I know that being a church leader during this pandemic has been brutal. The smooth, well-worn ways of being a “church” have been disrupted and we are right to feel like things may never be the same. We have stepped through some kind of portal and entered a time when the experience of the pandemic will continue to be with us even when it’s safe to resume a more public life.
My son-in-law has worked from home during the pandemic, like a lot of us. And his company has realized that it spends way too much money on physical space. Working from home might continue beyond the pandemic. In my own work, which was already largely remote, I have made a more permanent work space in my basement. I have an actual office now and am not just doing work from the kitchen table or the living room couch. I live so close to campus that I can be there in a matter of minutes if I need to be, but my students and colleagues have also gotten pretty good at doing things over Zoom to the extent that I wonder if things will ever go back to “normal.”
My point is, in areas other than church life, we’ve adapted, learned new skills, and won’t simply return to the way things were. I understand the very real losses of not being together in an embodied community. In my own worshipping community, we miss singing together and have found that some of our practices of praying together are difficult to do over Zoom. We’ve compensated the best we can. For those not suffering from an essential tremor (my thorn in the flesh), singing together with our hands has become meaningful and we do a time of examen in the place of our regular prayer practice. But we miss being together, hugging each other, eating together and look forward to being able to do those things again. So, there are real losses from the past year, but we’ve also developed some new capacities and learned some things that hopefully will go with us into a new future.
Ok, here’s what I’m driving at. While we are rightfully anxious for the pandemic to be behind us, we shouldn’t be in a big hurry to get things back to just the way they were. The thing about a pandemic or any prolonged disruption in business as usual, is that it provides the space for adaptation, for innovation, for learning new skills. And it also can teach us what things we’ve spent a lot of energy on in the past that might not be worth it. The key is to learn to be attentive to our experiences in fruitful ways.
Too often, churches only attend to the question, “Did it work?” That’s typically a question related to numbers, both people and dollars. In the leadership program I lead, and in the consulting work that I do, we teach attending through a different set of questions. What happened? What did we learn? What surprised us? What might God be calling us to be or to do? These are far better questions in terms of attending to our experience.
I think its reasonable to expect that there will be numerical losses related to the pandemic, that the typical ways that we have done church haven’t created sufficient bonds of belonging to hold people together in the face of prolonged disruption. So, leaders might find themselves anxious about recovering their lost market share. I know these pressures are real and they strike at issues of livelihood and survivability. But I also know that anxiety creates exactly the opposite environment than one conducive to new life.
So, now is the time to attend in trust to the new thing that might be emerging. Now is not the time to rush back to business as usual. Slow down, be attentive. What surprising new skills or capacities have we learned? What have we learned about what’s necessary and what is only busy work that distracts us from what’s necessary? Have we learned anything in the category of less is more? Now is the time for curiosity about what new thing God might be calling us to be or to do.