“How did you go bankrupt?” One character says to another in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. “Two ways,” comes the reply. “Gradually, then suddenly.” Here in the Diocese of Olympia it feels like this is also how you find yourself at the epicenter of a COVID-19 outbreak. Gradually, then suddenly. In the space of a few days our region has gone from a few cases to hundreds, from wondering if this will be a thing to closed schools, failing restaurants, and dramatic shifts in everyday life. Our churches have gone from open to closed. And our church leadership has gone from wondering if we can ban intinction to wondering how church can go on at all if no one is allowed to gather, and no one is allowed to come.
In the College for Congregational Development (CCD) we teach that every situation you encounter as a leader is an opportunity to develop your community of faith. Every moment is a moment when a congregation can become more healthy, more faithful, and more effective as a local expression of the body of Christ. This moment is no different. As I was thinking through these issues for my congregation, I realized we needed an identity statement for this crisis, words we could return to when we feel lost, unsure, or without focus. I needed words that I could return to as a leader to help me make choices about what to prioritize, where to put my time and energy, and how to continue the development of my community of faith to reflect the love of Jesus during an extremely challenging time. Here is what I came up with, and so I share it with you. Stay Connected. Stay Church. Take Care of Each Other. (“Each Other” is All of Us.)
Stay Connected. We are all frightened by something in the midst of this pandemic, but we don’t have to be frightened alone. Consider how your congregation is already connecting to each other and how you can magnify this. CCD graduate the Rev. Shelly Fayette, rector of Christ Church, Seattle, clued me in to the organization theory of Mutual Aid – non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic methods she is using to organize her congregation into small, cell-like groups of people who check in on each other every day. Her work is a good reminder that the poor and marginalized have well developed strategies to deal with connecting in the face of fear, and we can learn from them. I stole this for use at St. Columba, Kent as well, acknowledging that this is a moment to build connection and community, and to redefine what we mean by “gathering.” What these groups really do is provide your congregation with emotional support as well as a sense that no one is in this alone, even if we have to practice social distancing and self-isolation. The first question to ask and answer as leaders of congregations is this one: how will we stay connected? The answer for your congregation might be different than the answer for Christ Church, Seattle or St. Columba, Kent. But whatever it is, leader, spread out the responsibility. Consider putting something in place that enables you to quickly become informed if someone is in crisis, but that also empowers congregation members to check on each other. What if, when this is over and we gather in the same space again, there are new friendships in place, and new relationships formed because of how your congregation chose to stay connected?
Stay Church. There is a lot of theological and practical discussion around how we can still worship together while physically apart. I see my colleagues wondering about all sorts of things from basic practical questions like how does live-streaming work to deeper theological questions like does the Eucharist work if most of the people participating aren’t in the room and cannot partake? I have heard from colleagues who are abstaining from the cup entirely, who are having a clergy person only drink, who are having a lay person only drink, who are having families at home lift up bread and wine, who are ditching the Eucharist entirely and going to Morning Prayer. Consider putting all that aside for a moment, even though chances are good that one of those options I just listed really made you uncomfortable or mad. What does your church need to stay church? They need to worship, to pray, and to know that this will not last forever. You won’t do live-stream perfectly – but the most important thing is for your people to see your face, hear your voice, and know that their spiritual home still stands. You don’t need to be perfect at live-streaming or have the best camera or microphone. You can record a service, or sermon, or pep talk ahead of time and send it out. You can email resources for prayer at home and have folks call each other to pray or text when they are starting. Whatever you do, now is the time to prioritize doing something over doing the perfect thing and to remind your people we don’t need to be together to stay church.
Take Care of Each Other. (“Each Other” is all of us). Connection is great, and so is church, but being Christian means being in caring relationship with each other and with our world. I am finding that in the middle of crisis, my congregation is hungry for something to do. Think about how you might facilitate the movement of individuals and your community toward care. The Mutual Aid groups are one way to do this. Inviting younger congregants who are working from home or out of work for the duration of the crisis to replace older more vulnerable volunteers at feeding ministries might be another. At St. C’s we are asking our version of the Mutual Aid Groups to ask four questions at daily check-ins: How is the Physical Health of your Household? How is the Mental Health of your Household? What do you need? What can you offer? Leader, all we have to do is facilitate these desires to share and to care among the people of God we serve.
Connection. Worship. Care. We can stop everything else and our churches will continue to develop in health, faithfulness, and capacity to be Christ in a broken world.
Finally, friends and fellow leaders, remember that you too are human, fallible, and in need of rest and care. Reach out to colleagues, to your bishop, or to me if you need support. Figure out who can pick up what you would need to put down if you got sick – some of us will, if not with COVID-19 then with exhaustion, worry, anxiety, and other common side effects of leading in times of crisis. One of my favorite adages from a wise organization development consultant whose name I can’t remember but who I still love to quote reads “never use one where two will do.” Leadership is lonely but you are not alone. We can also come to each other’s mutual aid, and we will get through this with God’s help, together.