Category Archives: Hybrid and Virtual

Being the Church: “We are the church.”

“Church is not cancelled.  We are the church.”

Remember that, from March and April of 2020?  How we needed to hear that line!  We passed it around to one another through social media channels and phone calls and texts.  We needed—needed—to know that our beloved faith communities were not disappearing, and we needed to know that we, ourselves, were still empowered to exist in the world as the church.  God was with us, and we were with God.

Flash forward to now, and I’m left with some questions.  Are we the church?  Are we really?  I mean, I want to take that on faith.  Certainly, we people, guided by God, are the church more than our buildings and property are, but what does that mean?

“We are the church.”

We—which we?  Everybody?  Certain somebodies?  It’s not that I’m desperate to know who’s out, but I want to know who’s in.  Who’s on my team?  Whose hands can I hold?

Are—in what way?  By a set of actions or a state of being?  To bring it down from the clouds, what is this on the average Tuesday?

The—does that imply there’s only one church?

Church—is there a difference between being church and being God’s people?  If the church is not a building, what is it, then?

We

You just know different groups would define this differently.  I tend to stretch for the broadest possible definition because my gut instinct is to include.  But I know, at the same time, that many groups of people—many congregations, even whole denominations—would draw a circle around “we” with me outside of it.  I can live with that, but actually, I think that just because someone else says I’m not on their team doesn’t mean I can’t decide that they are on my team.  I think maybe I can draw my own circle as big as I like.

When I try to think who I’d include in my “we,” I just can’t find a place to cut it off.  Sure, there are people I like more than others.  And there are people whose actions horrify me.  I don’t mean to imply a big, friendly cuddle pile.  Some people do things that are literally evil.  I don’t want to make nice with everybody.  In fact, I can’t; making nice, tolerating, would sometimes be immoral, contrary to God’s commandment to do justice and love mercy.

What I’m talking about is something else, something about the way I approach another person’s deep wrongdoing—or, for that matter, the way in which I listen to someone who criticizes me.  I approach this differently if I’ve decided they’re on my team.  If I disassociate from someone, drawing my circle with them outside it, then I’ve given myself permission to ignore or despise them.  Why not?  That person’s not part of my “us.”  I have no responsibility for them, nor they for me.

But if somebody’s inside my circle, I respond to their behaviors very differently.  Suddenly, they are precious to me.  I want to build them up, not tear them down, and if they’re doing something terrible, I want to say so—but with love and mercy and assuming they’d make better choices if only they could see a way.  I care about them and what their choices do to their soul.  And if they’re inside my circle, I know my team can’t succeed without them.  Success is no longer a zero-sum game.  We all succeed, or none of us do.

I can’t despise a person once I’ve decided they’re part of we.

Are

Sixth grade, listing the state-of-being verbs: is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been.  That was twenty-nine years ago, but I can still recite them.

The verb are is inherently plural.  I can’t are all by myself.  Which right away goes against the grain, because I’d very much like to just put together a to-do list and check things off as I move through my day, and by the time I go to bed, I can say that I’ve completed this.  That’s much more efficient.  But it’s not being church.

To are the church is to manifest collectively.  How does this happen in day-to-day activity?  How to understand this plural state of being?

One part might be a state of flawed striving.  Almost no one describes any church as a group of perfect people.  So we are the church when we name each other and ourselves as imperfect but trying.

Another part might be divine potential.  Embedded in church is the possibility of being better.  We are the church when we affirm our collective capacity to do better than we’re currently doing, with the guidance of God.

And another part might be interconnectedness.  This is that inherently plural thing.  My favorite metaphor for the church comes from Paul in 1 Corinthians 12, and he reminds us that we are like a body, in which the parts are all necessary and fundamentally interdependent.  I cannot fully function without you.  You cannot fully function without me.  We are the church when we recognize and act upon the necessity and preciousness of every person.

What does this look like on a Tuesday afternoon?  Recognizing mistakes as part of life; giving each other the benefit of the doubt; knowing that we all can do better; supporting each other’s ability to thrive.

Forgive, believe, envision, feed.

The

Just to continue a grammar theme, “the” is a definite article, indicating something clearly defined rather than just one example of something.  (Not “an” apple, but “the apple.”  Not “a” church, but “the” church.)

If we’re the church, that seems to indicate some definite something, not that we’re just church in general.  It could be a reference to one’s local faith community, but if feels to me like it’s also a reference to something much larger.

I’ve been using the phrase “being the church” throughout this series because I don’t have a better phrase to indicate what I mean.  But like I’ve said above, I don’t limit “we” to a specific circle.  And if “we” isn’t limiting, our “the” can’t be exclusionary.

So what is “the” church, beyond institutions?  Something larger than an individual denomination or local congregation.  Something larger than even a broad definition of Christianity or even of interfaith.  

Church

The word’s inaccurate.  I don’t have an adequate word in English and don’t know any other languages to try.  The word “church” only makes sense if you’re coming from at least a vaguely culturally Christian background.  But I’m going to struggle on anyway.

What’s this church thing that we are being?  When we forgive, believe, envision, and feed, what does that cause us to be?  I almost want to say that church is the place of gatherment in the arms of God, the place of being infinitely precious to divine eternity, the place of being held alongside our dear siblings, human and non-human, every living thing.

