Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com revealed their “word of the year” last week. Unsurprisingly, that word was “pandemic.” More interesting were the words that were “runners-up”- including “bubble,” “pod,” “social-distancing,” “face-masks,” and “lockdown.” There was another set of runners-up that dug deeper into how this year has felt:
Unprecedented. (Oh yes.)
Entanglement. (i.e. something that is snarled, complex, complicated.)
Omnishambles. (A word from British slang which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, means “a situation, in which poor judgment results in disorder or chaos with potentially disastrous consequences.”)
Apocalyptic. (Does this seem a bit too extreme? Then how about…)
Hellacious. (According to Dictionary.com, hellacious can mean “astonishing,” which sounds pretty positive. Then again, it can also mean “difficult.” Sounds appropriate for 2020, doesn’t it? )
As telling as these words may be, when I think of our work as The Ministry Collaborative, I hear more poignantly the questions pastors and congregational leaders have asked us – repeatedly and with increasing urgency – in 2020.
When will this end?
When can we get back to normal?
What happens to the church if we never get back to anything that seems normal?
Will people come back?
Should we return to in-person worship?
How can I keep our folks from arguing about returning to in-person worship?
Are you telling me I have to deal with a parents’ petition on allowing our youth sports league to re-open?
Why aren’t we _______________? (Fill in the blank: doing as fabulous as I was just told the church down the street is doing, or the church someone saw on YouTube this week)
What has really changed? What is the same? How can we tell?
Why has absolutely everything in church become political?
How can I help folks grieve their losses when we can’t sit alongside one another?
How do I balance the needs of our members with the devastation in our community?
Will I ever get over feeling exhausted?
A member just asked me if I was ready to “get back to work” – seriously?
How can I try to use this time to change things when my tank is completely empty?
Can I leave this vocation of ministry and never look back…please?
The next twelve months will bring challenges we cannot imagine now, along with extensions and modifications to all of the above. And so, as we look toward 2021, here are a few things we are wondering about, praying about, hoping for in our work with all of you.
The competition among the Body of Christ has to stop. And the corollary: no church is doing as “fabulous” as they may be trying to bluff on Zoom calls and social media. No faith community is coping better than any other. And if we do see sisters and brothers who are falling down amid the pressure and pain of this year, our job is to help them up, not continue to tell a boastful story.
God loves the world more than God loves the church. This is a hopeful, missional word, but during the devastations and depletions of this year, this hopeful word, to serve the world that God so loves can be hard to hear or embrace when just getting from one day to the next, is a challenge. It’s so important for us to remember that scripture bears witness that when God calls, God equips. God has called us to love the world more than we love our own organization, denomination, programs, policies, or intramural striving. Because that is God’s call, God will provide us with everything we need to look up and out to the world that is in such great need. If we can see and feel that call, it is up to us to nurture that every place we can, and support those who are struggling to embrace that. Because…
…this is the church’s opportunity to re-introduce itself to our culture as a place of care, community, connection, depth, and equity. In the imposed isolation of this year, many among us have lost access to the care we all need. We long for community and connection even as multiple forces are eroding those very things. There is nothing like a crisis to expose every shallow idea, hope, value and plan. We need pathways to take us to deeper places. And oh, please God, we need the renewal of equity – especially in race and economics – to continue to move with fresh winds of the Spirit. At our best, the church is a place that can offer care, community, connection, depth, and equity. Right now, our culture is hungry for just those values. Yet, the church can often be experienced as irrelevant to these yearnings. We have come to be seen as unreliable sources for these very values over the last several decades. Our culture is casting about for help. Can we re-introduce ourselves? Or do we meet these needs with more sign-up sheets to keep our church machine running, more jargon-ladened expressions for those already in the club, more judgment, more self-referential spending and talking? I believe this is the choice for 2021.
And I believe this last one with equal passion: this is a season to be very gentle with one another. Please, be gentle with your pastor who is probably barely holding on. If you are on your congregation’s church board or council, I hope you strive for deeper places and larger goals in the months ahead, but please do it with grace and good spirit and consideration for others alongside you who aren’t where you are and aren’t moving at the same pace – whether faster or slower – that you are. Congregations need to be gentle and forbearing with one another. No sentence should be uttered that begins with “well, it’s obvious that we should…” Nothing is “obvious” in this unprecedented, entangled, omnishambled, apocalyptic, hellacious year! We are all looking for the light God will provide for our way forward. And we need all of us together to help find, nurture, share, and reflect that light.
Finally, on behalf of all my colleagues at The Ministry Collaborative, it is the honor of a lifetime to try to walk alongside you in this hard time. We will never cease seeking to support you and your ministry. We are praying for you, as we are praying for God’s new heaven and new earth and the role we all play in God’s unfolding work. Truly, that is our joy.
** We will take a break from our weekly articles for the next two weeks and return on January 5.