Leadership During COVID – Pruning for Growth

Recently the Ontario government gave churches permission to reopen for worship. I have not tried to keep a list of those congregations who have reopened, but it seems that the majority are content to remain closed at least until September. At least one congregation that I know of has already determined that they won’t open until December 1, 2020 at the earliest.

Likewise, most congregants seem to be in no rush to re-enter their buildings. This is particularly true of older and younger generations. Thus, it seems that many of us will be worshipping remotely for the foreseeable future.

It appears to me that most of us have been focussing on the resumption of worship, however, as we do begin to think about re-entering our buildings I would like to consider some other aspects of congregational life and leadership.

As we begin this conversation, I would draw your attention to an article written by my colleague Tori, reflecting on the work of Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker and Dave Blanchard, in a podcast and essay entitled, Leading Beyond the Blizzard: Why Every Organization Is Now a Startup (link to the article written by Crouch, Keilhacker and Blanchard) from The Praxis Journal. This essay uses the metaphor of blizzard/winter/ice age to help us understand how we might respond to significant life events. In a nutshell:

Blizzards are short-lived, dramatic storms. We hunker down and take extraordinary measures to weather them out, knowing that a blizzard only lasts a short time. Schools and shops close, we dig out as best as we can, we check up on our neighbours, we eat whatever we have in the fridge and pull out the board games to wait it out. We know that what we do to survive blizzard conditions is unsustainable over the long haul, but we also know that because blizzards are short-lived, they are manageable for most people. 

When we were told that their buildings must be closed in March we responded quickly to a blizzard.  We did everything we could to transfer the most that we could to technology platforms. Phone calls and texting became the means of keeping in touch. The church worked hard to keep everyone connected and safe while we anticipated that we’d be back in our pews by Palm Sunday, or Easter Sunday at the latest.

Winter might start with a blizzard, but continues into a lengthy season of many months. Severe weather events interspersed throughout a season of constant, chilling conditions require adaptation if you want to survive and even thrive. We buy snow shovels, warm coats, hats and mitts, and fill the freezer with comforting foods to live through a Canadian winter. We might even embrace the season by skiing, skating and building snow families in our yards. This kind of shift, in a pandemic, is a huge challenge for organizational leadership. In the article they predicted that we would be living in a season of winter conditions until July or August of 2020.

But, as we come to the end of this season, and turn our attention to the fall, it is evident that things won’t be going back to normal anytime soon.

A Little Ice Age. Using the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia as an example, Crouch and Blanchard propose that this pandemic must now be viewed as a little ice age. As a consequence of the eruption’s ash plume, 1816 saw solar radiation reductions, unprecedented summer frosts, extensive crop failures, and economic disaster throughout Europe and North America. This time came to be known as ‘The Little Ice Age’. How communities responded to this large scale event mattered. They suggest that the effects of the 2020 pandemic on the church and non-profit organizations will similarly stretch far beyond months and even years, and that how we respond now will be paramount to our survival.

So, are we in an ice age?

I think we are.

Over the next weeks, Tori and I will be providing some thoughts and reflections on living in an ice age. Today I would like to offer two observations.

First, I would suggest that focussing on getting back to worship in your church building may be the worst use of your time and your last priority. Earlier, I mentioned a church that has already decided to wait until December to reopen. In-person worship will be their last step and not their first. Small groups and rentals will take priority. Almost every congregation in the country is already providing worship in a way that people are comfortable with. Let me repeat that most seniors and young families are not interested in coming back to in-person worship any time soon. In a previous webinar, I also pointed out that for most congregations it is possible to provide quality, online worship or in-person worship – but not both. (A camera at the back of a mostly empty sanctuary will not provide the same intimacy as YouTube or Zoom worship)

So, rather than focussing on worship, what else might we be doing?