But.

If that’s so—if church is the place of gatherment—then I have to go back and shift what I’ve said, because that is not earned.  That simply is.  We are held in purest love always and always.  We can do nothing about it—not to receive it, and not to lose it.

If we are the church no matter what we do—if God cuddles us close automatically—then we are not the church because we act like we are the church.

We act like we are the church because we recognize that we are the church.  That’s what it looks like on a Tuesday afternoon: abiding in the power of God’s love for all the we.

Being the Church: Evangelism

So—new people showed up on your Zoom or your Facebook Live!  Hooray!

No, really—hooray!  Let’s stay in the celebratory moment before going on to the questions.  This is amazing.  People have discovered your faith community in a time when many people are desperate for connection…to God, to their fellow humans, to hope, to faith.  And if they’ve kept coming, that means that your faith community was giving them something that they really needed.  Good job.  Thank God.  That is fantastic news.

I wonder what brought these new people to your faith community.  I wonder how they found you.  I wonder what they found in you.  Do you know?  Have you asked?  Have you considered how to welcome them?  Are they ready for further involvement?  Do you know how to support their belonging?

We used to have a sense of rules and pattern and predictability about newcomers.  For example, I used to tell faith communities that the people most likely to visit their congregations were people who lived within twenty minutes’ travel.  They might get someone who drove forty-five minutes, but this was statistically unlikely.  That meant that congregations could get a sense of potential newcomers by just studying their local neighborhoods.

Not so much anymore.

So what does evangelism look like now?  For faith communities that intend to continue as hybrid or online worshiping groups, we don’t know what the new rules are yet.  We have no idea—no good data—about why somebody shows up on your Facebook Live from three states away when they could just as easily have shown up on somebody else’s.  The only person who knows is the person themselves, which makes me think that you might want to ask them.  Why did you come to us?  Why have you stayed?  Obviously (I hope), you don’t want to barrage people with these sorts of questions on their very first visit, but if you do have relative newcomers who’ve appeared online and stuck around for a while, they’re the people you want to engage as you start to explore your new approach to evangelism.

Asking what brought these new folks to your community might give you a sense of who you are perceived to be.  If what they say feels true, you can lean into that identity.  You can also talk (both online and in person) about the various ways in which your congregation is distinct.  “Welcoming of online participants” is no longer unusual, and you probably won’t continue to receive new visitors for that reason alone.  But being deliberate and specific about your identity as a faith community will encourage visitors.  They’ll be clear about what they’re invited to, and some people will hear your description as a direct answer to what they’ve been seeking.

It will also be important, as visitors come, to be aware of how you welcome them.  Are you prepared to greet visitors of all ages, whether online or in person, warmly but not overwhelmingly?  Have you figured out how to welcome a new person individually without putting them on lengthy display?  In person, this is relatively simple; you station a greeter in the hallway.  Online, you might want to make use of a tech host with strong social skills or assign somebody to greet people in the chat.

Do you have simple information about your faith community that’s easy for visitors to find?  In person, this means a good pamphlet table.  Online, this is a great website, or—if necessary—a simple link made readily available to a well-curated denominational site.

Do you follow up with visitors by phone or email within a few days of their first visit?  Some visitors—especially shy ones—might find this kind of follow-up intimidating, but they tend to self-select. If visitors are invited and encouraged to write their contact information in a book (or put it in a private chat box), they will decide for themselves whether to offer an email address, a phone number, a mailing address, or none of the above. Within days, they should receive a friendly follow-up—“I’m so glad you came. Here are a couple of upcoming events you might want to know about . . . can I answer any questions for you?” This kind of contact makes a visitor feel seen.

After the first visit, newcomers will need help finding a sense of belonging.  Can you invite the newcomer—whether in-person or virtual—into a formal or informal small group?  Sociological research tells us that it’s easier to enter a group in formation than it is to enter an established group. Established groups have unwritten rules and norms that can be tricky to learn and follow, but a small group that’s just being established is a lot easier to enter.  The newcomer can be part of the creation of the social norms.

Does your faith community have fun, preferably multigenerational activities—again, online, in-person, or hybrid?  Having fun together brings a community together in ways that nothing else does.  For many people, social time is where trust-building happens.  Even neuroscience supports the idea of community play.  Laughter stimulates chemicals in our brains that cause us to experience a feeling of bondedness to the people we laugh with.

And are you prepared to respond positively and supportively to newcomers’ suggestions, including those newcomers who appear online?  It’s about establishing a permission-giving culture: a place in which the default answer to newcomers’ ideas is “yes, and how can I help?” unless there is a compelling, Spirit-led reason to say otherwise. Newcomers develop a sense of belonging when their ideas are taken seriously. 

And eventually, your newcomers won’t be new anymore; they’ll need to become fully integrated members, experiencing religious formation and journeying with other community members.  Are you providing regular opportunities for religious formation and religious education for everyone—all ages, and all levels of experience?  If not, it’s tricky for newcomers to move out of their status as “new” because they don’t experience the group as one where everyone is growing.  When you’re all gathering together (in person, online, or hybrid) for discussions and religious formation opportunities, members of the congregation have the chance to journey together in their walks of faith.  It’s important to include talking about how each person’s faith influences their daily lives—otherwise, there’s danger that these gatherings will become intellectual exercises, which works okay for some people, but not for everyone.

