Where are we? What’s next?

Discerning a crisis that will redefine us as churches

What’s Going On?

As Marvin Gaye asked: “What’s goin on?” As church leaders we’re in the midst of a crisis that will change the ways we’ve been church and our roles as leaders. But right now we are all working overtime dealing with the urgency of people’s immediate concerns; it’s hard to keep up with these larger challenges. This crisis has set in motion a spectrum of responses. Some of us are paralyzed by anxiety and fear of survival, others feel their world coming apart and grieve. Yet others want to move quickly to fix what is happening. A lot of us are just overwhelmed with the need. Most of us are just looking for the best ways to manage (putting worship services on Zoom, following up with our people, caring for them, figuring out how to pay bills with dwindling incomes, and standing with those grieving the death of loved ones when we can’t be with them. 

Two broad responses are shaping church leaders in this CV 19 crisis. The first is shaped by the immediate questions of what to do and how to serve one’s people. The second by an awakening sense that there may not be a return to some “normal” state with familiar roles. Herein lie questions about what’s next. Leaders across many sectors of society are saying that this crisis might well be about the end of a world as we have known it. The implications are enormous but will only become clear only in retrospect. So many things over which we thought we had control are moving in unpredictable directions. The spinning and disorientation last for some time. What do we do as leaders in all of this? How do we lead in the immediate while addressing this question of what’s next? I want to propose several ways of addressing this crisis.

Seeing Our Current Experience

 In conversation with church leaders across North America clusters of words are being used to describe their experience: fear, anxiety, grief, uncertainty, and heaviness. Some talk about having no bandwidth to do anything more. Others feel they are just keeping up with their people through phone or Zoom calls that can’t replicate face-to-face pastoral care. There is a sense this pandemic has taken up all their energies leaving them discouraged because they can’t make the connections they feel needed. 

A recent NYTimes article catches this sense of fear with its title “City’s Mood Darkens as Crisis Feels Endless” (Michael Wilson, NYTimes, The Caronavirus Outbreak, Saturday, April 25, 2020). Wilson  describes people who’ve moved past a sense that the quarantine is a short term inconvenience to something like a long-term despair. What is settling in is a grieving for a world they once knew while coming to terms with the fact that this new reality might become something much more than an inconvenience or a technological fix.

In the midst of lockdown there are stirrings. Paradoxically, as people find themselves in quarantine they are a discovery place. Like nothing before the quarantine, people are gathering in local parks, seated on the ground or at picnic tables, observing social distance while discovering a richness in neighborhood and place. In one small park across from a coffee shop that can only serve people coffee, people line up to buy their coffee, then sit in the park for conversation. It’s thicker and more frequent than before. In this park, an older man comes each day with his trumpet to quietly play beautiful music. This kind of gathering is something new. It’s as if people have been given the space to pause, to be present with one another and this unexpected presence  is a salve to souls hungry to connect.

People are tiring of “go home and stay inside” but they have also stepped into other rhythms that are life-giving. Not only is there a paradox of isolation and connecting in the neighborhood, but also a rediscovery of the gift of ordinary working people who have been neglected and overlooked in the past. They are emerging as local heroes. We are aware of the grocery clerk behind the cash register, glad for the plumber and garbage collectors, and grateful for the nurses and the care workers in seniors’ homes. What a shift in perspective!

Two things are happening at the same time. There are the very real experiences of anxiety and uncertainty, especially around livelihood and isolation. At the same time, without diminishing these experiences, we are discovering connection in the power of being together in our communities. We’re rediscovering ways national and regional governments are stepping up to care for us and how bureaucrats are making it possible for aid to flow to one another. 

