nature. She has practiced the scales so many times that she doesn’t even have to think about it. All those technical exercises she spent so many hours practicing now form the basis for an explosion of energetic creativity when in a performance, it’s time for her to take a chorus.

Fine art painters spend hours drawing and studying composition, design, perspective, and color. I had a friend in seminary who had been an art major and a painter. I relished our visits to the St. Louis Art Museum when he became teacher and I became student. We’d stand for 20 minutes in front of a painting as he broke it all down. The technical elements of an artist’s medium have been practiced for so long that they don’t even think anymore, using what they’ve internalized to create a visual painting that is a stunning expression of imagination and creativity.

What if everything we have done in parish ministry to this point – the so-called normal time of pre-Covid – has been practicing the technical aspects of ministry and church leadership? We’ve been practicing our scales for this moment of energetic creativity.

We all know that the mid-20th century way of doing church isn’t going to work into the future. We’ve been lamenting that the church has been slow to change, insisting on old patterns, even though the status quo isn’t working very well.

We believe that God is at work in and through the church, always bringing something new. We believe that the whoosh of the Spirit is a reminder that she is at work, sometimes a gentle breeze, sometimes a strong disruptive wind, always leading us into the future that God already inhabits.

I’m convinced that this is one of those moments of transition and rebirth. The status quo has been upended whether we like it or not. The only choice forward is to embrace the invitation to what’s next, to unleash our energy, imaginations, and creativity for the new birth. Rather than seeing this new normal as something to be lamented, something that we could never have seen coming and could never have prepared for, it just might be a gift, that moment that every other moment of ministry has been preparing us for.

I’ve always believed that was the case in my succession of calls in now 33 years of parish ministry. As I’ve embraced and lived into a new call in a new location with new people, new challenges, and new opportunities, what came before had prepared me for what’s next in ways that I could never have imagined or predicted.

If all this sounds a little too positive and perky for where you are today, I’ll own that. The truth is that some days I feel full of creative energy, ready to go out and meet this thing head on. And other days I feel exhausted and stuck. Still, I’ve found that a reframe to embrace this moment as gift is helping me move forward.

An aside. To embrace something new all alone is, of course, exhausting. When we all went under lockdown in March, there was a tremendous burst of creativity, imagination, and energy by clergy of all stripes. We were suddenly faced with having to figure things out with a blank piece of paper in front of us. We got by for a few weeks on adrenaline. I don’t think many of us expected that six months later, we’d still be operating under what we thought were very temporary conditions. That initial burst of energy has not been sustainable.

So, we’re learning all over again to let others share some of that burden and be part of the creative, imaginative process that will take us into the future. I have found an unexpected group of folks who love to talk about what’s next and what it might look like. For me, it’s not the actual office-holders of the church, though the leaders have been wonderfully supportive. We have a Sunday morning Zoom conversation that over time has decreased to about a dozen regular folks. The conversation is ostensibly supposed to be about their Sunday morning worship experience, but for the past couple of months it inevitably turns to matters of church and ministry and what the future might be like. They have become people who I can bounce ideas off of, folks who are trustworthy, supportive, positive, and have a playful spirit of creativity and imagination.

None of us have the experience to know what to do in a pandemic or in the post-pandemic future. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have what we need to carry us through. Maybe Wendell Berry said it best: “What we need is here.”

5 thoughts on ““Nothing Has Prepared Us for This”

  1. Bob Sitze

    Jim!
    On point and helpful writing. I can hear the energy in your voice — as it moved to your fingers on your keyboard. And yes, you are entirely correct. What you wrote helps strengthen me in holding onto and proclaiming similar thoughts that keep flying by my darker thoughts and inviting me to pick myself out of the muck and keep moving.

    Maybe even soaring!

    Bob Sitze

    Reply
  2. Tom Wendorf

    Jim,
    I believe you are onto a deep truth. I believe that out of chaos and uncertainty, God is preparing and challenging us to bring forth the Kingdom of God. A better world, not perfect, just better. I see this too in the work I do in retirement with helping folks get re-employed in living wage jobs. There are changes afoot, that so far are invisible to most. I pray that they come to fruition.

    Reply

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