Evangelism has been functioning a bit like catch-as-catch-can for most of us in the last couple of years. That’s reasonable; the tried-and-true predictable patterns keep shifting, and we’re just trying to cope.  But there are some things that will always be the same: bringing people good news, welcoming newcomers into communities, and walking together in faith as congregations.  We do this whether we’re gathering in person or in our jammies online.  Are we ready now to resume doing these things more deliberately?

Being the Church: Witness

Hard to know what to protest.

Everywhere we look, something clamors for attention—loudly.  Racism.  Gender discrimination.  Police violence.  Misinformation campaigns.  Border patrols.  Climate change.  International politics.  Gun violence. Economic inequities.  Each item on this list represents a genuine, life-altering, probably life-threatening emergency.  And that’s to say nothing of less-visible, or less-approachable, threats to justice: mathematical algorithms, gerrymandering, dark money in politics, and (at least in the United States) Christian nationalism.

Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly before your God—what does that look like nowadays?

There’s no shortage of people expressing themselves.  I see actual protests, or videos of protests, multiple times a day, every day, protesting everything under the sun, and many of these are warranted.  Each protest involves a group of people holding up signs, chanting or shouting.  Some involve considerable shouting.  A few involve property destruction or violence.  Many involve identifying and dehumanizing one or more enemies.  There’s a lot—a lot, a lot—of anger.

I see anger on social media, too, sometimes explosive but more often preemptive.  A friend posts a meme, tersely phrased, all of twelve words to “sum up” an enormously complicated and highly emotional issue.  The meme itself will be plain-spoken and absolutist, with no room for discussion, and it’s often accompanied by commentary from the person who posted it: “If you don’t agree with this, unfriend me right now.”

If we’re truthful, we must confess that almost nothing can be fully expressed in twelve words.  Things are nuanced.  Even something we believe to be a moral absolute most often cannot be expressed in a meme or a protest sign; when we try, we have to oversimplify or use coded language that creates an insider-outsider dynamic.  And when we decline to engage with the other—“if you don’t agree with this, unfriend me right now”—we put an end to any potential for relationship.  Change doesn’t happen in the absence of relationship.

What I see happening on both ends of the political and cultural spectrums is something that feels like idolatry of purity, as if our continued moral righteousness depends absolutely on never mixing with anyone whose viewpoints differ.  Some of us fear being influenced by the other.  Some of us fear appearing to approve of the other.  In either case, it feels neither productive nor loving.

Sometimes I wonder whether our faith communities are feeling called to change hearts or change the rules. Obviously, what governments dictate matters.  But it’s not all that matters, and it’s not what matters most.  I suspect that God would prefer we be transformed by Spirit than forced to behave in certain ways by a legal system.  Both matter—but I want to talk about transformation first.

Transformation, or the changing of hearts, simply doesn’t happen at scale because big groups of people get really loud about it.  Protests, hate speech, and expressions of anger are all extremely unlikely to change hearts.  When I think back to the times when I have been changed, I realize it usually hasn’t been the result of a single dramatic experience; rather, it’s the accumulation of many surprising acts of love.  

When someone I disagree with (or fear) demonstrates love and care for me personally, and when that happens repeatedly over a long period of time, then my point of view might be changed.  It’s about relational contact, and it has to happen more than once.  Quippy slogans, harsh words, and even logical arguments cannot do what sharing a dinner can do.

This is one good argument for faith communities to seek relationships with each other, with faraway faith communities.  In the United States, most people don’t live in places where political views are mixed.  Most people live in places that are either solidly Democrat or solidly Republican.  If we hope to engage meaningfully with fellow human beings about social or political matters of the day, we have to escape the echo chambers.  Can your faith community seek relationship with a faith community that’s physically and culturally different from your own, but still within your same country?  Can you do it seeking genuine, long-term relationship with mutual listening and worship and prayer?  Or can you consider encouraging the individual members of your congregation to seek and maintain such relationships?

All this is not to say that protest and witness are unimportant.  One-on-one relationship can change hearts, but not laws—at least not quickly—and sometimes what’s needed is a change of law.  But again, this doesn’t happen as a result of social media posts. 

Strikingly, in the past year, people (at least in the United States) don’t trust their government or nonprofits (including religious groups) as much as they trust business.  That’s right—business.  The corporate sector has a higher trust rating than any other sector in the United States.  People trust businesses to make moral decisions and enact them effectively.  Moreover, there’s data to indicate that a statement on an ethical issue that comes from a high-level CEO has as much effect on public opinion as a statement coming from a politician or celebrity.

On the one hand, this feels utterly bizarre as we draw the natural conclusion: groups attempting to influence public policy might have a greater effect if they lobby the C-suite instead of government officials.  (And of course, nothing says you can’t do both.)  But on the other hand, if we’re looking at this as members of faith communities, that’s not so strange, historically.  Have faith communities not always had a responsibility to minister to all people, including those in positions of tremendous economic power?  Whether we’re happy about today’s trust and power landscapes or not—and most of us are not—can we acknowledge the dynamics and speak loving truth to those who hold power?

