Our rituals will change this year
A holy season marked by pandemic can still bear witness to hope, peace and faith.
Was it only Feb. 26 when this Lent began? Was it really only a bit more than a month ago that I invited the faithful to the observance of a holy Lent, marked them with ashes and said those ancient words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”? Ash Wednesday feels a lifetime and a world away from where we are now. Maybe you can relate.
It was only five weeks ago that members of my congregation met to plan our Holy Week and Easter services. At that point, we had no reason to believe we wouldn’t be doing those services the way we’d always done them.
It was only four weeks ago that we gathered for a “normal” Sunday morning schedule in our beautiful chapel. Service at 9 a.m., children’s and adult formation at 10 a.m., another service at 11 a.m. We had no way of knowing that that Sunday would be our last normal Sunday morning for an extended period.
It was only three-and-a-half weeks ago that priests in my diocese received the directive to suspend the common cup at communion, to serve only the bread to the faithful gathered. I said Mass that way exactly once before the next wave of restrictions set in; it was only three weeks ago that we were instructed to suspend all in-person worship and cancel all church activities for two weeks. New CDC recommendations. Social distancing. No gatherings of more than 50, then 25, then 10.
It was only three Sundays ago that we held our first online Sunday morning service. I told the congregation, gathered on the virtual meeting platform Zoom that I did not want to worship online for so many weeks that we would get good at it. But then it was only 12 days ago that the CDC revised those guidelines again. Now, all in-person worship and all church activities are canceled through May 16, the outer limit of the necessary eight-week window. Hospital and home visits were suspended as well, lest the clergy carry the virus from person to person, house to house.
Grief and uncertainty washed over me, over us as a congregation. How will we provide pastoral care for our congregation in this moment -- in particular, for the sick, the dying and the grieving? How will we offer last rites, funerals and burials? How will we mourn together and remind each other of the hope that is within us?
There was grief in a different way for those services we had planned for Holy Week, for Easter; they would now have to be translated to Zoom. What would we do without a Palm Sunday procession, a Maundy Thursday footwashing, Good Friday Stations of the Cross? And what is Easter without brass and that feeling when the whole congregation joins together in singing “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today”? What is Easter without Eucharist, without that community declaration, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again!”
As a people of faith, we are confronted with a paradox. At a time when we need this community the most, the practices of being community that we have known and relied on -- or, dare we say, that we have even taken for granted -- now have to be suspended or adapted to slow the spread of COVID-19. The orienting rituals of our faith will change this year because we simply don’t have the choice to do what we’ve always done.
It was only 10 days ago that the lay leadership of my congregation gathered on Zoom to discuss all of this. Freed from having to debate whether or not we would have in-person worship, meetings or activities, they brought their creative energy to the more pressing questions: How will we support and sustain our community now? How will we be the body of Christ for and with one another in this moment?
By the end of the meeting, those lay leaders committed to calling every member of the congregation and writing reports of those conversations to share with each other, documenting every prayer and practical concern named. They would hold virtual dinners for the congregation every Monday and Thursday night, inviting our people to find social connection even as they maintained physical distance. They would host contemplative prayer online on Wednesday nights for those needing a centering midweek ritual.
Over the last 10 days, they have done all of these things. In some ways, that’s the gift of a smaller congregation. In other ways, it’s the gift of a community that knows it needs to be community now.
Their leadership has inspired others. During our Sunday Zoom worship, one member offered to teach yoga on Facebook Live multiple days a week, another to teach body prayer. Folks offered to buy groceries for our shut-ins and others who worry about going to the supermarket. The musicians offered to send concert links to anyone missing music in worship or the arts in their lives. And for those who are experiencing tech challenges, several people offered to help them navigate Zoom, Facebook and Google Hangouts.
God knows what the weeks ahead will hold -- it was just days ago that stay-at-home orders were issued for the counties where our members live. Yet if what has been is prologue, then what will come, I am confident, will be more grace-filled experiences of real community. We will continue to find creative ways to be community for and with one another even in this season when we are physically apart. We have to. It is a witness of hope in the midst of fear, peace in the midst of panic and faith in the midst of uncertainty.
It is the promise that at the end of the fast comes a feast where all are welcome.
In this excerpt from his recent book, author Robert C. Saler writes about pastoral sabbaticals as a time of reinvigoration and reflection for both church leaders and their congregations. Saler directs the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs and the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary.
What Kinds of Activities Can the Congregation Do?
