As I write this article, our world continues in lockdown mode in its effort to stem the spread of the coronavirus. The crisis seems far from over; the toll in terms of lives lost, jobs furloughed or cut, retirement funds pummeled, etc., is staggering. This pandemic is devastating for congregations and clergy who serve them, as well—navigating how to be and do church during a season of physical distancing, figuring out technical logistics of online worship, doing pastoral care and funerals, paying bills as offerings decline, making tough decisions about cutting staff pay or eliminating positions altogether….the list is long. The ongoing stress and strain on clergy is evident. Pray for them! Though many are struggling, I continue to hear from pastors about important lessons learned and insights gleaned while navigating congregations through a pandemic.
COVID-19 is far from over in the U.S. and countries around the world, but hope is high we can resume some version of normal in a few weeks, maybe months. The purpose of this blog is to think ahead to the day when church bodies can once again gather face-to-face for study and worship, when we can enjoy spending time with friends in public spaces, when students return to attending school in-person, and when we can enjoy concerts, sporting events, and other life-enriching experiences in community. Our human tendency is simply to “thank God that’s over” and resume typical patterns and practices. How can we hold onto and build upon lessons learned, even callings experienced, during this crazy time?
The coronavirus has so disrupted our world and our lives most of us will simply want to return to our version of normal as quickly as possible. That’s natural. However, danger lurks around the corner when we try to by-pass essential reflection on grief, loss, and the impact of a crisis. This is true for individuals who want to “get over their grief experiences and move on” too quickly, and it is true for congregations.
Nothing shapes our lives and community formation so much as the questions we ask (or the ones we refuse to ask). Questioning is a prerequisite for change and innovation; discovery requires digging deeply. Here are some questions I’ve been thinking about to aid your reflection as you prepare to re-enter (one of these days) congregational life:
- What did we learn about the essential nature of the church in a time when gathering as faith community was considered non-essential?
- How were our assumptions about how to be and do church challenged? How have priorities changed?
- How can we be more authentic coming off this time of forced isolation?
- What did we learn about the needs of our neighbors?
- What did we learn about church that might keep us from slipping back into old, stale routines, i.e. how do we avoid business as usual?
- We’ve been on a journey of isolation. What did we learn from the removal of normal rules of human conduct?
- How have our senses of hearing and experiencing changed?
- What has been amplified in the discomfort of solitude and distancing?
- What unmet needs were overlooked prior to the crisis that were discovered and require ongoing attention?
- Where did you stumble? Perhaps there is where your treasure lies.
- This crisis brought people to the doorstep of our churches (even if it was virtual). What about the gathered community might discourage their ongoing involvement?
- What did we learn about suffering and compassion? What did we do with it?
- Stories form connective tissue for faith communities. How did stories shape and form faith during the crisis? How might stories continue to form vibrant faith? What pandemic stories have connected and inspired your faith family?
- We gave up and sacrificed a lot for the common good during the pandemic. What are you willing to give up for the unfolding of God’s call upon your congregation?
- How different will our lives be if we allow new questions to shape us and propel us into the future as people of God?
Reconnection with our friends and loved ones will be sweet! A collective sigh is inevitable. In our efforts to move on or “get over it” let’s not waste the invitations and callings of this crisis. The most dangerous time for us will be immediately after the crisis is over. I encourage you to meet this time of danger and dis-ease with thoughtful reflection. Bring experiences into conversation with faith and practice.