The church has always had a place in the broader questions of society, both in terms of speaking to individual lives and in terms of speaking to laws and societal norms.  Faith communities don’t get to make laws, and that’s crucial, but they do have a responsibility to lovingly, consistently articulate truth as best they can, even (or especially) in times of radical social change.

But the tools of people of faith must differ from the tools of the world.  Though God is very much with us in moments of righteous anger, that anger, if separate from love, generally doesn’t provide openings for someone else to change.  Though God is unlikely to insist we engage with someone whose words or actions harm us, complete and categorical refusal to engage provides relative safety but not potential for transformation.  We cannot forget that God changes hearts, but God most often does so through human interactions.

So what does God ask of us?

How do we witness now?

Being the Church: Budgets

If you took a look at your faith community’s 2020 budget, and you laid it next to your 2022 draft, and you took off the date labels—could you tell the difference?  Could all of the members of your faith community immediately tell the difference?  Could a non-member who lives in your neighborhood?

For most of us, the answer is no.  I think that’s a missed opportunity.

There’s a sort of famous conceit about budgets: “I look at a spreadsheet, and my eyes roll back in my head.” Many people of faith check out entirely when the conversation comes around to the budget.  “Let the numbers people take care of that.”  And many numbers people—who carry crucial spiritual gifts of stewardship and attention to detail—try faithfully to do exactly that. 

But putting the budget in the hands of the few, while many members of the congregation ignore it entirely, isn’t very faithful.  The budget is too important for that.  Not because someone might abscond with our money, although that’s always a slight possibility, but because we ourselves might abscond with the money if we fail to make sure it’s aligned with God’s purposes.  To proclaim one set of priorities while putting our faith community’s money someplace else lacks integrity.  But it’s all too easy for this to happen, usually unintentionally.

When we feel anxious or afraid, we look for things we can control, and budgets are one of the easiest things.  We can say no to that extra thousand dollars.  We can insist we need to keep it in our savings.  We have a natural tendency to believe that will protect us…probably because it sometimes does.  The idea of money or property as security isn’t a fantasy.  Money and property don’t guarantee security, but we rarely find security in the absence of money or property.

But when our faith community is forming a budget, it needs to be based in our priorities, and our priorities should in theory come from how we are called by God.  If we’re prioritizing ongoing security for our faith community in our budget, then let’s ask the question: is the continued survival of this congregation God’s most important call for us?

Post-pandemic times are requiring a lot of reassessing.  It’s stressful.  We’re reassessing our worship, our neighborhood ministries, our pastoral care…and much, much more.  The good news is, we don’t have to reassess our budget completely separately.  All we have to do is make sure it’s consistent with who we know we are called to be.  

How is your faith community different than it was two years ago?

Has your budget changed to reflect that change?

As we look at expenditures, we can start with our top priorities.  If the most important thing is the food bank, let’s fund the food bank first and see what’s left.  If the most important thing is the children’s ministry, let’s fund that first.  And so on and so on.  This can feel really scary when you’re thinking, “But what about the property maintenance fund!”  Well…first there’s nothing stopping you from trying a different approach.  You can always go back to the old way.  Second, maybe there will be plenty of money left over for property maintenance.  And third, if there isn’t plenty of money left over, then maybe you need to reconsider: how important is your property maintenance?  Are you sure that God is asking you to make that your top priority?  The answer might turn out to be yes, but I think it’s worth challenging what we’ve always assumed.

This is all to do with the expenditure side, but it’s equally important to pay attention to the giving side.  Most nonprofits anticipated a severe drop in giving during the economic pressure of the pandemic.  That didn’t happen—at least, not on average.  In the United States, giving went up.  More individuals donated money, and those who donated each gave more.  The one exception to this was religious bodies, to which giving neither went up nor down—but this might be a reflection of the fact that donating to one’s faith community required more effort than usual in most cases, since online worship services lack a physical collection plate.

What nobody knows exactly is why giving went up or what happens next.  Will people continue to give at the same rate?  Will giving go down?  Will giving patterns shift in some other way?  It’s almost impossible to predict.

One thing that faith communities might do is have some open conversations.  How did giving feel during the first year or two of the pandemic?  Did you make changes to how much you gave, or changes to where or to whom you gave?  Why?  How did that feel?  How does your stewardship of your financial resources align with the person you believe God is calling you to be?  

There is no reason that such a conversation needs to feel like pressure to give more to the faith community.  Just having the conversation itself, though, is important in supporting people’s generosity.  If we believe that God asks us to share our wealth, then it’s appropriate to talk about this in a faith community context.

If you compared your 2020 and 2022 budgets, without date labels, could you tell the difference?

Is your faith community’s mission the same as it was in 2020?  Are your people and your circumstances the same?  Is the world in which you worship the same?  

If not, does it really make sense to try to support it in exactly the same ways financially?

How is God asking you to use your resources now?

Being the Church: Multiage Communities

Before the pandemic, I spent a lot of time thinking and writing and talking about multiage faith communities: congregations in which members of every life stage could thrive and in which they would do so as a deeply connected people.  