In these two movements one might see intimations of how the world is changing and what might be ahead, particularly for the churches. It seems to me that the locus of the sacred is being changed dramatically in these pandemic days.  With the temporary closing of churches, there is this strange re-sacralizing of the local, of ordinary people, of the working class, and of the neighborhood as places of the sacred. Is something happening that might be the ferment of God’s Spirit? Much may go back to the way it was before CV 19. The locus of the sacred might be returned to the clergy class and certain spaces where  religious things are done, but there may also be signs here of what the Jesuit theologian, Tomas Halik wrote about the ending of a chapter, of a certain kind of Christianity we got so used to:

But I  cannot help but wonder whether the  time of empty and closed churches is not some kind of cautionary vision of what might happen in the fairly near future. This is what it could look like in a few years in a large part of the world. We have had plenty of warning from developments in many countries, where more and more churches, … seminaries have been emptying and closing. Why have we been ascribing this development for so long to outside influences (the “secular tsunami”), instead of  realizing that another chapter in the history of Christianity is coming to a close, and it’s time to prepare for a new one?” (America Magazine, April 13, 2020). 

This is a brief snapshot of where we are. People in various parts of the country will identify with one set of experiences more than others. For most of us it’s a mixture of all the above. For some the fear, anxiety and loneliness is more acute. The grief of losing a loved one, especially our elders in nursing homes, cannot be passed over or disposed of as some consequence of gaining herd immunity. For others there are stirrings here that raise energizing and scarry questions about “going back to normal” and “what’s next?”. 

Discerning What We Do?

  1. Caring in the Moment

First, the current fears and anxieties require leaders attentive to their people and communities. The pastoral skills are critical in this time. Many feel in the grip of something with no end in sight while for others local life and commerce are being opened up. Inside these tensions there is an important role for clergy in managing the moment, assisting people to process what is happening to them, connecting people with one another in multiple ways, and continuing to find ways of shaping a liturgical life that reminds us all that this is God’s world. The rhythms of worship and dailly office are crucial to our moving through this time. Many leaders are working hard at doing these things just now.

  1. Discerning what is happening

Second, in the midst of pastoral care is the work  of discernment. Unexpected and unintended things are happening in our communities. As in any crisis, most of us don’t know how to give language to what we’re experiencing, or how to place these experiences inside a larger story. Just now the primary story is about fear, loss and darkness, but, as suggested above, another story is emerging. Paradoxically, isolation is producing new connections among people, rekindling appreciation for the working people who’ve been hidden behind minimum wage jobs. We’re re-discovering neighborhood walks and seeing our communities in fresh ways. Connections are happening on streets. One friend and his wife wrote a message to every house on their street offering any assistance (shopping, etc) they could give. People responded with their email addresses and phone numbers, offering their participation. One man  living alone emailed my friends back with a simple request: “Would you  go for a walk with me?” 

What do we do as leaders? Alongside our traditional pastoral roles is the opportunity to be listeners to these stories to see where we might be the anticipatory stirrings of the Spirit in our communities. It can be that as clergy we have been trained to listen in order to assess and analyze the care we can give to people. We listen to provide spaces for people to let their grief or fears out. We listen to know how to pray for people. These are important parts of pastoral listening people want just now. But what is being described here is another kind of listening. This listening invites us to lay down the primary roles of pastoral-care listening for a listening that attends to and calls forth the stories already present among our people as they encounter others in their communities. These are not BIG stories but simple, grounded connections – the way a store clerk smiled and went out of her way to talk with me as she was bagging groceries, going for a walk with a neighbour to connect and talk, waving at the people across the street as they come out of their homes at 7pm to make, together, lots of noise in appreciation for the staff at the hospital one block away. In these stories new liturgies of the ordinary, a re-sacralizing everyday life are gestating. Something is happening, a sacredness is germinating in the ordinariness of the local. Part of our role as leaders is to listen to these bubblings of the Spirit, these intimations of what’s next.  We can be like midwives helping to birth these stories in people, helping them name the sacrament of life that is present amongst us. In this leadership we discover clues to the changed world that can emerge, to “what’s next?”.  