As is the case with pastoral activities, congregations should not worry about what they hear other congregations doing during their pastor’s sabbatical. Your congregation is unique, and the life history and social setting of your members come together to form a community unlike any other. This means that, as with pastors, conversations about this uniqueness and what feeds the soul of the people in that place can be incredibly valuable in and of themselves. Most congregations have regular conversations about mission, identity, growth strategies, etc., but when was the last time your congregation had an unhurried, open conversation about what things give it life?
This is the joy of renewal periods -- they are gloriously superfluous. By refusing to serve the immediate, they open space for the deep and expansive. They are not designed first and foremost to be congregational strategy sessions about worship design, church growth, financial matters, etc. Just as, while on sabbatical, the pastor is invited to step away from the day-to-day demands of ministry and leadership in order to focus deeply on spiritual matters, so too the renewal period can be a time for the congregation to indulge in the blessed luxury of asking questions about joy and meaning.
Now, in saying this I do not mean to go against what I said before about how congregational leaders might also pick up some leadership tasks while the pastor is away! But the truth is that the two emphases -- greater congregational leadership and deeper time for exploring questions of what gives life to the congregation -- are not actually opposed. The former can draw out the latter, and vice versa.
A congregation whose pastor was on sabbatical instituted a lay preaching series to help cover the pulpit while the pastor was away. One by one, various leaders and faithful members of the congregation shared testimony during the sermon time about the operations of God’s grace in their lives. As the series continued, the congregation realized that the intense focus on new programs and added activities in the last few years had, inadvertently, served to clutter some of the core reasons why people chose to go to church there -- personal connections, unhurried worship, clear focus on the gospel.
The congregation taking on more “preaching to itself,” as it were, served to create a space in which eventually the people had the courage to take a pause and begin to engage in what C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison [in “Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus”] call “slow church” -- the careful, connectional, simple realities of life together in community apart from busy-ness and pressure to grow. So increased leadership and increased reflection can go hand in hand.
The best congregational activities during a renewal period, then, are the ones that draw on and enhance these twin goods: encouraging leadership among congregation members while also creating space for reflection.
Some congregations (such as the one discussed in the Introduction) bring in guest speakers and preachers to focus on topics of interest to the congregation -- especially if those topics relate somehow to the theme of the pastor’s sabbatical leave. Depending on the congregation’s finances, it can draw on local colleges, seminaries, or other educational institutions for speakers. Most seminary professors and professors at Christian colleges in particular are eager to speak in congregational settings. Be sure to allocate money in the total renewal period to pay a fair mileage rate and honorarium.
Don’t assume that the most profound topics will be the most “religious,” or vice versa. Sometimes, congregations have gotten more out of bringing in experts to talk about ecology, science, art, or health care than would have happened had they brought in theologians! Just as some of the most theologically rich sabbaticals consist of “non-church” activities that nonetheless draw the pastor deep into the joy of God’s creation, so too sometimes congregations can have their imaginations for ministry fired by topics that at first seem irrelevant to ministry, but soon show themselves to be deeply resonant with the lives of the people.
Again, have the frank conversation about what is on the hearts of the people in the congregation, and don’t be afraid to craft a plan that might make no sense to a neighboring congregation, but for your people is fitted and right.
Things to Avoid
As the congregation thinks about its activities, its imagination should range far and wide. However, there are several categories of activity that should be avoided by congregations during the renewal period.
First, while the pastor is away, the congregation should not hire consultants or bring in speakers/facilitators who will cause the congregation to start having conversations that are best had while the pastor is present. While conversations about theology, mission, Bible, history, culture, etc., can be very profitable for congregations to discuss while the pastor is gone, if talks turn to finances, staffing, outreach, or other sensitive matters, then the congregation might find itself embroiled in controversies that can spin out of control. Do not bring in “stewardship experts” or “church growth strategists” or others whose talks are likely to set off debates about sensitive matter such as money, attendance, and staff performance/compensation.
Some congregations make the mistake of thinking of the time when the pastor is gone as akin to an interim period between pastors, which is a time when congregations are called to be introspective about both mission and ministry details. Renewal periods are not that; they are times for introspection about mission, but not for detail work around financial and operational matters. Let the renewal period be a time to focus on spiritual, theological, and recreational matters; this will, as with the pastor, give the congregation fresh energy and insight to tackle practicalities once the pastor and congregation are reunited.
