These questions were set to be determined at General Conference 2020, then delayed until General Conference 2022, which may well be rescheduled for General Conference 2024. As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in our congregations, countries, and consciousness, denominational plans were put on hold. Instead of navigating the crisis of denominational identity, we navigated the crisis of the pandemic, including: the intense loss of life, the contagion of the virus, and the politicization of masks and vaccines. Now it’s time to assess our learnings from the pandemic so that we don’t let a good crisis go to waste. After all, now that we have fairly successfully navigated one crisis, we can have greater confidence in our ability to navigate a second.
Pandemics Disrupt for Good
While very few people today have been through a pandemic prior to COVID-19, it’s been noted that historically, pandemics disrupt for good. The disruption is so dramatic that people’s ways of living and dying are forever altered. Along with the widespread loss of life, the very structures of society change. Coming through a pandemic is chaotic, painful, and messy. It takes a while for the “next normal” to emerge. We ask how to get our churches back on their feet and wonder about the best way to move forward. Yet, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is no going back. Pandemics do, however, promote surprising progress in the areas of medicine, economic and social structures, architecture, politics, and religion. The COVID-19 pandemic is no different.
The pandemic created a profound shift in church mindset from “Wait and See” to “Ownership and Agency”.
Before the pandemic, many churches were in wait and see mode, as in: “Let’s wait and see what General Conference decides, then we’ll know what we are supposed to do.” This reactive approach has had a disastrous impact on morale, ministry, and mission. As long as you are waiting for them to tell you what to do, or who you are, you deflect your own agency, your ability to be a force of the work of the Kingdom and, instead, become a stumbling block. The wait and see approach is also used between appointments. “Let’s wait and see what the new pastor, or the new bishop, wants to do here.” But wait and see means God can no longer move through you. Your congregation is effectively off limits for God’s work. Over the years, the wait and see has squandered momentum, delayed dreams, and stalled partnerships. It has meant justice delayed, and justice denied.
Through the pandemic, many congregations shrugged off the wait and see mode as they dared to step into the immediacy of the moment. Whether organizing for racial justice, offering respite to front-line essential workers, or ministering to those orphaned by COVID, churches sprung into action to offer on the spot ministry to those in need. This new sense of ownership meant that church buildings quickly transformed into vaccination sites, overnight homeless shelters, and pop-up food banks.
Bringing Ownership to the Next Crisis
COVID-19 has forever disrupted the notion that churches can’t flex and adapt. Churches have demonstrated increased adaptability, resilience, and creativity. Dire circumstances were no match for the faith-based community as churches rose brilliantly to the occasion, quickly expanding their sense of ownership and agency. In fact, the coronavirus did for congregations what they could not do for themselves.
There’s no reason that United Methodists’ newfound capacities can’t be used well in the crisis before us. As we approach the next General Conference, let’s continue to be resilient to see new ways of coming together across the miles, distinguishing between our identity as Christians and the institutions we have built, and to take ownership of the moment before us. In order to do that well, we’ll have to spend more time listening than posturing, and more energy loving than hating.
If your congregation is struggling with the effects of the pandemic, I invite you to join me for my upcoming workshop, “How to Do More with Less.” We’ll address this ever-pressing question many church leaders are asking and discover ways for you to move your people forward into a realm of endless possibility.
Excerpted and adapted from Rebekah Simon-Peter’s featured chapter of the upcoming, What’s Next: 21 United Methodist Leaders Discuss the Future of the Church (Market Square Publishers, 2022)
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