  1. Addressing the Question of “What’s Next?”

One of the regular questions being asked is about what comes next. What follows the virus? Does it spell the end of the world as we have known it? If so, how do leaders prepare for what is coming? The following are pointers to engaging these questions. It is in response to these observations that we’re developing conversations and resources.

The empty spaces as signs of a chapter’s closing.

First, I go back to Halik’s statement about the signification of closed, empty church buildings. He reads this not as just the effects of CV 19 and quarantine. It signifies a far broader shift involving the ending of a form of Christianity that has shaped the West for some time. The Spirit of Christ is calling the church to a remaking. Are we willing to ask “What’s Next?” from a perspective that may mean the roles for which we trained as clergy will not carry us into this remaking? If this is so then to discern what’s next requires us to recognize we’re in a liminal space; we’re between a familiar world with its familiar roles and an emerging space we can’t see from this point. It means there are no game plans for a new future.  What kind of posture, therefore, will be needed of us as leaders in this liminal space?

Where is God in all this?

Second, this leads to the kind of theological conviction we need in this time. It is the conviction that in the midst of these disruptive anxieties and fears when we can’t name what happens next Jesus is already present shaping a future around the Kingdom and the thriving of the common good. Right in the midst of this moment that too many of us see only as dark, heavy and despairing, God is present. In this post-Easter season many of us are dwelling in the Emmaus Rd. text where two confused, dispirited disciples were going back to their old lives, their hopes shattered. This is where God turns up. The sacramental gift of leadership is to see and name where Jesus is with us so that we can be amazed, have our eyes opened to see where God’s future is springing up. Leadership is about the shaping of liturgies of hope in God’s work right among their people. This is where the question of what’s next is discerned. This kind of leadership doesn’t deny the struggle people are experiencing.  Instead, it means leaders not only embrace the anxiety and pain but discover the signs of God’s Easter news. This requires a readiness to set aside time to be with people in our neighbourhoods, to enter their stories, to discern the sacred and to ask  the question of  where God’s Spirit is at work in these stories.

Something stunning and unexpected is happening in our neighbourhoods in the quarantine. It is as if God has left religious buildings and turning up in the neighbourhood. Let’s not miss God’s future by putting all our energies into trying to make the building work on line or just hanging on till the “all  clear” is given. 

The future is in the neighborhood

This leads to a third proposal. The answer to the question “What’s Next?” isn’t about describing some preferred future. Just as Jesus was with the two disciples on the Emmaus Road, but they didn’t recognize him, so God’s future is among us now among our people in the midst of epidemic, anxiety, quarantine. It is in the new connections and the re-sacralizing of the local and everyday. We don’t need gurus or “experts” to tell us what is emerging. We need to: 

  • Listen well with our people to their own stories in their communities, 
  • Not give answers or make plans for people, 
  • Be midwives who call forth the stories of hope and life that are within them. 

Clergy are well trained in listening for (listening for people’s hurts and needs so they can care for them). But our training in these helping skills can become a default barrier to our listening with (attending to stories people want to share about the life they are experiencing in the neighborhood). In these stories lie all the clues to the kind of next chapter in the Christian story the Spirit is fermenting. It is in the present, in the sacredness of the local, in our everyday lives. 

Confronting long standing, unaddressed issues.

giant petrel

Finally, a proposal I hesitate to mention knowing we don’t have the bandwidth right now to see much beyond what we’re dealing with but sometime soon we need to address this if we’re entering a new chapter of the Christian story. Churchill once said something to the effect: never waste a crisis. Something we  have to do as leaders is far more difficult than the previous proposals because it goes to the heart of our roles as clergy. Can we confront the underlying dysfunctions this crisis is laying bare? 

