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December 8, 2020

What is possible? Out of a season of hardship and into a season of hope

By Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes

Founding co-lead pastor, The Double Love Experience Church
Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes is one of the founding co-lead pastors of the Double Love Experience church in Brooklyn, New York. She works at the intersection of faith, culture, leadership and strategy. Before launching the church, she served on the pastoral staff of the Greater Allen AME Cathedral of New York. She is an inaugural member of the Millennial Womanist Project and the Spelman College Thriving in Ministry Fellowship. Cudjoe Wilkes is a graduate of Hampton University, New York University and Yale University Divinity School (where she serves on the alumni board) and is entering her second year in the D.Min. program at Duke Divinity School.

iStock / DariaRen

From her perspective in the midst of the pandemic and with a new year dawning, a New York pastor advocates for leaders to look again for possibilities.

Advent is upon us, and many are bracing to restart in a new year. Scientists have told us that we need to prepare for more strict precautions in the near term. The weather is getting colder. The virus is getting bolder.

But I have good news for you. We are no longer starting from scratch. We begin this new church year and approach 2021 with wisdom and experience we lacked nine months ago. As we sit in this season of hopeful anticipation, we can lean into the lessons of our recent past, lessons that have prepared us for a more promise-filled future.

Everyone has a COVID-19 story. We have lived through trying times in these months. We might not have all the answers, but we’ve certainly picked up some survival skills. We now have both the burden and the blessing of surviving a pandemic. It is no longer new to us. This doesn’t mean that we have perfected our response, but it does mean that we have been leading through a global crisis and we’re still standing.

Take a moment right now to pat yourself on the back. You’ve lost some things, and heartbreakingly, you may also have lost some people. That pain will persist, but you are still here to tell the story. That is the grace of this moment. We did not know what we were doing, but we somehow found a way to adapt and innovate in a time of radical and sudden change.

Now, imagine what is possible. I’ve experienced the limitations that this pandemic has produced. I’ve wrapped my head around the likelihood that we will never return to normal as we knew it. But this Advent, I am shifting my gaze to what is possible.

In Advent, we typically pause, ponder and wait, but this year that thoughtful consideration is both more deeply reflective and more imperatively active. I invite all leaders to go on the journey of possibilities with me. Innovation is often born out of dire need. We have spent the past nine months naming what we’ve lost.

But approaching the new year, I want us to consider what gains have been and might yet be made. What innovation might be birthed? What and where can we create in the midst of a disrupted rhythm of creation? How can we learn from the loss of this year and allow it to inform how we create?

Within these new possibilities lies the potential for a vocational renaissance. Those with eyes to see will be the progenitors of this movement. So I ask: What do you see?

I see thousands of faith leaders who were afraid of moving into the digital space but are now skilled in video production and content creation. I see neighborhoods and communities looking out for one another. I see young people ordering groceries for the elderly. I see people showing gratitude to teachers, public transit workers, nurses, doctors, janitorial staff and clergy. I see traveling preachers, who had missed their families because they were always on the road, now spending time with their spouses and kids.

What do you see?

I see people getting rid of the unnecessary burdens that used to weigh them down. I see people with preexisting health conditions now being more attentive to their own well-being. I see college students who have to study from home adapting to this new environment and creating new standards of connectivity over social media.

What do you see?

Faced with unprecedented changes, I see the possibility of remembering how fragile human life and shared living really are. We are uncovering the truth that individualistic Americans actually have the capacity to be communal.

We are uncovering the importance of faith communities and faith leadership again. I see countless individuals who were detached from the church coming back to virtual worship services regularly and applying the sermons they’re hearing to the inner recesses of their hearts and minds. I see clergy, no longer obsessed with large crowds, giving attention to how their members are coping with the impact of this virus.

I see the intentionality of pastoral care returning. I see the particularity of caring for our parishioners deepening as we now offer attention to our virtual members. People who worship with us from afar are receiving the same pastoral care as those who worship with us within our own neighborhoods. All of this has the capacity to birth new possibilities.

As 2021 edges closer, we now have experience to build upon. We have seen how deadly this virus can be and how misinformation can literally kill someone. We’ve seen how we must live communally, caring for “the least of these” among us.

What possibilities can emerge from this pandemic-produced climate of care? As we redefine what success looks like, we are also redefining what our normal is. We cannot afford to be passive here. We must intentionally define what we want our society to be going forward. Since March 2020, we have seen the worst of people, but we’ve also seen the best. What do we want to live on? What do we want to do more of?

I invite you to think about what is possible. You have proved that you can innovate in the span of a few weeks what you had thought would take years. You’ve proved that your people are more flexible and adaptable than you had given them credit for.

You’ve proved that people care about one another deeply, as evidenced by the hard and attentive work of curating backyard weddings, 10-person funerals, Zoom birthday parties, drive-up anniversaries, and all the other ways that people have adapted to marking symbolic moments. You saw it for online Easter services, and you will see it online at Christmas.

Don’t forget what you have learned about the people you serve. Don’t forget their grit. Don’t forget their resilience. Don’t forget their communal care for one another.

As this year closes and another dawns, what is possible? All leaders need to ask and answer that question for themselves. Just remember -- you are no longer starting from scratch. You're starting from experience.

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Faith & Leadership

This was first published in Faith & Leadership, the online learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.

The Thriving in Ministry Coordination Program is a service of Leadership Education, which designs educational offerings, develops intellectual resources and facilitates networks of institutions.