The “go it alone” model of congregational life is dead. That’s my takeaway from a recent conversation with Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh. He is convinced, and I agree, that congregations that insist on going it alone it will be dead in due time, as well.
Speaking with clergy around the country during the pandemic, I have heard a universal sense of loss over the dramatically diminished number of personal interactions with members, staff, and the community. Pastors, ministers, rabbis, and priests today are suffering—they are relationship experts at a time when it is challenging to put that expertise to work.
How is remote work changing us, and which of the changes will remain once the pandemic is over? What problems are arising as staff work from home, and what advantages are turning up? What does this all tell us about the future of work in congregations? I am working on an Augsburg Fortress book about working remotely, and I want to share some of my early findings with you.
Once the COVID-19 crisis is behind us, I am convinced that more will remain the same than change in congregational life. People have gathered to worship, study, and support each other for centuries in the Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and other religious traditions. Congregations have continued their core practices through pandemics, depressions, and wars. After each time of travail, more stayed the same than changed. History tells us to be careful when predicting cosmic change for congregations, even with something as huge as COVID.
Wherever I go in my consulting work I ask, “How do you keep track of membership and financial data?” More times than not the answer is, “We use (whatever software vendor) but it doesn’t really work all that well for us.” Since managing financial and membership data effectively is crucial, how can we avoid this all-too-common problem in the lives of congregations?
Many congregations belong to and support denominations, both financially and through their leaders’ service on denominational boards, committees, and teams. The identity of many congregations remains rooted in denominational affiliation: Methodists still feel a strong tie to John Wesley; Presbyterians to the basic principles of Calvinism, and so on. But denominations have become less important to congregations and their leaders, and face declining revenue as a result. How might regional and national bodies become more effective in the future?
We live in a culture that trains us to think of problems as “our problems.” As pastors, too often, we think that we must figure out how to grow the church, make sure the budget is balanced, and ensure that programs are well attended. I certainly did. Many of my colleagues feel the same way. It is a heavy burden to bear.