by Terry Maples, CBFVA Coordinator
The opening words of almost every Christmas card and letter we received this year sounded similar: “2020 has been a difficult year.” I lament the devastating impact of COVID-19 – severe illness and death, physical distancing and isolation, job loss, economic uncertainty, overwhelmed medical/essential personnel, food insecurity, clergy stress, teaching and learning struggles, teacher burn-out, etc. Add to these challenges the stress of racial injustice and deep divisions laid bare during an ugly election cycle, we can certainly say 2020 has been a heck of a year!
Despite the challenges of 2020 we learned valuable lessons as we wrestled with limitations imposed by the pandemic. Three words come to mind as I think about churches affiliated with CBFVA: resilient, innovative, and prophetic.
Resilient – The old expression is true, “You don’t know what you are made of until you are tested.” Our faith communities were certainly tested this past year. Most churches were on “cruise control” until COVID-19 and ensuing restrictions hit in March. Most congregations were not live-streaming; some didn’t even have a social media presence. In a relatively brief period of time, churches sharply pivoted away from in-person gatherings to some version of digital worship. Pastors and staff ministers showed incredible resilience as they recorded services each week, determined ways to offer weekly studies, and figured out how to do pastoral care. I commend the resilience evident across the Fellowship!
Innovative – “Innovative” is often more aspirational than reality. Truth is, congregations highly value established patterns and ways of being and doing church. Change is often considered very threatening. The pandemic demanded almost instantaneous change and churches responded with innovative and contextual approaches to the new normal. This innovation taught us valuable lessons about who the church is and how the church functions. This unsettling season has opened the door to even greater creativity in days to come.
Prophetic – In the midst of the pandemic, social unrest ravaged the country. An uncivil election cycle further divided the populace…and our churches. People marched to protest police killings of unarmed black people. White churches woke up to the long-overdue racial justice imperative in our country. Many of our churches responded with prophetic sermons, study series, and substantive dialogue. Progress has been made but much soul-searching and work continues.
PRAISE FOR CLERGY
I am inspired by television commercials celebrating heroes of the pandemic: medical personnel, teachers, and essential workers. Commercials thanking clergy would also be appropriate. MINISTERS ARE HEROES, TOO! In my role as coordinator, I hear regularly from vocational ministers serving faith communities in our state and elsewhere. Addressing congregant concerns about when to return to sanctuaries for face-to-face worship isn’t easy. Many pastors became televangelists overnight—speaking eloquently into a camera lens and/or an empty sanctuary. Pastoral care visits to the hospital are not allowed. Funeral services are rare or impersonalized by distance and masks. Preachers speak truth about important social issues and are accused of being political. Please pray for your ministerial staff, use your words to encourage, and creatively let them know you appreciate all they say and do to “keep it together” in the time of Coronavirus.
CELEBRATING CBFVA ACCOMPLISHMENTS
The pandemic demanded resiliency and flexibility. CBFVA fulfilled its mission and commitment to meaningful ministry in 2020. I’m proud of the effective leadership of our staff and Coordinating Council. We re-structured all planned in-person events to virtual experiences, we offered equipping opportunities to assist clergy in managing this stressful time, we shared prophetic blogs, and we extended support and encouragement to churches and their leaders.
In spite of all the things CBFVA could not do, 2020 will be remembered for three historic accomplishments:
- We hosted the first Winter Summit for students (little did we know how timely learning to see injustice through God’s eyes would be).
- We planned and implemented the first ever virtual General Assembly (offering high quality sessions, Ted Talks, and inspiring worship).
- We formed two new partnerships for theological education in Virginia.
HOPE FOR THE FUTURE
I wish I could say 2021 is off to a better start than 2020 ended, but COVID-19 cases continue to increase and our president continues to inflame chaos in Washington D.C. by inviting supporters to disrupt procedures related to a free and fair election. Violent storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021 leaves many fearful about what happens next. Our country is in disarray to say the very least.
My nature, despite all the challenges before us, is to remain hopeful. Here are a few of the things that inspire my hope:
- We are waking up to the devastating impact of conflating the purpose and mission of the church with political goals. All efforts to use political machinery to accomplish religious goals must cease. Christian nationalism and its racist roots have been exposed. Transformation of hearts and minds is long overdue. Transformation cannot happen though unless pulpits and the pricking of conscience remain free, so be very careful when you are tempted to tell your pastor what he/she can preach. Doing so thwarts the prophetic work of Spirit and keeps congregations stuck and content with status quo. My hope is the current political climate offers an invitation for congregations to build capacity to discuss difficult matters that lead to kingdom epiphanies!
- I’m very hopeful about the work of CBF and CBFVA. What will emerge from the Toward Bold Faithfulness process is a fresh understanding of our identity and prioritization of our values and gifts. This year, we will launch two new approaches to theological education for Virginians. New opportunities for understanding and engaging in the important work of advocacy will emerge. Churches can discover new understandings of faith and how it leads to beloved community by seriously engaging in CBFVA’s new series Nurturing Faith in Community.
- While the rollout of vaccines is slow, signs are good we will be able to gather with family members, friends, and church folks again soon. The isolation and accompanying fear will end. Praise God!
May Spirit-inspired hope lead all of us to faithful action in the world—as together we learn to see through God’s eyes and build beloved community!