Two conversations I have had with clergy recently led me to ponder some of the undercurrents of doing ministry during this pandemic and the upheaval and uncertainty we are now swimming in. I was reminded of how important it can be to show up for each other.
One minister shared that she puts a lot of energy into providing online worship for her congregation. “Then,” she said, “I hear crickets.” Gone are the handshakes at the door, and even the rote expressions of “Good sermon, Rev.”
I know her as someone who cherishes her relationship with her congregation and who tends to seize upon informal time of “doing the dishes” after a community meal—just to be with her people. But now—except for the occasional email when someone expresses their appreciation for the worship service—there is less connection, less communication to feed her soul and purposes for ministry.
Absent these informal interactions, it can often feel like preaching in a vacuum.
Another minister told me that he saw a member of his congregation at the end of his driveway at 6:30 a.m, as he took his dog out for a walk. Toward the end of their unexpected encounter, the member, an active lay leader, called back, “Oh, by the way, I won’t be attending Zoom worship this fall. It’s too hard.”
Not missing a beat, the minister called back, “Try leading it!”
“Whoa,” I said, chuckling, “I guess no one should encounter your 6:30 a.m. minister persona.”
Actually he had no regrets. His response, he said, was authentic.
I understood. So much of life in ministry seems to entail being as understanding and accommodating as possible. The thought of my minister friend telling it like it is intrigued me. I know what he was talking about: The extra hours spent making videos or setting up a suitable worship background in your home or enlisting already overburdened lay people to be the tech team. Scheduling extra rehearsals, buying more equipment, navigating tech glitches. All of what used to be routine is now … just not.
Underlying these experiences are some deeper questions:
- Does what we do in worship in our congregations really matter?
- If it does matter, why does it matter?
Why Does It Matter?
My dog-walking minister colleague went on to share with me that he will have more interactions with his member who swore off Zoom worship. He wants to remind her of something that he often said to the congregation about worship, even before the COVID-19 days: “We show up for ourselves. We stay for one another.”
He feels that this is true—now more than ever. He knows that people in the congregation would be encouraged and strengthened by this active leader’s presence in worship. He sees this—even though she doesn’t.
Could it be true that more than ever we gather not for ourselves alone? Could it be that we may be called to do inconvenient things during these days? Does it matter more to a congregation’s well-being that we “show up and stay” for one another?
What my minister friend said about showing up for one another is supported by Dr. Isaac Prilleltensky, a community psychologist who has researched the connections between meaning, mattering, and thriving in community. He currently holds the inaugural Erwin and Barbara Mautner Chair in Community Well-Being at the University of Miami. Prilleltensky emphasizes how critical “mattering” is to the wellbeing not just of individuals but of communities. He defines mattering on three levels: personal, relationships and community. Mattering includes feeling valued and feeling that we add value.
Perhaps the best illustration of this understanding of mattering right now is the Black Lives Matter movement. This movement calls attention to historical and cultural forces that have impacted African-American individuals, their relationships, and the whole community. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” seeks to counteract the ways society has devalued the inherent value African-American people add to our culture.
Congregation as a Body
The early Christian communities Paul addressed also needed this reminder that each person “matters” to the gathered community, just as each part of the body matters:
Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact, God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. (I Cor 12:19 NIV)
Of course it matters to the dog-walking minister that this member of the congregation shows up. It matters to him even more that people “stay for the congregation.” The fortunate part of his story is that the woman actually told him that she wasn’t planning to show up. How many more people are just absent, with no word? What is the impact of this “absencing” in a time when we need to gather strength and support one another?
“Absencing?” Even though the word, coined by Otto Scharmer in his book Theory U, may be unfamiliar, we know the experience as a pull away from tensions, overwhelm or the challenges of our time. As leaders our role may increasingly be to keep our congregational systems moving away from the pull of absencing and toward more presencing, deeper engagement—showing up.
A Time for Showing Up Differently
I have been preaching myself during these pandemic months. I have pre-empted the “crickets” by creating a time after the sermon that I call “Matters of the Heart.” This is a time when participants in the online worship service can briefly share a gleaning from the sermon. Occasionally someone does add more than a perfunctory comment like “good sermon.” They add an insight of their own, talking about what moved them.
This may be a time when we can proactively create opportunities for deeper engagement with one another. I am inspired by Leah Schade’s 2019 book Preaching in the Purple Zone: Ministry in the Red-Blue Divide. She shows how leadership can create “deliberative dialogue” on controversial political or social justice issues. She seems to be as “deliberative” in her preaching as she is when she facilitates the dialogue that follows—immediately or within a week.
Schade models a way of engaging by asking these sample questions:
- Could you share a story to illustrate that point?
- I understand that you don’t like that position, but what do you think people who favor it deeply care about?
- How would someone make a case against what you said?
It matters that members of our congregations show up—not just for themselves, but for one another. It also matters that as clergy we find ways to show up differently in a time that requires us to foster presence and engagement.
Reflection: Making Sense of this for Yourself
This is a time of making sense of our personal and collective experiences. One of the patterns of times of personal and collective trauma (such as the COVID-19 pandemic), is that we don’t take time to process our experiences in the moment. Consequently, I want to offer some reflection questions as a way of accepting rather than avoiding what is occurring:
- How would you describe your own personal experiences of doing ministry during this time?
- Are some emotions more welcome than others—within you? among your colleagues? with members in your congregation?
- What strengths are you relying on?
- What are your disappointments? What are your concerns?
- What is wanting to emerge in your life and ministry that you may only have a slight glimpse of right now?
I often find it helpful to understand emotions not just as “feelings.” The etymology of the word emotion suggests that our emotions are “energy that puts you in motion.” Consequently, this is a time to listen to our experiences and to understand how we might be called to show up—not just for ourselves, but for each other as well.