We are coming out of covid -- sort of. People are coming back to our churches – to a degree. Sunday worship is beginning to recapture its prior place – in person, mostly maskless, with some singing, a truncated exchange of the Peace, and communion with bread, and increasingly with wine.
But the negative effects of Covid still persist. Several clergy have commented that while adults are finding their way back to the pews, families with children are still wary of returning (or have found other activities for Sunday morning); and high school kids are even more scarce. People are exhausted from having to cope with a two-and-a-half year pandemic, and many priests and deacons have indicated that more people in their communities are, in fact, not coping as before; that the incidence of depression and anxiety have climbed to new norms.
And yet. There have been demonstrations of resilience that many places now take for granted, but at the outset the pandemic seemed like a mountain that was impossible to climb. Most congregations have a cohort of technological wizards who learned to livestream or Facebook or Youtube their services; and continue to do so. A need arose, and people filled with it. Imperfect though it may be, Zoom has become a mainstay in our life. Pastoral care has been redefined. People who had been isolated, are being connected to one another in new and creative ways.
It has long been said that necessity is the mother of invention. I have been inspired by the common, as well as the unique, inventions that have emerged during this strange and frightening time. But as that necessity has eased up a bit, we are all asking – what’s next?
That’s an important discernment question. Not easy to answer.
When I became Bishop of Newark fifteen years ago, people kept asking me what my strategic plan was for the diocese; or when was I going to start a strategic planning process. I intuitively resisted this pressure, which didn’t exactly endear me to those who hungered for concrete goals. I didn’t want to engage people in a long planning process that would make sense on paper, but would not be that effective, given that the landscape changes so quickly. I knew of too many strategic plans that ended up collecting dust on a shelf. More and more business scholars are saying that 3-5 year strategic plans are inviting people into fool’s errands, because the assumptions and data you have at the beginning of the process become outdated by the time the plan is implemented.
Instead, we encouraged individuals and congregations to engage in experiments, which always required a level of discernment. Where are we now as a community of faith? What do we think God is calling us to do? And from spending time with those questions an experiment is designed in response. An experiment didn’t need to involve extensive planning, and rarely needed any funding. The only failed experiment is one that isn’t evaluated afterward. And from that evaluation, discernment is engaged again – and another experiment emerges.
I have seen and heard of some creative experiments throughout the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. One parish, in an effort to build relationships with the local community, set up a “treats” table in the church parking lot on Halloween. Another congregation invited kids to come to church in their Halloween costumes, which were then blessed. Still another congregation experimented with the prayers of the people: instead of one person reading all the names on the prayer list, people in the congregation were invited to pick a name or two and pray it audibly into the service.
In forty-three years of ordained ministry, I still carry an expectation that there is a way we are supposed to do things. It is a variation of the common claim, “we have always done it this way.” There are indeed some things that as a church we are supposed to do – and not do, but the list is far shorter than these expectations I have carried for so long.
In an odd way, Covid has freed us from the way we are supposed to do things in our congregations. We are, it seems to me, being invited into an ongoing discernment: what is God calling me/us to do? Engage in an experiment. Try something out. Keep it simple. Monitor your fatigue and expectations. Push the envelope. And dare to learn.
It can be liberating.