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Why pastors should support labor organizing

A few months ago, I prayed with a congregant, a Black woman, who was suffering from months of torrential criticism and verbal abuse from her boss, a white woman not much older than she is. My congregant was hurting, and the company’s human resources department seemed content to look the other way.

At the end of the phone call, I asked her whether she was part of a union, following my standard set of questions for anyone dealing with workplace stress: Are you talking to your co-workers about what you’re experiencing? Are you part of a union with a representative who can advocate on your behalf?

As the executive director of my church in New York City, I pray with my congregants about work more than anything else. They often don’t have work, don’t receive enough money from work to pay bills, or are experiencing incredible stress because of an exploitative boss.

Last month, we had a sermon series called “Work & Capitalism,” which provoked an outpouring of stories from congregants about the difficulty of their jobs. Some told of being burned out by “mission-oriented” workplaces. Others had insecure bosses who made their jobs unbearable.

While I offer prayer to my congregants, I also recognize that their needs are material, not just spiritual and psychological.

Just as clergy rely on therapists and doctors to take care of our congregants’ health needs that we can’t address, so too we rely on labor organizers to meet their job-related needs that we can’t. And that’s why Christian leaders have a responsibility to support the efforts of those who help workers organize.

While our church does offer some financial assistance, I know that the most long-term solution for congregants with workplace issues is to ensure that they can organize with their co-workers to collectively pursue their demands. They might join a union that will help them advocate for their needs, and they might go on strike and withhold their labor to force management to listen to their needs.

The turning point for the congregant with whom I prayed came when she confided in a co-worker about her experiences. He assured her that she was not crazy. In fact, he had observed her boss treating other women of color similarly.

He was effectively operating as a labor organizer — connecting her to other co-workers with similar grievances so that they would know they were not alone and that they could take action together. He reinforced her dignity and sense of self in a way that I could not.

Clergy are sometimes reluctant to advocate for the interests of workers. It is partly practical: the bosses the clergy fear alienating are often the biggest contributors to a congregation’s budget. Clergy will never be fully free to advocate for workers unless they are willing to confront their wealthy donors about their labor practices and take the risk of watching them walk out the door.

Other clergy may legitimately feel that it is “unchristian” to go on strike, saying that it sows disunity and discord, urging instead “loving, reasonable dialogue” between “both sides.”

But calls for unity paper over the inequalities at play. Going on strike or speaking up against workplace abuses does not create disunity; it reveals it. Dialogue can only be successful when both sides wield equal power.

I do agree that even in an unequal situation, “both sides” are deserving of dignity; Jesus, after all, healed both the leper and the son of a Roman official. But that does not mean that as Christians we are called to treat each side equally. Rather, we are called to change the conditions of our world so that both sides are in fact equal.

Perhaps no one better exemplified that balance between treating all with dignity and advocating for equality than Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement.

In 1949, 240 unionized cemetery workers in the largest Catholic cemetery in New York City went on strike for better wages. They earned $59.40 per week for 48 hours of work, the same pay that other workers received for 40 hours of work.

When the archdiocese refused to negotiate, the workers went on strike. The strikers themselves were resolutely Catholic. They opened their union meetings with prayers, reciting the Our Father, the Hail Mary and a workers’ prayer that began, “Lord Jesus, Carpenter of Nazareth, you are a worker as I am.”

Day, along with staff at the Catholic Worker, supported the strikers by providing food for their families and joining the picket lines.

Seven weeks into the strike, Cardinal Francis Spellman broke the picket line with 100 seminarians, flanked by a robust police escort, and began digging graves. He accused the union of being influenced by foreign Communists.

Day wrote to Spellman following the events and urged him to consider the needs of the workers who merely wanted enough wages to raise and educate their children or even buy a home. In her letter, she appealed to his humanity, writing that she was “deeply grieved” to see that he had brought in seminarians to break the picket lines.

What was at stake for Day was not just material wages and hours, she wrote, but the strikers’ “dignity” as men and as workers.

As clergy, our tradition tells us that all have dignity in the image of God. We hold a mirror up to our congregants every Sunday and say, “Look, you are worthy of dignity.”

The question is whether the conditions in which our congregants work uphold the “dignity” of which we preach. If not, then following Day’s example, we must support the work of labor organizers and unions to affirm the dignity of our congregants throughout the week.

Words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians have been on my mind lately. Most days and evenings, my husband and I, along with our two working-from-home sons, move from Zoom to Zoom.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12).

The truth is, I lean into the screen and see only dimly. Yes, I love seeing dear faces, but I long for the days when we will meet in person as colleagues, church, family and friends. Then we will all be more fully known.

Meanwhile, I am resigning myself to Zooming for the long haul.

