Tag Archives: pandemic

In a Time of Change and Loss

I called her “St. Nancy” (now of blessed memory).  She had been a member of the congregation for over 40 years. Maybe a charter member, I don’t know. She had spent her career as a hospital nurse and was steeped in service to others; there was an assertive, yet loving way about her. By the time I began my ministry in that congregation, Nancy had retired, but still active. Over the decades, she had probably taken nearly every job there was at church, from council president to leading the women’s guild. She had a heart as big as the Indian Ocean and a healthy, direct way of speaking. When she disagreed with something, she said so, but it was never mean; she was always a team player. (I’m guessing you can picture your own Nancy.)

When our parish nurse died suddenly, Nancy was heartbroken. Not only had she and Sue been friends, but she was deeply committed to Parish Health ministry. So, when we decided for budgetary reasons not to fill the position, Nancy was upset. And when the leadership wasn’t responsive to her insistence, trouble began. She took it to the streets, in that ugly way that we do.

At a staff meeting we talked about it and knew we had to address it. One of us volunteered to go talk to Nancy one on one. We discovered that replacing the parish nurse was only the cover for something much deeper. Nancy said, “For 40 years, I’ve been taking care of people in this congregation. Now that I’m old, who’s going to take care of me.” It wasn’t about filling a position or not. It was about the fear of losing something that she had been instrumental in nurturing, that we take care of our elders. It was about change and loss.

Leadership guru, Ron Heifitz, writes that it’s not change that people dread. Let someone win the lottery and they’re more than willing to change their lifestyle. It’s loss. That’s what people fear.

In this pandemic disruption, people are experiencing both change and loss. For at least 6 months now, we have experienced the loss of significant ways of being the church that have meant so much to us. We aren’t gathering for worship in the church (at least most of us aren’t; and if we are, it doesn’t look much like what we were used to). We can’t have our coffee hour, we can’t hug people on the way into church, we long to be able to sing together again. The pandemic has messed with so many of our cherished practices and traditions. What’s maybe more troubling is that some of those losses will be permanent.

So, both loss and change. No wonder people are anxious.

I fear that the dynamics of loss and change will be too much for some congregational systems to handle without spiraling down into some pretty serious conflict. The tensions between those who are pushing to get back the building and those who are more risk averse are already showing up. At first there was impatience to get back in the building; now the impatience is turning to frustration, even anger.

Here are a few things that are going to be important in the next few months as we navigate what’s turning into a much longer disruption than we expected.

Creating space for lament. Wise pastoral leadership will create space to give expression to the grief and sadness, the frustration and anxiety that we’re all experiencing. People need an outlet for the grief they are experiencing at the loss of what may never return in the form they were used to. In one of our Sunday morning Zoom conversation, I asked how folks were doing and one of them just blurted out, “This is hard. I’m having a hard time with this. I just feel like nothing is normal anymore.” Not only did they have a chance to give voice to their grief and loss, but it gave the community an opportunity to practice care for each other.

Pay attention to relationships as well as tasks. In the church, we are often so occupied with the tasks that need to be accomplished that we forget that we are fundamentally a relational community. Maybe it’s beginning the meeting with a rounds question that invites people to share something about themselves. Maybe it’s just opening the space for people to talk. We are both rational and emotional beings and while we might not be very good at expressing the emotional part of who we are, it doesn’t mean it’s not important. And we can get better with practice.

Keep your leaders close. Check in with them. Get in the habit of a regular phone call or email just to see how they’re doing.  Focus on the leaders who are calm and courageous; strengthen and support them. And don’t ignore the ones from whom we’re sensing tension. We don’t need to focus on them, but we do need to listen and pay attention.

Keep the mission in mind. Especially in these times, it’s so easy to focus on what needs to be today. I have those days when I’m just trying to get done today what can’t wait until tomorrow. We are having to make so many decisions that it there doesn’t seem to be room for one more. But while circumstances and context have changed dramatically in the past 6 months, the mission hasn’t. For us, that’s to be the sacramental presence of Christ in our community. Keeping that in mind brings clarity to everything else. Remembering the mission can help us dream hopefully about what we’d like the future to look like. It can unleash the creativity and imagination that just might launch us into a new normal that helps people to see that though we might be experiencing loss, what comes next might be better than we could have imagined.