One of my biggest concerns was how much time we spent in all-age spaces, as compared to age-segregated spaces.  I encouraged faith communities to spend at least 50% of their time all together across generations (counting everything—worship, committee meetings, religious education, social events, service gatherings).  For some faith communities, this was an “of course.”  Others of us really struggled.  We felt lucky to be together for part of worship each week and, maybe, for tea and cookies afterwards.  After that, we didn’t know how to be together while simultaneously addressing every life stage’s needs.

In the early, rapid-decision-making stage of the pandemic, this tendency toward age segregation caused us immediate and lasting problems, though many of us didn’t notice until later.  In a crisis, decisions must be made fast, and they must be made by a relatively small group of people.  For nearly all of our faith communities, this was the relatively small group of people that had always been at the center of our decision-making: adults, usually older adults, and in many cases retired adults.

They did the best they could.  They did the very best they could.  I remember what those early days of the pandemic were like: fear for our lives and our beloveds’ lives, mass confusion, grocery shortages, denial, astonishment, a sense of something unprecedented.  If we made mistakes in our decision-making then, it was not because anyone was deliberately negligent.  I’m not talking about this to encourage feelings of guilt or second-guessing.  Everybody did the very best they could under the conditions they found themselves in.

Still.  As is natural, many such groups of older adults made decisions that best served older adults.  Exactly what that looked like may have differed from one community to another, but if your faith community has “lost” many of its young people—if you’ve stopped seeing and being in touch with your children, youth, and young adults—then chances are pretty good that this dynamic has been playing out among you.

There are also a few cases in which things have gone the other way, in which communities have “lost” some of their oldest members, possibly because of lack of access to technology or discomfort with it.  Another complicating factor has been visiting restrictions in nursing homes.

Even if your faith community doesn’t keep formal attendance records, you can probably do a simple assessment by sitting together and trying to name all the people who you often saw two years ago but don’t see now.  Once you’ve identified them, you can make it possible for them to return.

Note that I didn’t say “bring them back.”  I said “make it possible.”  Some people won’t return, and in some cases, this will be the right decision for them.  Our role is to make multiage inclusion possible, to make decisions for our faith communities that are rooted in this specific intention.  My friend Melinda Wenner Bradley talks about centering the needs of children and families in our next steps: what would that look like?  What if everything we did from here on out were done with the needs of families primarily in mind?

One thing that feels like low-hanging fruit is to stop gathering the community without a plan for all ages.  I know of many faith communities that have resumed in-person worship but that are requiring proof of vaccination and not providing childcare—and children, of course, cannot be vaccinated quite yet.

What if adults refused to gather until the children could be present among us?  What if adults adjusted their expectations about worship and social gatherings to make this possible?  If it’s only safe to include children by worshiping outside and keeping our masks on, then perhaps all of us should try worshiping outside and keeping our masks on.  Or maybe we only gather in small groups, or maybe we have intergenerational outdoor events like bonfires.  Online all-age events work in some communities.  Writing letters back and forth can work, too.  I know of groups that have had bring-your-own picnic events, each household on its own blanket in the park, and groups that have hosted automobile parades in which families can decorate their cars and wave at one another.

Even the fact that this article is distinct from others in this series says something about the place of families in our communities.  It is so deeply embedded in our culture to categorize our concerns: budgeting, witness, pastoral care, social hours…and then also, as one more category, “the children and families.”

What would it look like to center multiage community and make everyone part of each of these concerns—multiage budgeting? multiage witness? multiage pastoral care? multiage social hours?

How do we move forward as genuinely one people, from the very oldest to the very youngest?

Being the Church: Ministers and Clergy

Some faith communities have grown a great deal compared to two years ago, but others have decreased in number, and still others have experienced so much change that their needs are radically different.  Some faith communities have begun to think, “Maybe we don’t need full-time employees anymore.  Maybe we can’t afford full-time employees anymore.  What happens if we shift to a part-time or bivocational or volunteer ministry model?”

This is a great thing to be thinking about.  It shows that the community is reassessing its call and priorities.  It’s important, though, that it’s not coming from a place of simply wanting to improve the financial bottom line without making other changes.  Are you actually reevaluating your priorities and your budget according to how God’s calling your community?

If you’re clear that you’re considering restructuring your staff as a response to God’s changing call, then it’s time to pay attention to a few other things that may not be immediately obvious.

Are you naming something as part-time ministry when it actually requires full-time attention?  Part-time clergy positions can work, but only if the community itself is really stepping up.  How much time do you expect your part-time clergy person to spend on preaching and preparing to preach?  On pastoral care for your community?  On organizing events?  On answering emails and preparing programs and handling logistical emergencies?  Shepherding community takes a lot of time, to say nothing of emotional and spiritual energy.  The best use of a part-time minister involves assessing the needs of the community, the spiritual gifts of the minister themselves, and the spiritual gifts of other members of the community.  If your minister has a strong gift for speaking, you may want to ask them to preach and have other people providing pastoral care.  If your minister’s primary gifts are in caregiving, it might be better if others take turns preaching.  The most significant danger here is paying a clergy person part-time with expectations that are more appropriate for a full-time employee.  That’s abusive to the clergy person.  It puts them in the position of either working for free or letting things slide, and in a pastoral role, sometimes “letting things slide” equates to genuine suffering.

