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How to think about what’s next when the future is unclear

In the midst of the swirling COVID-19 crisis, I have found a few moments, when I lift my head from the pressing pastoral realities of congregational life and from my own sense of vulnerability and worry, to think about the longer term.

Fewer and fewer of us now believe that after this crisis, life will just go back to the way it was. It is becoming clearer that life on the “other side” will be indelibly and irrevocably changed.

But what will that life look like? When I give myself permission and space to ask this question, I am realizing four things.

First, before I can imagine a new future, I need to grieve — and, as a priest, lead others in grieving — what has been lost. There are some who would urge us to postpone our grief in order to get through the crisis. Yet healthy, restorative grief cannot be delayed.I cannot wait until the crisis is over. My congregation cannot wait until we all gather back together.

We must lament all the things we have lost and are losing now — travel, weddings, celebrations, holidays and holy days, jobs, businesses, dreams, friends and family members, confidence in our elected leaders — all of it.

We are missing being together at births and deaths, holding hands and each other. And while we can delay memorial services, there is no postponing grief. Part of my calling is to help people walk through the grief in all its complexity. To do this, I must first give myself room to grieve. I cannot guide others through something that I am not able or willing to experience myself. Now is the time for each of us to feel the guilt, shame, rage, fear, frustration, denial. All of it.

Second, given that the future will be different in ways that are not yet knowable, I need to develop multiple visions of the future, and congregations (and other organizations) need to do the same. Andy Crouch has written provocatively about this time, asking how our response should be different if the COVID-19 crisis turns out to be a “blizzard,” a “winter” or the beginning of a “little ice age.” Lifting my head from the day-to-day, I increasingly realize that congregational and other organizational responses to this moment must include plans for all three possibilities.

While the crisis is looking less like a blizzard — a quickly passing storm — what if it in fact is? Those clamoring to “reopen” the country are wagering just that. So what if, in a month or three, we are able to resume congregational and community life much like they were before? What will we have learned in this time that will shape our going forward?

Or what if this is instead a winter — a protracted season of ongoing crisis — with oscillations between more- and less-restrictive distancing measures as the rate of new cases and deaths rises and falls? What if this introduces a new kind of unpredictability in our life together until there are better treatments or there is a vaccine, possibly as long as 18 to 24 months from now? How do we plan for distance and then reunion and then distance again — and at what point does distance become estrangement?

And what if this has the even deeper impact of an ice age — a new epoch — remaking our institutions, reforming entire industries, reshaping what we mean by community? What if the much-lamented anticipated closure of 40% of congregations in the United States in the next 30 years happens instead in the next 30 months? What then?

What if a majority of businesses that have been shuttered during this period never reopen despite federal loans? What if this is a time that cleaves history into a before and after in this country and around the world?

Whether storm, season or epoch, this crisis has already forced us to reimagine what we think of as congregational worship, giving and stewardship, staffing structure and mission. We are rethinking community engagement, service and outreach, pastoral care and preaching. The crisis will have us reimagining all of these regularly as we learn and change in response to it. The number of times we will have to learn, unlearn, imagine and reimagine is unknown, but the pattern seems likely to persist.

The most likely future, of course, is that the COVID-19 crisis will be some combination of storm, season and epoch, depending on who we are, where we live, what resources are available to us, and how the virus touches us personally. For this reason, the third thing I am learning is that when this is “over” for one person, or even for segments of society or entire geographies, it will not be over for others.

Even as some people can hardly wait to return to their congregations, others will fear gatherings like church for a long time. A recent Harris Poll asked people when they might feel comfortable again in large gatherings (the closest thing in the poll to going to church). The average answer was two to three months after the curve was flattened.

Even after we are allowed back together in person, we need to anticipate continuing worship online for another eight to 12 weeks, probably longer, perhaps forever, specifically to serve people whose valid concerns and real anxieties keep them away — those for whom the crisis isn’t over.

Likewise, we need to anticipate that phrases like “flu season” or “shut-in” or “homebound,” perceived as mostly neutral in the past, could now be emotionally triggering. We will have to accommodate those who have lost the innocent belief that gathering in groups of more than five or 10 or sharing a meal together are inherently good and safe things.

We have entered a time of global trauma-response ministry, and we will need to be attentive to the different ways that people move through trauma — some quickly, some slowly, some not at all.