Meanwhile, if the congregation has secured grant funding or donations for renewal activities during the sabbatical, then make sure that the money goes toward activities and not capital improvements to the building or grounds. A congregation who uses the renewal period to focus on, say, Celtic spirituality has the potential for a very meaningful time; however, if that same congregation were to use funds set aside for renewal to build [a] multi-thousand dollar labyrinth on the church grounds, it might be hard to avoid the impression that the labyrinth itself (or the augmented sound system, or the patched roof, etc.) was the real point of the renewal. Focus on experiences, not property.
As with the pastor’s activities, the congregation should not feel bound by a theme. If a theme is helpful, then use it; however, it may be that the best way for the congregation and the pastor to both have powerful experiences during the renewal period is for each to chart an individual course, so as to marvel at the ways God can make the courses converge once reunion happens.
From "Planning Sabbaticals: A Guide for Congregations and Their Pastors" by Robert C. Saler. Copyright © 2019 by Robert Saler. Published by Chalice Press and reprinted with permission.
The inaugural dean of chapel at Wiley College blends traditional faith practices with a fresh approach in order to inspire and teach undergraduates at the HBCU.
Much of who the Rev. Dr. Dominique A. Robinson is today can be traced back to two women -- her grandmothers.
Her father’s mother was Pentecostal and the founding pastor of Deliverance House of Prayer in Irvington, New Jersey. Her mother’s mother was a Baptist laywoman. On Sunday mornings she attended the Baptist church and in the evenings the Pentecostal church, where her paternal grandmother was the preacher.
They exposed Robinson, 35, to traditional faith practices early in her childhood -- practices that Robinson honors to this day. But their influence extended beyond that.
“Because my father’s mother was my pastor, I heard her preaching often,” she said. “Because of that, I imagined God as a black woman as a child. That still shapes who I am today as a minster.
“I did not grow up with a traditional lens of who God is, but many of the practices -- like fasting and praying -- are still with me today.”
Robinson was named inaugural dean of Julius S. Scott Sr. Chapel at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, in August 2019. It was a new role for her and for the college, which many people recognize from the 2007 film “The Great Debaters,” starring Denzel Washington.
She is ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, a decision she made when she was 18 because she thought the AME Zion church was a good mix of her Pentecostal and Baptist roots.
She has a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University, an M.Div. and a Th.M. from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a D.Min. from Columbia Theological Seminary. She is currently a Ph.D. student at Christian Theological Seminary.
Robinson identifies as a womanist millennial preacher. She’s now adjusting to her role as faith leader for the 1,400-member student body of a Southern, United Methodist, historically black college rooted in history and tradition.
Reared in Newark, New Jersey, Robinson was practicing ministry in Atlanta, Georgia, before accepting the appointment at Wiley.
“There were a lot of firsts for me moving here -- I had never worked at an HBCU, never lived among the people I served, etc. The experience made me feel like I was living in a real-life fishbowl,” she said.
“I only know how to survive by going back to my prayer closet. You can walk through the chapel today and see oily fingerprints on the walls from where I have walked about laying hands on the building while in prayer -- all expressions of faith practice I gleaned from my grandmother.”
She spoke to writer Mashaun D. Simon about her ministry preaching to millennials. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: What is your official title at Wiley? Why was it important to develop this role at this time in this capacity?
Dominique A. Robinson: Yes, it is the first time that Wiley College has had an official “dean of chapel.” In years past, the chapel lead at Wiley was someone from the United Methodist Church serving a local UMC congregation in tandem with the role of chaplain at Wiley.
The administration desired to hire a trained theological educator who would be able to expand the work of previous chaplains in the areas of spirituality, maintaining chapel and religious programming, while functioning fully as a religion department faculty member and establishing a center for religious life.
Faith development is a core value of the school. In the midst of the pluralism and loss of faith nationwide, I believe designating an office, role, and funds and programming to religious life serves as a means of support for the overall well-being of our students, faculty and staff.
We are living in a day and society where it seems as though faith really isn’t a priority anymore. It is my task to give students tools to put into their personal toolkits so they can determine what is best for them.
I want to move them from religion to relationship with whatever deity they identify with. While we live in a pluralistic world, there is a moral emptiness, and so I think faith development helps students become morally aware.
F&L: Many people know about Wiley because of the film “The Great Debaters.” What made you interested in this role, considering the institution’s history? What does it mean to be the first in this role, a black woman and millennial yourself?
