I’ve been thinking a lot about the tasks of congregational leadership in a pandemic. My impression is that my friends who are in full-time ministry are busier now with fewer tasks. I think there’s something to learn from all of that. Making our lists smaller is always a good thing. The pandemic may be teaching us what is truly essential to being a church.
But I’ve been thinking more about a leadership skill that might get swallowed up in the urgent business of keeping the trains running on time. I am convinced that effective leaders have the capacity to narrate the congregation’s life in such a way that God is a credible actor in the activity of the congregation. This is different than casting vision, which can come from the private imagination of the leader or a group of leaders and might have little to do with God as an actor in the congregation’s life. I think naming God as a credible actor comes primarily through the experience of the congregation, not the imagination of the leader(s). Leaders is cultivate the environment in which the experiences of members can be articulated, curated, reflected upon, and given back to the congregation as a confession of what God has been up to.
So, how do you do this in the midst of a pandemic? In a time of social distancing and sheltering at home, I’ve been struck by how strong the desire is for people to make meaningful contact with one another. People are “zoom”-ing to connect and share their lives with one another. Many of them have time they’ve never had before (unfortunately), and all seem to crave connection. This has to be a time for collecting stories from the pandemic. One way my worshipping community is doing this is through the practice of examen. We simply share the places where we are finding life and where life is being taken from us. It is alternately joyful and painful to hear stories of unexpected blessing and real, heartbreaking loss.
The stories of loss, I fear, are still largely out in front of us. While hopefully the infection rate and numbers of deaths will decline in the next few months, life will never be normal again. The economic and social dislocations will be real, painful, and full of grief.
I cringe every time I hear leaders try to answer the question of why God would cause something like this. This is simply the wrong question. The God who is revealed in Jesus Christ, and paradigmatically in his death and resurrection, is known in a love that goes to the very depths of human experience. The reality of God on a cross says that there is no circumstance in all of creation that can separate us from the love of God which is our in Christ Jesus: not nakedness or famine or peril or pandemic or sword. The cross has no answer for the “why” of the pandemic. But the cross does point to the question of “where.” God, in Christ, is with the most vulnerable.
So, if we’re to recognize God in our own lives, the death of Jesus suggests that God will be present to us in our loss. And perhaps in ways that are more dramatic and recognizable. This does not mean that the things we lose will be recovered or regained somehow. How can they be? It doesn’t mean things will necessarily get better. They might not. But God will be present to us in the suffering body of Christ, and this includes his body, the church. I’ve come to realize that no single life bears fully the life of Christ, especially this side of the eschaton. What we experience of Christ, we experience collectively in his body, in the variety of our experiences. Which is why to know the fullness of Christ requires that we weep with those who are weeping and rejoice with those who rejoice.
Of course, the cross is not the last word for those in Christ. There is also resurrection. There will be life beyond our loss, and even in the midst of it. There will be opportunities to rejoice together, not just in new jobs or recovery from illness, but in the inexhaustible stores of life we will discover through our shared life in Christ. There will be surprising things, things that surpass what we can imagine, and they should be celebrated.
We can celebrate without too much difficulty, but our death denying culture has robbed us of the capacity to grieve without shame. We can’t lament.
So, if you can’t tell, I think leaders should be collecting and curating stories of death and resurrection, of loss and unexpected life. I was talking about this last week with one of my students who leads a church in Atlanta, and we talked about the need for a wailing wall in the church. A physical location that bears our wounds, that names them and recognizes them. I got this text today: “In my sermon Sunday I talked about having a “Wailing Wall” in the lobby. The response has been overwhelming. One member, who struggles with faith because of suffering in the world, said he felt himself thinking about turning to joy. So, we are going to build a “Wall of Lament” for our lobby! Thought you’d like to know”