The most important task is the hard work of imagining what a post-pandemic church will look and function like. I heard a radio ad last week which stated that 28% of businesses surveyed believed that if they just waited long enough, that things would go back to the way they were before. The ad pointed out that not only was this not a helpful plan, it wasn’t even a plan. I wonder how many congregations have the same expectation that if we just wait long enough, things will go back to the way they were. Things will not be going back to the way they were and, we may not want them to.

There are many parts to imagining and implementing a post-pandemic church and over the next while I will be addressing some of them. Today however I would like to ask one simple question.

What have you not done for the last four months that you haven’t missed and never need to do again?

When we moved to social distancing, some activities continued, others stopped completely. I suspect that if you give it some thought you will realize that there are things you (or your church) were doing then that you aren’t doing now that have not been missed. Perhaps it was a bible study, or a group, or committee. Perhaps things were being done in a certain way, or with a certain frequency that no longer made sense but no one felt like going through the hassle of addressing it. 

Long before COVID, David Odom, of Duke Divinity School, called these things “History Without a Reason.” (His article can be found here: https://faithandleadership.com/david-l-odom-history-without-reason?utm_source=albanweekly&utm_medium=content&utm_campaign=faithleadership )

His point is that an important part of any ministry is asking the question: why?

One thing that no one is missing with churches closed is the sheer number of meetings and gatherings and ‘should do’s’ that defined our lives up until the middle of March. In the same way that many of us have used this social distancing time to clean out our basements, it might be a good use of our time to consider what needs to be cleaned out of our churches, literally and in terms of schedules.

In addition to my work for the synod I am also clerk of my presbytery. Our last in person meeting was March just before the church buildings were closed. In early March most of us knew that social distancing was important, and we tried with some success to avoid hand shaking and hugging. Of course we still shared food and sang during worship. However, the most embarrassing thing about the meeting was that we only actually made two decisions! In other words, completely aside from COVID we asked about 40 people to take time from their families and homes to spend an entire evening to do five minutes’ worth of actual work. Likewise, we have managed to get from March until now without an actual business meeting (though we have circulated the court through email to make decisions, and have met over Zoom monthly to check in with each other). You can bet that when we start meeting in person again we will be talking about how we meet, why and how often. 

My most guilty confession around social distancing is that it feels like a better pace of life. It seems very much like life when I was growing up. My parents were very involved in our church but I don’t often remember them running out of the house after supper to get to the church for another meeting. There was time for a cup of tea, or a game, or a walk, or a bike ride. The pace of our life right now feels like that. Perhaps there is a lesson here about what a healthy pace of church life looks like. Perhaps there is a reminder here about the priority of grace over works.

This brings me to my second thought. 

How many people are still behaving as though this is a blizzard and not an ice age?

In March, many of us made decisions based on an assumption that this would be over in a few weeks or a couple of months. Those assumptions are now known to be false. I have asked before whether you are behaving like this is a sprint or a marathon? Let me now ask whether this is a blizzard or an ice age?

If it is an ice age (marathon) then we cannot continue to run ourselves ragged. This is unsustainable for us as leaders and a terrible example for our flock. Those who are producing material daily need to be doing so bi-weekly. Those who are doing things bi-weekly that need to be doing so weekly. There are those who are doing things that they shouldn’t be doing at all! (I remain confused by the church that all of a sudden decided to read children’s bedtime stories on Zoom rather than encourage parents to read to their children at home). The point here is simple, we must adjust our energy and our efforts to our circumstances. Physically and spiritually exhausted ministers are of no use to anyone. July and August are typically times of reduced expectation for ministers. One clergy couple I know serve two congregations in two denominations. They are sharing preaching responsibilities week about. Other clergy have posted links to other congregations while they are away. Online bible studies have concluded for the summer. This is the perfect time to either scale back your level of activity and spend time planning for a more intentional and appropriate schedule for the fall. 

Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.  (John 15:1-4 NRSV)

(link to the article written by Tori Smit connecting the blizzard/winter/metaphors to faith formation ministry for this coming fall)

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