Margaret Wheatley writes, “The primary way to prepare for the unknown, is to attend to the quality of our relationships, to how well we know and trust one another.” In the end, Nancy’s anxiety and reactivity was softened, not because we convinced her that our strategy was the right strategy, but because she felt listened to and cared for. It’s all about the relationship. In times of change and loss, paying attention to relationship will always strengthen the mission.

“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.”

“To Think in a New Way”

One of the challenges of being a church leader in this time of pandemic is the constant change and uncertainty. Nagging at us are the questions about how permanent or temporary these changes will be and whether what we think is temporary will become permanent. This morning I was reading an entry from my journal, dated March 17. “On Saturday, we made the decision to close the church to in-person worship for the next 4 weeks.” Remember those days?

The near constant decision-making and uncertainty is a big part of what makes these times difficult and exhausting. We’re always trying to figure out something new. In our Zoom Sunday conversation yesterday, a few of our parishioners started talking about the importance of innovation and creativity. And it reminded me of a fascinating article in the July 20 issue of The New Yorker magazine. The article by staff writer Lawrence Wright is based on a series of interviews Wright conducted with Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Institute of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Pomata points out that throughout history, pandemics have brought fundamental changes in society – economically, socially, culturally. Black Death marks the end of the Middle Ages; what came next was the Renaissance.  Towards the end of the Black Death in Italy, a middle class began to form when peasants – for reasons of safety – fled the feudal estates and found freedom when they entered the city walls of several city-states. Many of the peasants became artisans and merchants. That transition also fostered a fundamental change in the practice of medicine. Prior to the plague, medicine was an abstract discipline based on the study of ancient Greek and Roman practices, influenced also by astrology. After the pandemic, it began to be based on empirical evidence.

She said, “What I expect now is that something as dramatic is going to happen not so much in medicine, but in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”

This pandemic has forced us to turn on a dime with regard to things that have been so central to our life together – gathering in our buildings for worship, singing, enjoying one another’s company complete with handshakes and hugs. I’ve seen enormous creativity and energy demonstrated by pastors and congregations that six months ago would never have imagined themselves doing on-line worship.

The irony is not lost on me that the one thing that we have spent so much money on and so much time and effort caring for – our buildings – are for the most part off limits to us right now. For so many of us, the beautiful pipe organs and grand pianos, sit silent, or if not silent, heard by most people only on a recording.

Some of the more dire predictions suggest that what we are viewing now as temporary may go on for much longer that we think. I read that some denominations are suggesting no in-person worship through 2021. If that’s the case, what will the church look like? To use Dr. Pomata’s language, what new ways of thinking will be required.

I’m pretty sure on-line worship is here to stay. Even if we begin to gather back in the sanctuary, until the risk is significantly lowered by a vaccine or some other means of mitigation, many in my congregation will not come back. They will continue to participate in worship remotely. Which means that even pastors and congregations who have resisted making a commitment to quality on-line ministry will be rethinking that and investing resources in strengthening and improving their on-line presence.

One of my hunches is that congregational ministry will end up much more decentralized. Rather than a single large gathering, we’ll be gathering in smaller groups where folks can feel a greater sense of safety with people they know will be compliant. David Fitch, author of Faithful Presence, has been advocating for this kind of church gathering long before the beginning of the pandemic, and now especially in these past 5 months.

I like the idea of it, but as I talk with my folks about it, the ones who don’t feel safe coming back into the building largely don’t feel safe in a smaller group either. For now we’re doing more gatherings outdoors, but in northern Wisconsin, that option will quickly disappear.

I’d love to think that we could figure out some way for smaller groups to meet in person. While on-line worship is meeting some need, as is the on-line meet ups we’re having using platforms like Zoom, they can’t deliver the physical presence that we are hard-wired to crave. We are embodied, enfleshed beings, and many of us miss being in each other’s presence as much as anything.

I think it would actually be kind of wonderful if small, intimate gatherings could become the major locus of congregational ministry and the big gathering in the building became secondary. It would actually give us a much better means to practice the neighborly love at the heart of our faith.

I’ve read way too many articles suggesting that thousands of congregations won’t survive this pandemic. I’m not smart enough to know whether that’s true or not. I do know that many are on life-support and this may be the event that leads to their demise. But I’m enough of a hopeful person to believe that the church itself is not going to die. The wisdom of the elders, including Gianna Pomata, suggests that crises provide opportunities to let things die and rise again. Which for Christians isn’t a foreign concept.

What do you think? I’d love to hear what you think the next several months will bring.