If it feels like you don't know where you're going, that's okay. Here's something that can help you reflect on what God might have in store for you and your congregation.
Dear friends,

During this ongoing pandemic, life in the Church has changed dramatically. We have heard the desire from many of you to create a space for the support, nurture and guidance of congregational life and pastors during the coming year.   

Today the Wisconsin Conference is launching a new, periodic communication called Tending the Soul of the Beloved Community. The purpose of this initiative is to share resources and tools, wisdom and insight, for these challenging days. 

In her timely new book, How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, Susan Beaumont introduces us to the concept of a “liminal” season -- a space in between what was and what will be. It is a place of transition and a time of waiting, with more questions than answers. The liminal space created by COVID-19 brings anxiety, fear and unknowns, yet it also prompts pause, reflection and adaptive practices. We in the Church are in the emerging stages of a transformation, but it’s too early to identify exactly what that looks like! And so, we have some prayerful discerning to do. Indeed, the Holy Spirit will lead us.

We in the Wisconsin Conference United Church of Christ share this “Tending the Soul” space to lift up programs, writings, tools and strategies for nurturing and enhancing congregational life during this time of social distancing. Each edition will highlight a rich and meaningful article such as Bob Ullman’s Worrying, Wandering, Wondering. We will also include additional resource links and information about several support and nurturing programs available to your congregation and pastor. 

Together we can strengthen each other, and together we will not merely endure this liminal season, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds and hearts!

In Christ,

Franz Rigert
Conference Minister
Through this communication, the newly formed Wisconsin Conference Supportive Ministries Task Force will provide periodic articles and resources for clergy and congregations on coping and thriving as we navigate the current turbulent waters. Supportive Ministries Task Force members include:
  • Bonnie Andrews
  • Bob Ullman
  • Catherine Wille
  • Lisa Hart
Worrying, Wandering, Wondering
by Rev. Bob Ullman

How shall we get through our uncertain days? Where do we and where will we find ourselves in the middle of this monumental time? (See questions below to guide group discussions.)

As our congregations and our people continue to struggle through the uncertainties brought on by the ongoing COVID pandemic, a faltering economy, a renewed racial justice reckoning and a continued and growing threat to the environment, we find ourselves betwixt and between. We are betwixt what was once familiar and a new reality coming from a distant future that remains unseen. Some have come to characterize this in-between space as a liminal or threshold time with one foot still planted in where we left off in mid-March and the other stepping tentatively into new ways of doing and being Church. We may take comfort in remembering that God’s people have been here before. Many stories of faith recount times of God’s leading from the familiar into uncertain terrain and on to new-found space and creativity.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, Eurasia, North Africa and Europe were ravaged by a grave pandemic called the Black Plague which claimed the lives of 75-200 million people. It spread through much of the known world because of the trade routes opening up along The Silk Road. To contain the spread as much as possible seaports ordered arriving ships, crews and passengers to “quarantine” at the docks. The word comes from a Latin root meaning 40, the number of days determined to mitigate the spread of the disease.

God’s people have been here before. Which Biblical stories can you recall that incorporate the number 40? (Hint: Noah and the Ark, the Exodus, Jonah, Jesus in the wilderness). All of these were monumental times of transition or threshold times for God’s people. And here we are in the middle of an uncertain moment as well. We’ve certainly passed the 40 days of Noah and Jonah and Jesus. Could it be 40 weeks or, God forbid, 40 years of Exodus wandering? How shall we get through our uncertain days? Where do we and will we find ourselves in the middle of this monumental time?

Three responses suggest themselves to describe where we may find ourselves. A common response is worrying, and goodness knows, there’s plenty to worry about. Will I or someone I know and love contract the COVID virus? If so, will it be a mild case or will it come with long-term, life-altering consequences? Will I be able to provide for myself and my family if the economy continues to falter? How can we keep our children safe as schools begin to resume classes? How can we heal the racial and political divides besetting our nation? How much longer can our congregation survive?