Are you paying attention to who takes on unpaid labor?  Historically, in many societies, this has been the women, and more often people of color than white people.  That’s not to say that men never do unpaid labor, but when we take a look at data, we discover the distribution is disproportionate.  If your faith community is moving toward more volunteer support and less paid clergy support, you might want to pay attention to how that work gets distributed, especially because it’s often distributed silently.  Committee service alone doesn’t tell the story of the unpaid labor.  What about the work that doesn’t get recorded?  Who’s making the coffee, sweeping up after socials, organizing meal trains, and providing childcare?  How does God guide you as you assign, accept, and appreciate unpaid labor?  As your congregation navigates this, how do you do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God?

Are you noticing who can and cannot minister?  Time-consuming unpaid ministry is inaccessible to people who must be paid in order to survive or support families, even if those people are genuinely called by God.  If we’re not offering clear and accessible pathways to full-time paid ministry, then we need to be paying even more attention to one another’s spiritual gifts and callings.  In my tradition—Quakers—we talk about the responsibility of the community to recognize and receive God-given ministry.  And this can’t be done if the minister is unable to live into their gifts because the financial support isn’t provided.  Shifting to an all-volunteer or mostly-volunteer model becomes more complicated when you realize that not everyone is equally able to give of their time freely.  Are there ways to make financial support available to those among you who must have it in order to be able to serve?

What happens to ministers who have already been called and who are already trained?  Some denominations are experiencing a shortage of clergy, but others are experiencing a surplus—trained and called ministers with nowhere to go.  In some cases, this crosses over with the paragraphs above: if a person needs full-time employment and health insurance to support themselves and/or a family, then offering that person a selection of part-time or volunteer ministry positions isn’t actually offering them anything at all.  Trained and experienced ministers have skills that our faith communities desperately need.  If too many local congregations are shifting away from employing full-time staff, how will ministers be supported in this new model?

This last piece is something to be considered on a denominational level, maybe even across multiple denominations.  Will we need a radically new form of financial support for ministry?  If so, who’s ready to experiment?

Being the Church: End of Congregational Life

How do we know when it’s time for a faith community to end its ministry?

Have some of our congregations reached that point?  It’d be perfectly natural.  Think about it: God calls communities into existence because God has some purpose for those communities.  For some of us, the original purpose may not exist post-pandemic.  Maybe the neighborhood or the town or the congregation’s people have changed so much that the needs are totally different.  Can we affirm this and explore an end-of-congregational life faithfully and with dignity?

This resource from the Christian Church Foundation (Disciples of Christ) is one of my favorites.  It includes some signs that a congregation might be ready to consider closing down.  Try asking yourselves these nine questions:

Do we focus the majority of our attention on the needs and desires of our own members?

Do we talk more about our past than our future?

Does our congregation have few or no members from the immediate neighborhood?

Do we struggle to, or refuse to, support our denomination financially?

Do we resist change?

Do we have a hard time finding enough people to serve in necessary volunteer positions?

Are we unable to sustain a full-time clergy person?

Is our average worship attendance fewer than fifty people?

Do we talk a lot in our business meetings about maintenance and survival?

If you find yourself answering yes to the majority of these questions, it might be time to consider whether your faith community is actually called to continue.

There’s no shame in coming to a natural end, but there almost certainly will be grief.  

“My grandfather started this faith community.  How can I be the one to let it end?”

“I’ve been here twice a week since I was child.  This is my spiritual home.  I can’t go someplace new.”

“We used to do amazing things in this neighborhood!  If we just wait, I think our membership will grow again, and then we’ll be able to resume the old work.”

These are normal and natural feelings, but consider this: if ending a congregation is done intentionally and faithfully, then the people can be cared for, and the resources that remain can be directed toward support for the kinds of ministries in which the group has always been engaged.  But a faith community that’s allowed to dwindle can easily drain the last of its resources, financial and physical and human and spiritual, and then become a burden to others who must figure out how to dispense with it, legally, when its members no longer can.

In the book Having Nothing, Possessing Everything, there’s a lovely ceremony for laying down ministries.  Every person involved is asked to stand, and the together, the congregation blesses them: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”  We need something similar when a congregation ends.  We can celebrate the good work and honor the history; we can respect ourselves and one another as good and faithful servants.  Our value to God and to the world does not rest in the continued existence of a particular institution.  We are so much more than that.

So—is it possible that you’re ready to step into end-of-congregational-life?  

If so, and if you can, ask for some trusted outside help.  It’s good to have someone who can facilitate conversations on the questions above, who can be non-judgmental and impartial and loving.  A skilled outsider can often perceive things that members of the congregation cannot.  The outsider also isn’t so entangled in the community, which means they might be more patient with people who are having complex emotional reactions.  

The work of closing a faith community consists of two parts.  One part is pastoral care.  The members need to be listened to.  They need opportunities to share their stories and express deep feelings.  They may need help finding new places to worship.  Their faithfulness must be acknowledged and honored.  Members of the community can do this for one another, but again, it can help if there’s an outsider doing some of this as well.