If we must Zoom, how do we do it well and graciously? As someone who loves to think about in-person hospitality, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions lately about what good online hospitality looks like.

While I’m still in beginner’s mind, I’ve noticed that good online hospitality is not magic. Nor is there one single formula for success. And while doing our technical best for any online gathering is an important sign of respect for our audiences — an important part of hospitality — technology is not the heart of hospitality. You don’t need a computer science degree or fancy equipment to provide it well.

Instead, online hospitality is the dedicated effort to create the same ethos as in-person hospitality — but in a new land. For Christian hospitality to work — in person or online — it needs to be grounded in setting a place for God, paying attention, honoring participants and expecting transformation.

First, warmly welcoming participants to a Zoom gathering reflects that the love of God is present. Three tiny ants crawled out of the crevices of my son’s laptop the other day. Where ants can go, my guess is the Holy Spirit can go as well! God is with us, even in virtual settings.

Though not the same as the gathered-in-the-same-room body of Christ, the gathered-over-Zoom body can still experience an embodied welcome through the host’s facial expressions, laughter and gestures. You don’t want participants to mistake your expressionless face for a frozen screen.

As a virtual host, be clear about what will occur in the meeting, how participants can access what they need, and who will help them with technical glitches. This information, set out at the start, helps participants feel safe and cared for, and less anxious about their technical skills.

Consider offering social time 15 minutes before your meeting starts. The energy and warmth generated by this experience of informal chatter and fellowship will set the mood for the meeting that follows.

I watched a worship service last week where different segments were set in the homes of various pastors on the church’s staff. Each had carefully set the stage behind him or her — a vase of flowers next to a cross, a special cloth laid carefully on a small table, a set of candles beside a bowl of water. These details conveyed hospitality; they expressed a personal welcome that said, “You are in my home, and this too is sacred space!”

Second, good hospitality is about paying attention. How are others experiencing the format? One participant in a church formation group stopped coming because she saw only couples in each Zoom box and it reminded her painfully that she was the only “singles” face in a box. She had to see her singleness the entire time. How might you change her experience?

Pay attention to power dynamics and ways to flatten that curve. For those whom society has often silenced, how might it feel to know that the host can mute you? The chat function helps mitigate this by giving everyone an always-open avenue of expression. The host can also invite everyone to speak and make sure that no one voice is dominating. Even if you’re good at this in person, facilitating over Zoom takes practice.

Likewise, after you’ve placed participants in a breakout room, don’t automatically cut them off after the designated time. Instead, as host, visit each room and remind participants of the time limits or send a group message. This is more hospitable and more like what a host would do if participants were in a room together physically.

Pay attention to the ways in which tangible elements can unify us and bridge the gap of physical absence. One of my colleagues sent a piece of cloth in the mail to each participant so that everyone’s laptop would be resting on the same fabric. Similarly, you might have everyone light a candle for worship or as a symbol of a unified space. Each person could share a personal object and describe why it is meaningful. Even a bark from a neighborly dog in the background can root us to reality and be grounding and humanizing in a virtual world.

Third, good online hospitality honors participants. For longer Zoom events, consider sending a gift box ahead of time, with nice paper for note taking, a coffee mug, a bag of trail mix or some other small gift. The boxes need not be expensive; rather, they are a signal that you honor the participants and recognize that life and gatherings are more difficult for everyone these days. A pastor friend of mine drives through her town and places bags of pre-Zoom activities on the front porches of her congregation’s youth.

A sense of timing is also important for honoring bodies in virtual gatherings. We can’t simply roll over onto Zoom what we would normally do in a room. Zooming all day is exhausting. Zooming for half the day is exhausting. Keep whatever you do as short as possible and add stretch breaks, polls, screen-sharing times, music, play breaks, small groups or silence. Teach people to do the wave!

Set up trust with your audience. Those with social anxieties have a double burden to bear in these times. Honor all participants though your kindness and patience, especially those who may need to step away from being looked at for the entire meeting. Be kind as internet connections go out, cats jump onto shoulders, and children decide they need mom or dad NOW.

Finally, good online hospitality affirms that whenever and wherever God is welcomed in, God provides transformation. God’s work is still being accomplished even with so many of us confined at home.

For example, I’ve discovered that online meetings in a quarantine provide the blessing of multiplied hospitality — the hospitality of the host and that of all the households into which we are welcomed. As host, you may receive joy and blessing through all the other hosts who welcome you into their homes for the hour. Let them describe the history of the quilt on the chair, that plaque on the wall or the garden shed into which they are scrunched, seeking quiet space!

