Back in the almost-good-old days, in the fall of 2021, we were hopeful that the pandemic was starting to ease off. Friends began seeing each other again, grocery stores no longer counted how many people were entering the building, school was in-person, work was beginning to return to a type of normal and at least some congregations began meeting in person again. As I write this, it is January 2022, the government has encouraged us to limit our social contacts once more, school is online again (though by the time this newsletter goes out, it will be in person again) and those who can are told to work from home. Many congregations that opened their sanctuaries are now back to meeting online. In truth, it feels like March 2020 and January 2021 all over again. It is a déjà vu perhaps, though this time around, our pandemic muscles are both well-practiced and perhaps, wearier. Still, I am strangely hopeful. While I won’t make any predictions, I am beginning to imagine the end of the pandemic. And with this, I am beginning to wonder how we can prepare for a post-pandemic congregation. What will it mean to return to a new semblance of normal? I offer five themes for consideration
1. Some assume that people will be thrilled to be free of their Covid-imposed lockdowns and that relationships will bounce back with fervor and joy. This may be true. Indeed, I noticed Iast Fall, when friends and family began seeing each other again, that people lingered longer. No one wanted the magic of in-the-flesh-togetherness to end. Nonetheless, our return to our places of worship may not be so easy. We will not all emerge into togetherness at the same rate. Some have suffered significantly during the pandemic. Some will be comfortable with in-person gatherings much sooner than others. Some will require time to reacquaint themselves with the social interactions associated with in-person work. Some will feel weary and tense for some time. Now is a good time to imagine creating kind-hearted congregational cultures that make space for a diversity of human experience. Recently, several congregations have shared with us stories of pain related to the challenges, even toxicity, in their communities of faith. While it is always a good thing to transform challenging congregational cultures, the end-of-pandemic reality will put pressure on even the most robust congregations. Now is a good time to reorient congregational cultures around the congregation’s core values. Practically, this means reminding one another of the congregation’s existing values. It means establishing a vision for the congregation’s culture. And perhaps most importantly, it means leading in a manner that reflects these values and this vision.
2. The pandemic invited us to question our norms related to work-life balance – and the place of faith within this equation. Why do we work so much? Why do we struggle with work-life balance? Does the pursuit of new experiences and new purchases really bring joy? What does it mean to lean on faith over the course of one’s day? Does faith matter? What does it mean to practice solitude and community, to be a person, and to be a community? These questions pose a challenge and an opportunity for congregations, inviting congregants and congregations to acknowledge that meaning, purpose, and belonging matter. Being connected to a larger and deeper energy – and to one another – changes how we engage the world. For congregational leaders, preparing for a post-pandemic world includes tapping into these questions and these longings. How can spiritual commitments support those who are re-focusing on a rounder form of wellbeing, on community, and on questions of identity? How do church programs (and their many volunteer roles) support rather than stress wellbeing, community, and identity formation?
3. The open space created by the pandemic brought the reality of racism into our consciousness like never before. Since George Floyd’s murder in the United States in May 2020, and the 2021 discovery of the graves of Indigenous children around residential schools here in Canada (which is ongoing), we have observed a renewed societal focus on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). Some congregations have leaned into this conversation with fervor, placing time and energy into their EDI commitments. Others have been distracted by other commitments and stresses. Throughout history, societal movements toward justice are often followed by either an intentional push-back against justice or a loss of interest in equity initiatives: we return to old patterns because the work of EDI is either too hard or something else has taken over our attention. For congregations, both now and in the coming post-pandemic normal, it is likely that our attentions will be pulled away from our EDI initiatives. Our EDI commitments can take a back seat as other themes take our attention. It does not need to be this way. If we regard EDI as central to our congregation’s core values – as central as an annual budget – we can give EDI the time it needs and deserves. We can maintain our commitments to EDI even as we attend to other congregational issues.
4. Many congregations have struggled with polarization – this struggle has only been enhanced during the pandemic. There appears to be significant pain in our congregations. We want to go forward together but finding our way together is becoming increasingly difficult to do. For some, the direction in which the church must move is obvious – though not all agree on what this obvious direction is. Some are caught in the middle, seeing wisdom on all sides of the conversation. Others want to keep the diverse voices in the church together regardless of diverse world views. These voices ask: “Do we not need difference? Is difference not valuable as we find our way forward?” The pandemic will not bring an end to polarization. While questions of vaccines and masks may recede, other questions related to who we are, what we believe, and how we behave with one another will not go away. Congregations are invited to develop the skills and spirituality to listen well to one another, to remember the principle of “unconditional positive regard” (love) even during times of disagreement – and to remember to listen deeply and humbly for God’s leading during times of difficult discernment.
5. Now is also a good time to reimagine the congregation itself. The pandemic has upended how we do church. While the transition to online worship is perhaps the most obvious change that congregations experienced, there are many others: virtual pastoral care, virtual meetings, new ways of doing programs, creative responses to challenges, permission to be innovative, etc. More than one congregation has told us that the pandemic allowed them to experiment in ways that had not been possible for many years, if ever. Most congregations struggle with making deep and meaningful change – even when in a state of precipitous decline. The pandemic has created opportunities to practice with change and experimentation. It seems like a shame to lose the opportunity this fruit basket-upset has created. As we prepare for a post-pandemic world, taking a step back to reflect on how our congregations have changed – and how we managed to roll with these changes – can allow us to keep flexing those changes and experimentation muscles allowing us to indeed, build back better.
The pandemic has been hard and wearying. Coming out of the pandemic will also be challenging. We can, however, be prepared. Even more, we can use this experience to nurture our congregations, so that they can become truly joyful and equitable places of meaning, purpose, and belonging.