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The Congregational Consulting Group, organized in 2014 by former consultants of the Alban Institute, is a network of independent consultants. We publish PERSPECTIVES for Congregational Leaders—thoughts on topics of interest to leaders of congregations and other purpose-driven organizations. —  Dan Hotchkiss, editor

Church Was Already Hard

top of a church
Photo by Akira Hojo on Unsplash

Being a part of the church does not feel safe right now. For many clergy and lay leaders, it may feel like the hardest work we’ll ever do.

Church was already hard before the pandemic because the church we’ve known—the church many of us graduated from seminary thinking we knew how to serve—was already disappearing. We used to think we knew what our job was, but the things we know how to do aren’t working anymore, and no one yet knows what will work in the future. We’re in a constant state of chaos, and no matter what we do, someone will always get upset.

The pandemic—and the politicization of the pandemic—added yet another layer of uncertainty and fear. Congregations are more anxious and unhealthy, and when people become anxious, we rarely pause to take a deep breath and recognize our feelings. Instead we act on them as if they were rational rather than reactive. We feel fully justified as we yell, whisper behind each other’s backs, criticize, and bully.

None of this behavior is new, of course. The only thing that’s new is that the pandemic has made it all worse. But the result is that the church doesn’t feel safe anymore. It doesn’t feel like church.

If this is how you feel, I’m right there with you. What’s happening in our churches doesn’t feel like it could possibly have been what God had in mind when God started this whole adventure. But I do believe God’s church is in our midst if we can shift perspective and get a better look. Here are a few suggestions that help me make the shift:

1. Be grateful for what has been

In my frustration with the current state of the church, I’m often tempted to reject everything about it—to suppose that the primary purpose of church buildings has always been to assert dominance and separate us from our neighbors, that polity has always been about (mostly male) power and control, that evangelism has always been colonialism thinly disguised, that membership is only about getting one’s own needs met rather than following Jesus.

But surely God has been at work in our history, even when our actions have been less than faithful. Despite our best efforts to make God in our own image, the Holy Spirit has touched people’s lives, the hungry have been fed, the sick and grieving are still comforted. At every moment, God is with us—as individuals and as a community. Even when we’ve gone about God’s work badly, God changes lives. No matter how wrong or how frustrated we may be, we can still be grateful for God’s persistent faithfulness.

2. Be loose with what is

Anxiety affects all of us, and in our anxiety we cling to the familiar, even when it is unhelpful. Anyone who has stayed in a job or a relationship longer than they should knows this truth.

In this moment of Covid-flavored anxiety, we need to remember to hold the familiar lightly. Something new is being born—at work, in our home lives, at church—and we will not feel the freshness of God’s Spirit if we cling desperately to current practices just because they soothe us. Our true comfort comes from walking into the mystery with God, not from clinging to the familiar.

3. Be generous with what will be

In moments when we feel that clinging is our only choice, we tend to treat our time, talents, and financial resources as a reward the church must earn by allowing us to cling rather than a faithful investment in God’s still-unfolding mystery.

As God’s church is reborn, it may not look as it did in the past, and that is something to be celebrated. The world and the church are not in a good place right now—we so rarely rise above our own selfishness. But thanks be to God that God can call us into a new place. The shape of that new place is still unclear, but there is no doubt God is at work. The day will come when we can all see this new church together. Until then, we should be generous to those congregations who bravely seek a new way.

It is hard right now to have hope for the church, but we will not always be where we are now. God is creating something new, and calling us to relax, take a deep breath, and keep on moving.

Sarai Rice is a Presbyterian minister and a retired non-profit executive. She consults with congregations on a variety of issues, including planning, staffing, and governance. Sarai loves to work with congregations that are exploring anew their role in the community as well as congregations seeking new energy in the face of decline. She has a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.

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