The other part is the practical and legal concerns—in other words, dispensation of physical assets.  This process can easily provoke conflict among members, but it can also be affirmational and supportive.  Several denominational organizations suggest approaching this as building a lasting legacy.  What has always been very important to this particular faith community?  How can the community’s physical assets—the building, the property, the financial resources—continue to support those same concerns long after the congregation is no longer a living entity?  For example, can the group create a legacy fund?  Can it donate its property to an organization that supports similar concerns?

Whatever happens in the closure process itself, the end of a congregational life can be affirmed as a faithful response to rapidly shifting world.  Who knows what might be born if only we can make space for the new?

Being the Church: Traditions

1 Corinthians 12, as I’ve written elsewhere, seems to suggest that the body of the church needs everyone—that we are the church only insomuch as we are a collected people aligned with the will of God.  Different faith connections look at those connections differently, but today I want to focus on one thing that sticks out to me.

I’m not sure the connection is severed by death.

Traditions, including rituals, are the contribution to our community that comes from the dead.  In most cases, the dead outnumber the living significantly, in terms of a literal head count and also in terms of years of experience.  There’s actually a pretty good reason why we might hesitate to change things that are “the way we’ve always done them.”  It’s because those who came before us were probably smart, spiritually grounded people who discovered traditions that served God’s purposes.   We’d be foolish to overturn them thoughtlessly.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t change.  In fact, I’d venture to say that we must change.  That’s certainly been true in the past couple of years.  Many traditions became impossible to maintain, so we either discarded them temporarily or adapted them to some totally new medium.  That was good.  It was necessarily.

Now, though, we find ourselves in a place where we’re reconciling with change.  Which changes should be permanent?  What needs to be put back?  Where’s the continuity with those who came before us?  In our haste to adapt to current circumstance, will we forget the contributions of our ancestors entirely?

Ritual practices and traditions come in many forms.  They might be liturgical; they might be centered in holiday celebrations; they might even be simple as “once a month, we have a potluck.”  All of these practices originally served a purpose.  They existed for theological, cultural, or sociological reasons.  Sometimes, even something as simple as “we do this because Gertrude really loves it” is a crucial thing in a faith community.  Sometimes, it’s how Gertrude knows we love her.

As we reflect on the changes we’ve all made lately, I’d invite us to ask ourselves once again: why?

How did we used to do things, specifically?  Before all the changes brought in the last two years?

For each thing—why did we do that thing?  What did our ancestors tell us about this tradition?  What living people were being served, and in what way?

If we have changed how we go about things, are we still answering the purposes our ancestors recognized?  Perhaps we no longer have a monthly potluck, and that is fine—maybe even good—if we have found sufficient or better ways to feed one another and get to know each other and celebrate one another’s contributions.  Perhaps we’ve stopped passing the collection plate.  Why did we have a collection plate?  Was it only about funding our ministries?  If not, why else?  Are we meeting those needs?  And so on, and so forth, for every change.

One last thing about our ancestors: they have given us more than traditions.  Those who came before us also left stories.  We’re in the midst of enormous trial, a time that may someday form whole chapters of history books.  But generations before us did that, too.  

What stories do we have of those who came before?  How and when did our ancestors demonstrate resilience?  Can we draw strength from knowing that resilience is in our DNA?

Being the Church: Letting Go

Years before the pandemic, I organized an event in upstate New York in which three Quakers shared stories about their faith journeys.  These stories were livestreamed on Facebook.  At the time, doing something like that was pretty new, but it was part of a year-long experiment originally designed for young adults: if they couldn’t get off work or find childcare and travel, they could join us by listening in on the livestream.

In the process of this experiment, we reached some young adults, but we also reached some people with chronic illness and a few elderly people who were housebound.  

And Dustin.

Dustin commented on the livestream after about an hour, when the talks were done and we started Q&A.  He said, “Hey, I don’t know how this ended up in my Facebook feed, and I didn’t even know Quakers still existed, but this is really interesting, and I have some questions…”

Our speakers responded to everything that Dustin wanted to know, including some questions that were really challenging, and in the end he said, “I’m in Colorado.  Can you help me find some Quakers that are near me?”

It’s that last bit that I want to focus on today.  At the time, nobody considered Dustin becoming a permanent part of the community in upstate New York.  Livestreaming was a special event.  We—and he—knew he’d need ongoing relationship with a worshiping community, and nobody imagined the possibility of inviting him into videoconference with Quakers in New York every Sunday.

The world works differently now.

Years ago, Dustin’s case was so remarkable that I used to tell the story when I needed a quick way to blow people’s minds.  Sometimes, talking to congregational groups, I ran into tremendous resistance to the Internet, people who were certain that under no circumstances could anything God-led exist online.  “Technology has no place in religious community.”  I heard that statement so many times, and if I told Dustin’s story, I could startle people past that immediate “absolutely, positively not.”

Today, if I tried to tell Dustin’s story, most people would say “well, yes, of course.”  In this post-pandemic era, almost all of us have encountered someone who found a new church online.  Praise God for the millions of Dustins—and now, let’s talk about what it means to love them.  Because I suspect that today, we might be a little too quick to assume that online relationship is the best possible way.

