The coronavirus is horrifying, and sometimes it feels that congregations are not doing their best to meet the challenge. But there are signs that God is at work, helping us to learn and to transform ourselves.
I love being a Protestant minister. I believe in the “priesthood of all believers” and I’m deeply committed to my own Presbyterian denomination’s way of doing things “decently and in order.” But now, in the midst of this pandemic, I am increasingly concerned that, as good as we are at some ways of being the church, mainline Protestants have not sufficiently prepared believers to be religious at home.
It is too soon to create a definitive list of all the things we will have learned from this pandemic, but I’m clear about one thing—John Kotter was right that urgency does drive change. Under pressure from the Covid-19 pandemic and outrage over police violence against black people, congregations have made changes I thought I would never see. Will we be able to continue innovating when extreme urgency no longer forces us to do so?
Usually when I write these columns, I write as a non-anxious consultant able to offer objective advice in difficult situations. But today I write as a minister fully caught between the two dominant moods of the current debate on re-entry into corporate worship—anxiety and anger.
Welcome to the unknown—the one place we are most afraid of.
We all cope with anxiety in our own way—some of us by getting angry, some by withdrawing, and some, apparently, by hoarding toilet paper! Fortunately, some of us, including many of my colleagues in ministry, are coping by moving toward the danger and figuring out new ways to worship and serve in the midst of a pandemic. I am so impressed with the way you imagine new things and learn from each other in these difficult times!
I was asked recently to speak to a smallish, bedroom-community congregation about what ministers are looking for when considering a new call. The answer is complex, and often has to do with circumstances over which the congregation has no control—cost of living, cultural opportunities, athletic facilities—but I believe that virtually all candidates for ministry are hoping to serve a healthy congregation.
Some of the congregations I interact with are growing, but most are in decline. Membership, attendance, energy, enthusiasm, and financial support shrink slowly over time. Some of these declining congregations—the ones who think they can’t be a church without their building, for example, or who want to keep doing exactly what they’ve always done but hope that someone else will step up to take over the work—leave me praying for a quick end. But others—the easygoing ones that are adaptable, kind to each other, and generous with their neighbors—are a delight.