DR: Yes, yes! I literally always introduce Wiley College and myself by saying “the home of the Great Debaters.”
This role was of great interest to me because I have always felt called to minister holistically to marginalized individuals. That is all I saw my [paternal] grandmother, Della V. Smith, working with. For a season, serving marginalized individuals meant serving young black persons -- millennials -- because they looked like my brother or my sister, or they could have been my brother or sister.
At Wiley, I feel like I can function in all of who God has called me to be as a religious scholar, theological educator, preacher, writer, activist and advocate. This is the perfect place and time for my vocation and the future of Wiley to converge.
F&L: How does your ecumenical faith background and training fit within Wiley?
DR: There are four cultures present at Wiley: United Methodism, or Wesleyan; African Americanism; black church culture; and higher education culture.
It was founded by the United Methodist Church -- faith tradition is one of the tenets of Wiley. It’s an HBCU in the South -- African American culture and black church culture is prevalent. And being that it is an institution of higher learning, there is the higher education culture and all that comes with that -- the politics, policies and procedures, practices, etc.
In my training as an itinerant elder in the AME Zion Church, I embody black church culture and the beliefs and practices that the culture possesses. In addition, my ministerial training makes me versed in Wesleyan practices and verbiage, while understanding and relating to African American culture, language and colloquialisms.
Having earned degrees from Georgetown University, Candler School of Theology and Columbia Theological Seminary has equipped me in developing Methodist-based, liturgically cohesive, culturally relevant and biblically founded worship services that are also captivating and engaging.
F&L: Chapel is required of Wiley students, correct? What does it mean to have chapel be integral to the lives of the students?
DR: Chapel is held every Tuesday at 11 a.m. and required for all freshmen, sophomores and juniors. Attendance is also required of seniors who are members of the liturgical dance teams and a cappella choir.
And I have an expectation of all students who are members of the campus ministry -- Young Disciples for Christ (YDC) -- to attend chapel weekly. Also, all student organization leaders are expected to attend chapel weekly.
For those students where chapel is required, they receive a grade for their attendance and participation. They have weekly assignments that they’re expected to complete each week. Some of the assignments include questions about things that may have occurred during chapel or the purpose of communion. The assignments vary.
My goal with the assignments is to help them think through their faith. All too often, they function through inherited traditions without any real investigation of why they believe what they believe or why they are doing what they are doing.
What is also important to note is that it is rare for an institution to require attendance and participation in chapel. But [Wiley’s] requirement is not just for the students. No faculty person can handle business during the chapel hour.
Chapel is significant for us at Wiley for two reasons. First, we have a covenant relationship with the United Methodist Church.
Second, we hold firm to the belief that worship is a healing station for all of those who gather. The goal of having chapel become integral to the lives of the students is to display our commitment to developing and offering holistic support systems and programming.
Though Wiley is a Christian education institution, we are working diligently to offer safe and brave spaces for our non-Christian students, faculty, staff and partners. We do not want to allow one’s faith to be used as a weapon against anyone.
F&L: Tell me about your project called iHomiletic. How does it line up with your work at Wiley?
DR: iHomiletic is a methodology of using social media linguistics and technology for reconnecting millennials to the church by way of preaching and teaching. It is the result of my D.Min. research, which focused on black church-going millennials and how their identity as millennials impacts their reception of sermons in black churches.
Long-term, I intend to publish a book as well as a workbook and app and incorporate the research into my liturgical planning for chapel and pedagogy for courses here at Wiley.
One idea is to have a live Twitter feed on the screen during chapel so that students can engage the sermon in real time -- a modern take on call and response, via either Twitter or TikTok.
The idea is to meet them where they are, engage them via the tools in which they are currently communicating. In the classroom, I would like to see iHomiletic become a preaching elective.
F&L: How do you see your work at Wiley fitting into your larger vocation?
DR: My work at Wiley is just the tip of the iceberg for my larger vocation’s narrative. I do see myself serving in church leadership and higher education at the highest levels one day -- keeping one foot in the academy and one foot in the church.
In the same way that I am equipping our students for their future, I see this experience at Wiley doing the same for me. I am serving on presidential committees and task forces. I am learning higher education policies and procedures. I am practicing my craft of preaching and teaching. I have been given freedom to invest in and strengthen my scholarship. I am more than clear that God called me to Wiley.
For one pastor, feeding the spiritually hungry means meeting them where they are.
