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.
Here’s what laypersons need to know: Your ministers may look OK, but they are not. All ministers, even those who thrive on challenges, are by now exhausted, anxious, and at least intermittently depressed. Ministers need affirmation and affection right now, but what they mostly need from you is that you manage expectations.
The word “slept” has been trending on social media—I’m not surprised. Most clergy I’ve spoken to in recent months say they are not just tired—they are “exhausted.”
Given all the challenges we face—the pandemic, political polarization, racial injustices, rising unemployment, growing inequities—it is no wonder that leading and ministering stretches our capacities and taxes our energy. But if we are willing to step out of familiar ways of coping that have not worked, these times can also lead us into deeper ways of listening and learning.
What can a congregation do when a pandemic, a political crisis, and a racial reckoning come knocking at the same time? We were already overwhelmed by a ten-month long pandemic and growing polarization. Then last summer’s nationwide protests against racialized state violence forced many white citizens to begin to come to terms with our country’s 400-year legacy of racial injustice. On January 6, a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, threatening revenge against those they believed had betrayed them. Three major crises at once pose unprecedented challenges for congregational leaders.
I used to run laps—now I am more apt to walk. Either way, I find that if I can muster the will power to begin, I can almost always finish the first lap. But if the loop is too short for a full run, I’m faced with a decision: should I quit or start my second lap? Lap number two is where adrenaline leaves off and perseverance gets its test. As we move out of 2020 into 2021, clergy and lay leaders face the challenge of rekindling energy for a year of new and different challenges.
“My gut tells me underlying motives are at work here that are not being shared!” In the past month, I have heard several variations on this statement in online gatherings. Mistrust has become more prevalent and is giving birth to interpersonal conflict—in a time when we have less personal resilience to cope with it. We need to take greater care when we attribute motives for another’s actions in this precarious season.
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.