Fourth, I am realizing that it’s important for us to hold on to the agility and adaptability we have found in recent weeks. This crisis has invited us to a level of necessary innovation and experimentation that many congregations and organizations haven’t known in our lives together for a long time.

Clergy, musicians and church staff members have taken real risks to adapt worship to Zoom or Facebook Live, even adapting services for the holiest days of the church year to online platforms. Pastors and priests have offered virtual visits to church members and visitors.

Lay leaders have hosted virtual coffees and virtual meals to sustain congregational community. Members who had only ever given by check have now given online, by text and through apps. People of faith have sewn masks, gifted food (and food delivery services), delivered virtual palm fronds for Palm Sunday.

The real risk is that we will lose these improvisational muscles. Our next normal will require the creative capacity of every person to figure out how we live, lead and serve in the time that comes after the crisis.

When I lift my head from the day-to-day, I find something waiting for me that feels less like panic and more like hope. The poet Wendell Berry puts it this way:

“No, no, there is no going back. Less and less you are that possibility you were. … Now more than ever you can be generous toward each day that comes. … Every day you have less reason not to give yourself away.”

With all the uncertainty, that feels about right.

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.

When I graduated from seminary in 2003, I was sent by the United Methodist Church to serve two small congregations in rural western North Carolina. At the time, every conversation I had with denominational leaders or judicatory committees about my ordination or my work as a clergyperson presumed that I would serve as a full-time congregational leader until retirement.

In 2010, I left the United Methodist Church. Five years later, after a lengthy discernment process, I was ordained a priest in the Episcopal Church.

As I went through that second ordination process, the conversations about my work as a priest were markedly different from what they’d been 12 years before. I was regularly asked, “What’s your second vocation?” or, “What’s your other job besides ministry?”

Even though my diocese is strong and has thriving urban, suburban and rural congregations, I still faced the assumption that future church jobs would be mostly part time and I ought to prepare myself for that eventuality.

This was not a bad assumption, of course. Study after study seemed to point in that direction.

The National Congregations Study in 2012 showed that more than one-third of clergy across denominations were already working more than one job. Within the Episcopal Church, we learned in 2014 that almost half (48%) of congregations nationwide had no full-time paid clergy, an increase of 5% in just five years. Denominational gatherings focused on the rise and indeed necessity of the bivocational clergyperson for the work, witness and sustainability of the church. The prevailing prognosis was that a significant number of congregations would simply not be able to afford a full-time clergyperson.

A colleague objects strongly to this language of “bivocational” clergy when invoked as if the phenomenon were new. She points to biblical and historical models of tentmaker ministry; moreover, she reminds us that most mainline Protestant clergy (together with most of their parishioners) have long been at least bivocational, balancing their work commitments with the commitments inherent in family life — as partners, parents, children of aging parents. Juggling competing commitments has long been part of clergy life.

How well this juggling has happened over the years, of course, has been different for male and female clergy, which is a topic worthy of exploration, lamentation and probably no small amount of repentance. The stories of poor juggling are commonplace among adult “PKs” (preachers’ kids). By working long hours and after hours, their clergy parents — mostly fathers — became virtual strangers in their own families. It’s pretty typical to hear adult PKs say they resent the church for the ceaseless demands it put on their parents, and resent their parents for acquiescing to those demands.

In every one of those stories, there is a cautionary tale for this season in the church’s life. If the future of congregational life means that in many places clergy will have to hold their congregational jobs alongside other paying work and family obligations, can we imagine a different way of being multivocational? Can we imagine a way that is life-giving for clergy, their families and their congregations alike?

A judicatory leader friend says yes and calls it the “life-giving side hustle.” She tells her part-time clergy not to make ends meet by driving for Uber or Lyft. She tells them not to become baristas at Starbucks or cashiers at Kroger.

Instead, she invites them to find side hustles that enable them to pursue passions, engage creativity and reconnect with who they were as people before they were pastors. She tells them to use their side hustles to make themselves more interesting and well-rounded. She asks that they find a way to include their partners and kids, if they have them, so that their loved ones might see a different side of them.

We know what such a life-giving side hustle looks like when we hear about a clergyperson who has found one. I think about the priest-potter throwing clay and making communion ware for congregations. As her life-giving side hustle grows, there’s probably an Etsy shop somewhere in her future. I think about the clergyperson who had always been fascinated with beekeeping and worked with members of his congregation to build hives. They made the operation as child-friendly as possible and now teach children about beekeeping and honey gathering. They sell their honey, too.

