Ministry in the Time of COVID-19

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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!

For all of you, here are three things I’m trying to do for myself as I walk with my own small congregation through the next few days:

1. Let go of the old “shoulds.”

I am deep in “shoulds.” For example, here are only two of the many “shoulds” I learned about housekeeping as a child: “Keep working, because you’re not done until everyone is done,” and “Dust under every object, not just around it.” As you can tell, the “shoulds” of my childhood have cut deep into my soul.

For me, the “shoulds” of ministry are just as deep and clear—be physically available to my people whenever they need me, be in their midst as much as possible, touch them when I pray with them, and work all hours of the day and night to meet their needs. Most of these behaviors are no longer appropriate for a community in the midst of a pandemic (and, truth be told, they may not have been terribly appropriate or even helpful before), but my brain can’t let them go.

I keep swatting at them like mosquitoes in my bedroom at night. Whenever I’m sitting at home, even though that’s where I’ve been told to stay by the highest authority in the land (Dr. Anthony Fauci!), I experience guilt because it feels to me as if I’m not doing my job! In the midst of pandemic, we have an opportunity to let go of old behaviors and adopt a new set of “shoulds,” the kind in which love is an empty sanctuary and prayer is an email.

2. Reconnect with your maker (and/or your Maker).

Reconnecting with your maker (lower-case m) means reconnecting with the person inside each of us who long ago made things with our hands. My maternal great-grandfather immigrated to this country with a chest full of carpenter’s tools. One of my grandmothers was a weaver and the other tatted lace and cross-stitched tablecloths to pass time in the evening. Several years ago, during the one sabbatical of my career, I learned to make furniture using the hand tools of the late 1800’s and dug a labyrinth into the grass in my backyard. Many “makers” experience handwork as a way of grounding themselves in a shared community or even connecting to the divine. When we feel guilty or anxious or lost, we can always try doing something with our hands.

On the other hand, this is also an opportunity to reconnect with our Maker (capital M)—God for some, and for others a sense of something transcendent or unifying at work and play in the world. Now that I’m home a lot, I can see that my cats spend most of the day sleeping. But if the window is open or the sun is creating a pool of light on the floor, they’re immediately on the spot with noses in sniff-mode or legs stretched to absorb every ray. In the same way, we need to be more attentive to God and to creation all around us in these difficult times.

3. Even a pandemic is a chance to learn.

I am amazed at the creativity shown by even the smallest congregations as they are forced to redefine what it means to be in ministry when we can’t be together. For years, we have bemoaned the inability of our members to adapt to a changing culture in new ways. The best that many existing congregations have been able to manage is a few technical tweaks, even as participation declined and members chose to shift their participation to congregations that offered something new and different.

But now, because the situation is urgent, change has suddenly become not only possible but necessary. I am reminded of the situation facing the Jewish community after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, when local synagogues replaced the Temple as the place where teaching and ritual happened, when rabbis replaced priests as religious leaders, and when new texts such as the Talmud and the Midrashim became important.

Although the need to stop gathering on Sunday morning may be temporary in a way that the destruction of the Second Temple was not, what we are learning about community and worship in a viral world may carry us forward beyond crisis into new forms of church.

Finally, if you are someone who believes in God, please know that God is with you. If you are someone who doesn’t believe in God, please know that we are all in this together. In either case, you are not alone. Be well, be kind, and be strong.

Sarai Rice consults with congregations on a variety of issues including planning, program development, and governance, and offers coaching for clergy and lay leaders. She has a passion for work across the lines of faith traditions, especially in areas involving community ministry and social justice, as well as a deep commitment to the notion that human institutions should work well for the people they serve.