This blog represents the thoughts of the author. While they may reflect the theological position of The Renewal Fellowship, they should not be seen as an official statement.
“Are we ready for this?” That was the headline in mid-March as pandemic restrictions hit like a tsunami. Thankfully, all those arenas converted to emergency wards were never needed. Now, as we enter phase 2 of the recovery, I ask: Are we ready for a new way of doing church?
The sudden opportunity to reopen our doors has thrown many pastors and ministry leaders for a loop. In Ontario, the province surprised everyone on June 8 when churches were given the green light to reopen the following weekend.
While no one was prepared for the first wave of restrictions, many are not fully prepared for the re-entry. Tired and dragged-about for almost three months since emergency measures began, many of us are just now getting used to using online technology to do church.
We now face a new wave of learning and preparation.
When Ontario made its announcement, the only requirement was that churches operate at no more than 30-per-cent capacity of whatever space they were using – and stay tuned for guidelines. On June 9, pastors were told by our MPP, “Each church can set their own rules and guidelines for return to church. The government is not going to prescribe what you should and shouldn’t do as it varies so much from church to church, congregation to congregation, and community to community.”
I’m grateful that we aren’t being told what do and local culture is respected. But we’re starting with a blank slate, so it’s gonna take some work.
There’s the additional reality that many people won’t be immediately returning. And it’s not just because they need a proper hairdo. They’re nervous about the second wave, so they’re expecting some form of electronic or online form of worship to continue. That leads to more work: how to organize and lead a hybrid service for those who want the live experience?
My head is spinning.
It does not matter whether your congregation has a sizable staff and teams of gifted and able volunteers or if you a one-person shop. It’s still stressful.
I speak from first-hand experience. I am called to a congregation in which I am handling all of the technical online production and the content. I am interim moderator of another small congregation which has a small team of volunteers who divide the work. I am also interim mod of a congregation with 10 staff and a gifted retired minister who heads worship planning and leads a squadron of volunteers.
Guess where the stress level is the lowest? It’s that middle group.
Why? They keep it simple. Its three-member session is small enough to be able to meet with me and make decisions quickly. They are blessed with the services of a minister who is between congregations and delighted to self-produce short weekly worship and a midweek devotion. They have a part-time administrator on payroll. They have a congregant well into retirement who is tech-savvy enough to be their webmaster.
They know what they are capable of, and they do no more.
We have a tendency to do too much, to carry a heavy burden, to be overly ambitious. And it causes stress.
A close second is the multi-staff setting. In the early weeks of the pandemic restrictions, they continued to do livestream in front of an empty sanctuary. It was awkward and didn’t work well. They recognized this and quickly adapted, prerecording worship in a smaller space, producing a package that was timed to go live on social media on Sunday morning. They lived and learned. They had leadership in their midst – for the record, it was not me – which made it happen. The stress level there has been reduced.
As for me, the lone wolf, it’s taken a few months to figure out what works. Like the fact Zoom and music do not go well together. Likewise with PowerPoint, where the preacher is a tiny face in the corner of the screen. These and several other lessons took about two months to figure out. I finally got it.
And now I have to learn something new.
So, while we have no individual control over the end of the first wave of the pandemic, we can take what we’ve learned and apply it to the next phase.
First lesson is the need for teamwork. I am reminded of Acts 6:1-7, where the apostles were feeling overwhelmed by the demands of their rapidly-growing congregations that were taking them away from their core duties. As the New Living Translation puts it: “We apostles should spend our time teaching the word of God, not running a food program.” They appointed others to do this work so “we apostles can spend our time in prayer and teaching the word.” There’s an obvious lesson for the 21st century: delegate. If you don’t have congregants who are tech savvy, everyone can be a critic, so use it. Demand that they be brutally honest and tell you what works and doesn’t. I learned that late into the game.
Second is equally Biblical: lay down that burden. This applies to the lone wolves as well as those who run in a pack. “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” the Lord tells us in Matthew 11:28. And the burden that He gives us is light. I need to be reminded of this and chill. All church leaders need to chill. Elders and ministry leaders: Don’t do anything until you’ve prayed early and often. Wait for the guidelines, not just bits and pieces of information. If you’re first out of the gate, bless you. Share your experience. And for the reticent, learn from them.
Third lesson is more of an eyeopener. In all the busyness, we’ve run out of time and energy to reach out and be the hands and feet of Christ. Have you noticed? There are a lot of people who are feeling rather lost right now. Our feverish work to go online has benefitted the sheep mostly. Now that we have a handle on technology, and we take our time to move to the next phase, we should be better equipped to go into the world as we’re commanded in Matthew 28:19-20.
My prayer is that by the time the almost-inevitable second wave of COVID-19 hits, we will be able to actively engage the community like never before.
Will we be willing?