Gail Godwin, in her novel “Evensong,” famously observed that something is your vocation if it keeps making more of you. If the future of congregational ministry in many places will require clergy to be multivocational, the least we can hope for is that each and every vocation we pursue will make more of us.

The church needs that. Our families need that. We need that.

It has happened repeatedly in recent years. On Saturday afternoon, around 3 or 4 o’clock, my phone’s screen flashes alive with a news alert from The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. Some of the alerts seem trivial, hardly worthy of the title “breaking news.” Others, though, are so staggering that “breaking news” hardly expresses what is world-shaking, gut-wrenching, terrifying, heartbreaking.

I have friends whose anxiety is so elevated on a day-to-day basis that they have disabled all notifications and alerts on their phones. They simply no longer have the emotional or spiritual capacity to process another tragedy, and for them, this disabling is an act of self-care. One empathizes.

For those of us who regularly find ourselves in a pulpit on Sunday mornings, though, this is seldom an available option. If part of the work of preaching is bridging the distance between the world of the Scriptures and our world today, if we are interpreting the meaning and weight of eternal promises for contemporary life, then preachers must at the very least be conversant with the world as it is and as it is becoming — even as that is unfolding in the moment.

But this raises an inevitable question: When does the preacher change Sunday’s sermon in response to Saturday’s news?

This is a favorite discussion among preachers on Twitter and Facebook on Saturday afternoons when shocking news has yet again broken. Someone tweets or posts, “How are you going to preach about this tomorrow?” Several people then offer constructive suggestions, often with deep insight into Scripture, the tradition or the situation.

Because this is social media, though, it does not take long for the quality of the help and the conversation to devolve. Someone starts preacher shaming: “If you don’t talk about this on Sunday, you shouldn’t be in a pulpit.” Or someone makes an appeal directly to laity: “If your preacher doesn’t preach about this on Sunday, you should find a different church.” Then someone retorts that his or her preaching continually addresses racism or sexism or violence or social injustice so perhaps the “shamer” should just worry about his (it’s almost always a man who first throws shame in these scenarios) own sermon.

In these exchanges, what is inevitably lost is the most significant question: What does the gospel have to say to a broken and brokenhearted world in this moment, and does that gospel message necessitate changing what I had planned to preach tomorrow?

There is no perfect answer, of course. So much depends on our own prayerful and pastoral discernment. So much depends on the congregational and community context.

What I am learning through this extended season of shocking Saturdays is that I have to examine my planned sermon through four questions.

If I do not change a word, will this sermon still speak honestly and sufficiently about the world where this news happened? Does this sermon offer a description of sin and brokenness that can begin to account for pernicious prejudice and pervasive violence? Does the sermon’s description account for “the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf,” to borrow a prayer of confession from the Episcopal Church’s “Enriching Our Worship” liturgical resource? Does it speak to the way the Spirit stirs people to respond generously and self-sacrificially in the most difficult of circumstances? If it does not, then it must be changed.

If I were to change the sermon, would I be offering something other than mere punditry? For better or worse, there is already a Sean Hannity and a Rachel Maddow. My deep conviction is that people do not come to church to hear sermons that sound like the commentary offered by either. In ways deeper than words, people come to church to hear that there is, in fact, a balm in Gilead that can heal the hurting soul. If I do change the sermon, how can I offer that good news in the wake of this news?

Am I the one who can say something about this, or is there someone else whose voice should be heard? As a white man, I already enjoy more than my share of privilege in this country, and to stand in a pulpit regularly is to exercise yet another kind of privilege. In the wake of some Saturdays, the gospel may call me to give up some privilege by letting another voice be heard. The answer may not be about changing the sermon at all but about intentionally giving up the pulpit for a week.

What can be said? Nadia Bolz-Weber may not have been the first to say it, but I heard it first from her: “I only preach from my scars, not my wounds.” Though these Saturdays are coming frequently, they still catch us off guard, and they leave us hurting. But the pulpit is not the place for my own therapy or for venting frustrations with mealy-mouthed politicians or complicit lobbyists or a racially bigoted judicial system. What can be said is what is most true, words that come from William Sloane Coffin: “God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”

It will happen again. Pray God, not this week. But some Saturday soon, breaking news will light up my phone, and yours too. The next day, I will step into the pulpit, and you will too. My prayer is that together our words might be a part of how God is repairing what is broken and binding up the wounded.

That would be good news indeed.