At 8:00 on a Sunday morning, I usually worship in the suburban Chicago church where I am pastor, wearing a stole and sensible flats. But this Sunday, I am leading a group of 10 on a hike in a Chicago forest preserve, wearing a bright blue Osprey daypack and hiking shoes.
We’ve done introductions, named our intentions and are heading off toward the first stop, where I will guide them in a contemplative practice I’ve found in a book. I feel utterly ridiculous and absolutely delighted.
It is an event for my Meetup group, “Re-Creation: Hour-long retreats in the outdoors.” Meetup, a social networking site, gives people the opportunity to connect in real life around activities they enjoy -- like hiking and contemplation. My group invites participants to spend time in nature and connect with other spiritually minded people and practices, and with the Holy.
For Re-Creation, I planned some events on Saturdays and some on Sundays, even though it meant I would miss worship on three Sundays in the summer. As I’m the lead pastor, this felt like a big deal. But it was good for the congregation to know how important I thought it was for us to actively seek out people who would not normally come to church. Just unlocking the doors on Sunday morning wasn’t bringing masses of newcomers.
The group roster swelled to 100. Then 200. We’re now up to more than 400 members. Not nearly that many people sign up for the events themselves. Usually four to six Meetup people come, and three to four people from my church. And there are always those who RSVP and then don’t show, just like church.
My congregation received my announcement about the Meetup roster with an audible gasp. We’d confused shrinking worship attendance with a lack of interest in God. The people who attend the Meetup also meditate, see reiki practitioners and go on silent retreats.
They want to connect with other spiritually minded people. They want community. They want experiences of the holy. These are all things the church should be good at, but we exert a lot of effort not offering them.
We spin our wheels getting people to serve on committees and bring treats to coffee hour. No wonder people trade church for coffee shops and weekends on the lake. People are spiritually hungry, and we ask them to cook for potluck suppers.
After introductions, I lead us just a short way down the trail and then pause at an opening in the trees. I read a Mary Oliver poem and then teach a form of centering prayer. We continue on the hike. The group divides into two clusters. The people who joined via the app get to know each other, while the five people from my church talk like old friends. How do they ever expect us to grow if they don’t talk to strangers? I think.
We continue until about the midway point of the trail, where I introduce them to “lectio divina in nature,” in which the natural surroundings are the text, instead of Scripture. I hand out a description of the steps on a laminated sheet complete with the church logo and website. “They are less likely to toss the laminated paper,” I had explained to my secretary. “The logo reminds them about the cool church that organized the Meetup.”
I had told my church that success was simply meeting people we otherwise would not have met. I lied. Secretly, I thought this Meetup would clear a path from the forest preserve to our sanctuary.
We finish the hike in contemplative silence. At the end, I teach an embodied prayer.
Hands raised. “Christ above me.” (Participants are invited to use whatever word for the Holy fits for them.)
Hands out to the sides. “Christ beside me.”
Hands to the chest. “Christ inside me.”
Hands out in front, to receive and to offer. “Amen.”
We share with each other our worries, so that we won’t have to carry them alone, and those things for which we are thankful, so that we can celebrate with others. As we say goodbye, people hug. Community is formed.
As a college student, I spent time in a conservative evangelical campus community. We wanted people to follow Jesus so that he could save them from hell. Those of us in the mainline church don’t worry so much about the unchurched getting saved. We worry more about saving our churches.
We get anxious about numbers, and we shrink evangelism to church growth, measuring success by butts in pews and dollars in plates. We want people to come to church to replace the ones who have died or moved or left angry or just burned out. We want to reinvigorate the congregation with “new blood,” forgetting that blood transfusions are for the benefit of the recipient, not the donor.
As I drive home, I reflect on the morning. When our walk started, I thought my delight was because I was ditching church for a walk in the woods. But my delight was deeper than a day off. I often feel more like the executive director of a religiously affiliated institution than a pastor of a congregation of disciples. Leading this pack of strangers was the most I’d felt like a real pastor in a long time.
I wasn’t skipping church. I’d been to church. I see the point of the day for the first time: it wasn’t to invite people to church but to participate in church with them.
I remember a holy moment. During the lectio divina, I’d hiked ahead of the group to the gathering point on the trail. Dense fog had hushed the distant sounds of traffic and cloaked the woods and prairie in mystery.
I slowed my pace. Breathing. Noticing. A deer stepped out of the woods onto the trail about 50 feet in front of me. We stood, eyes locked for several seconds. Both of us beholding, and beheld.