If you’re managing to keep the worry gremlins at bay, perhaps you are experiencing a kind of wandering through uncharted territory. One day blends into the next so that we’re not really sure what day it is without consulting a calendar. Routines have been simplified to just getting through the day one meal at a time, not unlike the Hebrews’ 40-year experience wandering in the wilderness being sustained day by day by God’s daily providence with no end in sight. And many of our congregations find themselves in a similar daily survival mode, unable to make plans for an unknown future wondering how long this uncertainty will last.

Then there is another kind of wondering, wondering what might be possible if we open ourselves to God’s newness breaking in even amidst our worry and uncertain wandering. Since it may be some time before we are able to once again join our voices in song in worship, perhaps we can at least reflect on the words of a Ruth Duck hymn:

           Lead on, O cloud of Yahweh, we follow yet with fears,
           So may we come rejoicing though joy be born of tears.
           We are not lost, though wandering, for by your light we come,
           For we are still God’s people, the journey is our home.
One of the touchstones that some of our Conference Communities of Practice use to create “Circles of Trust” is a teaching from Parker Palmer: “When the going gets rough, turn to wonder. Set judgment aside to listen more deeply to others and to yourself” and, we might add, to God.

What wonders might God have in store for us and our congregation that beckon us to a new day and a new way of being Church? How might we imagine finding ourselves in a world, a time, a place, where God invites us to discover ourselves - in the words of that old hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” – “lost in wonder, love and praise?”

Questions for pondering and group conversation:

  • Of the three responses to our current circumstances – worrying, wandering or wondering – which of the three seems most present for you most days? How would you describe that?
  • What questions are you grappling with?
  • How would you characterize your congregation these days?
  • What questions is your congregation grappling with?
  • What resources – within or beyond you – are you discovering that help you cope with life these days?

Note: This is the first in a series of articles meant to help you and those you lead reflect on our faith stories and tradition in light of our present circumstances. What similarities might we find there? What new ways of seeing might we be missing that would open up new possibilities? How might we discover God’s presence in the midst of uncertain days? These articles might serve to prompt personal reflection but they are also meant to be used with groups as prompts for deeper conversations at the beginning of meetings or with small groups of fellow travelers. We trust that “God is still speaking,” if we but listen for God’s voice as we listen to one another.

Recommended resources for the journey

Articles and books:

  • How to think about what's next when the future is unclear" by Nathan Kirkpatrick - COVID-19 presents us with overwhelming daily challenges, but we must also begin to consider what's ahead. Kirkpatrick, managing director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, writes, "…given that the future will be different in ways that are not yet knowable, I need to develop multiple visions of the future, and congregations (and other organizations) need to do the same.”

  • I find that Susan Beaumont's new book, "How to Lead When You Don't Know Where You're Going", provides wisdom for these days. Beaumont talks about leadership in in-between times, when the old way is gone but the new way has not yet emerged. I believe that we won't go "back to normal," but that we are in the midst of a major shift, that we are being invited into a new way of being and doing worldwide. While we wait for the future to come into focus, we move by the light that we have. We will continue to listen and discern and seek to be faithful, step by halting step.  Like the disciples, our worlds have been turned upside down. Like the disciples, we need to learn to lead when we don't know where we're going. And like the disciples, we need to continue to pray and listen and be faithful, one step at a time. Book summary from Margaret Benefiel, executive director of the Shalem Institute

  • "Yes, AND: A Response To The Stories Of Pastoral Angst," by Mark Tidsworth, founder of Pinnacle Leadership Associates. "Have you seen enough articles about pastoral distress by now? The prevalence of these written pieces clearly indicates that pastors are struggling. Though accurate, these articles don't tell the complete story. Here's another article that rounds out the narrative. This could be helpful as a conversation starter."
Conference Resources for Congregations and Pastors

In addition to the direct support to pastors and congregations provided by Wisconsin Conference staff, here are some of the support and nurturing programs offered to pastors and congregations.
  • Conflict Transformation
  • Coaching Partners
  • Appreciative Inquiry
  • 5 Practices of Fruitful Congregations
  • Readiness 360
  • Communities of Practice for Clergy or Faith Formation

Visit the Wisconsin Conference UCC website for Tending the Soul and other helpful resources.
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Tending the Soul is made possible through your contributions to Our Church's Wider Mission.
Wisconsin Conference UCC | wcucc.org