Online meetings are here to stay. Post-pandemic, we’ll continue to have options to work at home, because it’s cost-effective. We’ll continue to have online church committee meetings, because attendance is up. We’ll continue to meet as friends on Zoom, because some are unable to drive, travel or be away from home. So we might as well get it right.

Meeting virtually can be more than “see[ing] in a mirror, dimly,” if we offer good online hospitality and understand it as sacred space.

On a cold winter day, I was talking on the phone with a colleague about the church where I serve as pastor. I was feeling frustrated. I told him I didn’t know how to move the church where God wanted it to go.

I had lots of questions: Where’s the infrastructure? Who’s in control? How do the bylaws function? What happened in the past?

“I wish I could find the ‘letter’ from the previous pastor,” I said. I was talking about the tradition of the outgoing U.S. president leaving a letter of advice and encouragement for the incoming president.

Needless to say, like many pastors and leaders across the nation, I didn’t receive the letter I so longed for.

The previous pastor led my church for at least 25 years, then fell ill and died. The church continued to worship together for four years without a shepherd. The diaconate did their best to keep the church churning along. Some would suggest that this is the Baptist way — there was no interim pastor or minister.

When I was elected to lead the church, I wondered what it had been like under my predecessor. Of course, I got 15 or more versions of what had happened — but these were just opinions. As I sat at my desk, I wished there were a letter — or even just a memo — on how the previous person had led the church.

I believe that the way we plan for leadership transitions helps prepare the way for future success. My experience makes me wonder what would happen if a leader could pass the baton to the next person with a moment of shared effort between the two.

My favorite race is the relay. The team of racers has to be in sync. They have to comprehend that the goal is to get the baton across the finish line — and work together to make sure it’s not dropped. A runner can have a personal best but still lose the race if the baton does not cross the line.

If our goal as pastors and leaders is to bring God’s kingdom on earth, then we are always looking to pass the baton until God’s vision is brought to fruition. The mission and vision of the organization should always be at the forefront of leaders’ minds as they each play their roles in the relay.

Maybe your job is to be a good leadoff person. Or the second or third runner, covering the greatest distance. It could be that God called you to be the anchor and to finish strong.

The position or role doesn’t define who you are personally. But it should help you recognize that you’re a part of a bigger team goal. That goal is to fulfill the vision and mission for which God assembled the organization.

Last year, the Black church witnessed a monumental transition at a powerful church in Chicago called Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. The Rev. Charles Jenkins announced his retirement and his successor almost simultaneously. According to reports, Jenkins worked directly with the new pastor, the Rev. Reginald Sharpe, to ensure a good handoff.

Jenkins (now pastor emeritus) has said publicly that it was time for a young man to take the reins. After the transfer, Fellowship Chicago has continued to grow and thrive, serving the community through pop-up food giveaways, drive-up and walk-up food boxes, and more.

Sharpe, like many pastors across the country, is now transitioning his church to a virtual world; recently, one of the online services received more than 17,000 views.

Fellowship Chicago’s process of leadership transition was highly unusual. The current norm in many denominations is to allow pastors and leaders to stay in position until they decline or even pass away — as happened in my church.

According to a 2017 survey by Barna Group, only 1 in 7 pastors is under 40. This gap in developing leadership causes churches, nonprofits and other organizations to drop the baton in managing succession. I’d suggest that an apprenticeship model would improve leadership transitions.

Can you imagine working alongside the leader who would eventually turn the controls over to you? What would our churches, nonprofits and other organizations be like if we created such a model?

I see the apprenticeship idea supported by 2019 Barna research, which says that planned transitions “tend to produce positive outcomes” — yet reports that 51% of incoming pastors said there was no plan in place when they arrived, and 33% said the lack of planning caused problems as they took the helm.

An apprenticeship model would allow the established leader to shape and mold the new leader, or at least work with that leader before stepping down. Institutions are well served when such a model is put into action.

For example, Bishop Paul S. Morton, the legendary gospel singer and pastor who founded the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, stated publicly how he would transition the fellowship to new leadership — noting that he did not want to die in office — and then worked directly to apprentice now-presiding prelate Bishop Joseph Walker III, ensuring a smooth, successful transition.

Biblically, Moses trained Joshua to lead the Israelites into their next season. Elijah trained Elisha, and Jesus trained the 12 disciples for at least three years to spread the good news around the globe. If we take this model seriously, our churches, nonprofits and institutions will benefit.

In each leg of a relay race, there is a brief moment when two runners hold the baton together, making sure the new runner is holding its weight securely. This is the transition — a brief handoff that allows the successor to be prepared and comfortable to run with the baton.

Passing the baton in pastoral transitions gives leaders the support and confidence they need to fulfill their individual roles in reaching the goal for which God assembled the team.

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.