What is a crisis? A common perception is that a crisis is something that suddenly descends upon us without warning. It’s a crisis because we feel suddenly caught off guard; we’re not prepared and so, as some clergy express, feel like we are spinning with little sense of what to do beyond finding alternative ways of doing what we already do. But a crisis is hardly ever sudden. The warning signs have been there for a long time. Normally it’s easier to ignore signs that don’t fit the patterns or call on us to take a hard look at the lurking anxieties. Confronted by these anxieties we rationalize in some of these ways: 

  • I’ve no time to stop and address them with all the demands on my life; 
  • We’ve no money to deal with it so just push it down the road; 
  • What is unfolding is too scary or challenging so I’ll double down on what I know how to do well.

A crisis hardly ever comes out of nowhere. These “surprising” up-endings almost always result from longstanding, unaddressed fragilities and dysfunctions in our systems and existing narratives that, collectively, we have chosen to ignore. A crisis brings to the front issues we thought we could push away in normal times. The crisis is the catch up, the call for payment. There are ample examples of this in our own situation. Many are commenting on a TED talk Bill Gates gave several years ago when he predicted the kind of pandemic we are now experiencing. Gates is but one, albeit well known, voice that has been naming the realities for a long time. It seems that the current US Administration closed down the Agency responsible for pandemic preparedness because, one assumes, it looked like there was no sign of a pandemic and money could easily be diverted to more immediate priorities. Other examples abound. Senior homes have been pushed off to the oversight of bureaucracies and largely forgotten. The neglect resulted in them becoming petri dishes that carry the highest rates of death for any group. A crisis tells us we’re confronted with an accumulated lack of attention to underlying system frailties like banging nails into a fence when the posts are full of dry rot. In churches, congregations and denominational systems, this kind of denial is legion. If we want to understand how not to “waste” this crisis, we have to be willing to look directly in the face of our denials and confront hard choices. Some simple illustrations might suffice. Large numbers of congregations are way past the point of being able to support the model of a full time pastor. But this can keeps being kicked down the road in the hope that a miracle will happen ( a new rental tenant will turn up) or the implosion will take place on someone’s else’s watch (”If I can just make it to retirement!”). As the crisis hits, clergy are spinning.  Congregations have become affinity groups where people gather out of common political, social and economic interests in drive-in buildings that have almost no relationship with the neighborhood or community. Hardly anything has been done to address this “globalization” of congregational life that has made them so feeble in terms of attending to the common good of the communities where people actually live. Crises bring to the fore long, unaddressed realities. For anything to  meaningfully happen unaddressed, long festering issues have to be confronted. Now is the time. Let’s not waste this crisis.

4 Replies to “Where are we? What’s next?

  1. Reading some of your work on liminality and now this article, I want to ask: If we can jump or be pushed into liminality…the former is a “leap of faith” yet the latter is a “crisis”…what principles from a “leap of faith” approach to liminality might we apply to the “crisis”? Imagine: what if a group of churches would have made this present pivot as a “leap of faith”? Would we be applauding them or critiquing them?

    1. Tim, thanks for your comment and questions. I’d love to engage but I’m not clear on the point your making or the question your asking. The very nature of liminal experience means that you can neither “jump” into it (leap of faith) of be “pushed”. The liminal is a crushing recognition that the space you now inhabit is far outside the habits, practices and norms within which one has lived. It initially creates a deeply primitive drive to get back to some normal but that is only the beginning. The liminal is a crushing realization that one is not in control – “leaping” still assumes some of that control.

  2. Your article is an example of the problem. Jesus is missing from our church and you never mentioned Him in that long essay. Could the problem be that God has removed His blessing from the church because we are disobedient. We change the scriptures on marriage, sexual relations, ordination of women, and unconverted priests make up most of the clergy. It is not psychology we need to save us it is a transformation by the love of Jesus, the Head of the church. John 14:6 is not just for funerals it should be in the heart of every Christian. Alan, if you have met Jesus it should be the most wonderful thing in your life and it would have been mentioned in you essay.

    1. I would direct you to my book: Practices for the Refounding of God’s People

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