In the next year or two or five, some of our communities will stay online.  Some communities will be called to virtual, geographically disbursed participation.  I believe wholeheartedly that this can be done in a Spirit-led, deeply grounded, fully deliberate way.  But it will be complicated, and it’s not appropriate for every community.  Some communities, if they listen deeply to God’s call, will discover they are most needed as a geographically specific, in-person faith community, and there will come a point when it’s time to turn off the Wi-Fi.

This might be hard if that community has Dustins.

If a congregation is called to be an eighth continent congregation, that congregation will learn how to love and care for and include and encourage every Dustin who discovers them.  It might not be an easy thing to do; we’re all still learning what that looks like.  But if we make an effort, God will make a way.

But if a congregation is not called to be an eighth continent congregation, if it’s called to be local and deeply rooted in its neighborhood, there might be some fear about what happens to Dustin.  There might be a desire to keep the computer going because we don’t want to lose him—not because this is what God wants but because we don’t want to give up Dustin.

Is that love or fear?  God or ego?

What’s the best way for the group to love Dustin?

My argument is that it varies.  Not every group’s answer will be the same, and the Dustins themselves need to be part of the decision-making.  But I want to make space for the possibility that loving Dustin might look like this:

We love you.  We respect you.  We are so incredibly glad to have known you.  We need to talk about what happens next.  Our community is moving into its next steps, and we won’t be worshiping online anymore.  How can we walk with you now?  How can we help you find a permanent faith community?  Can we look for congregations in your area?  Can we research groups that are staying online?  Can we pray for you?  Can we meet with you occasionally online while we’re all making this transition?

I fully acknowledge that this conversation would be hard and possibly hurtful.  But I also know that when we try to be all things to all people, we wind up being nothing in particular to anyone.  If your faith community is called to be one that embraces distant membership, then do!  But if not—then what does it look like to love someone enough that you can help them leave you?

Being the Church: Good Neighbors

What does it mean to be a good neighbor?  Physically.  To your actual neighbors, who exist right next to you on the same street.

At a most basic level, it probably means that you don’t make their lives worse.  Clean up your dog poop.  Turn down your music.  Make sure your tree doesn’t fall on somebody else’s house.  

Level up, maybe you’re cordial.  Say good morning.  Ask, “How are the grandkids?”  That sort of thing.

Level up again, maybe you’re downright friendly.  Learn all the neighbors’ names.  Throw some barbecues for them.  Leave a holiday gift on a doorstep.  Resolve disputes with clear, prompt, and kind communication.

And then there’s the full-out Good Samaritan.  Spend your own resources to nurse the wounded neighbor back to health.

I’m not all that invested in exactly four levels of neighborliness.  My point is that there’s a spectrum, and personally, I rarely get past cordiality.  It’s not been a priority for me for most of my lifetime.  I’ve always had school friends or work friends or church friends…what do I need with the people next door?  I didn’t choose them.  They just happen to live beside me.  This is purely a relationship born from proximity.

Today, though, I’m thinking about how our faith communities are good neighbors, especially in a post-pandemic era.  How are we in relationship with whomever, or whatever, is next door to our building or across the street?  I’ve written about this before in pre-pandemic times, but something in me feels like it might be a little different now.  For one thing, we might be absent neighbors.  Some of us haven’t used our buildings in well over a year, or perhaps we use them a little bit once a week and not much outside of that.  And for another, both we and our neighbors have changed in the last couple of years.  Have we had enough conversations with our neighbors to know how they have changed?  If our faith community’s nearest neighbors desperately needed something, would we know it?

I realize that “neighbors” means a lot of different things for a lot of different faith communities.  Some of our buildings are in cities where the population is so dense that literally thousands of residents live on the adjoining blocks.  We’re not going to know every one of their names.  Others of us are in commercial areas, surrounded by diners and dry cleaners and drug stores.  Still others are in rural areas, with the nearest human beings over a mile away, in which case I invite you to ask the question: how are we good neighbors to the trees?

Many faith communities have become more digital in the last couple of years and are now asking, “Do we still need our building?”  Even faith communities that aren’t asking that question might be asking, “How should we be using our building and grounds?”  Or if the question isn’t about the building, it might be as simple as, “What does God ask us to do next as a faith community?”

What occurs to me is how easy it might be to forget about the neighbors, especially if the discernment about next steps is happening online and no one had to travel through the neighborhood to join the meeting.  What new perspective might you gain if you knocked on the neighbors’ doors?  What if you invited them to an outdoor conversation?  What if you didn’t ask, “What does God ask us to do next as a faith community?” but “What does God ask us to do next as a faith community in this neighborhood?”

What would it look like to be a good neighbor right now?

Open your grounds to give the neighborhood children a place to play outside?

Agree as a faith community to shop often at the locally owned small business next door that’s struggling?  

Offer your picnic tables as a free outdoor meeting place?

Give use of your building once a week to a community organization that serves the neighborhood?

Start a community garden?

Sell or donate your building to someone who will turn it into something your neighbors need?

What does it mean to be a good neighbor now?  We can’t know until we know our neighbors, so maybe the first step—if we haven’t done it—is to get to know who they are.