By: The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA
One pastor said, “When can we go back to normal? That’s all they keep asking. How the heck do we get back to normal after the past year?” Another said, “I’m supposed to love them. How do I love them after all the crap they’ve put me through this past year?” Still another commented, “I don’t even know where to start. I’ll bet we lost at least 30% of our members during the pandemic. And everyone thinks it’s up to me to get them back.”
These are statements I’ve heard over the past two months from pastors I work with. They’re under tremendous pressure to get back to normal,… but what if normal doesn’t exist anymore? As one said recently, “I thought I’d be ecstatic once everyone was vaccinated because we could get back to in-person worship. It’s even worse now! At least during the pandemic they mostly got along. Now they’re at each other’s throats. Some just want to get rid of all the technology and go back to the way it was. Others love it and want to increase it. Some want to pretend the pandemic’s over, while others want proof of vaccination. I hate it!”
Church members and pastors suffer from both fatigue and a yearning to get back to normal. But there is no normal to get back to. Normal died during the pandemic as churches scrambled to meet new realities: How do we record our services? Do we need a camera or can we use our phones? Do we live stream on Facebook or YouTube or a streaming service, or upload recordings to YouTube? How do we create an engaging service for distracted, bathrobe clothed people watching in their kitchens while eating breakfast?
No church remains like it was at the beginning of 2020. We have more technology and fewer members. The good news is that churches have been amazingly adaptive. The bad is that they’ve been despairingly conflicted. As a clergy coach and guide, most of my work now is helping them sort through options as they try to move the church forward.
I’ve been offering a very clear response: you can’t go back. You can only build back. It’s as though we’ve all been devastated by a hurricane, an earthquake, or a condo collapse. Relationships have been frayed, worship services have been disrupted, education has been decimated, trust in authority and each other has eroded. Our post-pandemic world is mentally and spiritually like a war zone after a truce. Where to start? What do we do?
I’ll share some of the guidance I’ve been giving pastors:
Emphasize building back rather than returning to normal. Share with leaders and members that the church’s recovery is much like rebuilding after a hurricane, earthquake, or collapse. Get them thinking about how to rebuild intentionally.
Talk about building back better. In building back after a disaster, few restore things to what they were. Most try to make improvements Almost all churches now have an upgraded digital presence both through video and websites. Lead your church to become a hybrid church that holds onto what was good while embracing what can better.
Start small and basic. The tendency after a disaster is to get back to the same level of activity, but the reality is that that capability is gone. We need to start where we are, not where we were. Don’t be in a hurry to return, especially to what wasn’t working, but do think about what can be done. Start small and build up. This is a chance to rethink things and do them better.
Reconsider the pastor’s position description. I’ve been encouraging all pastors to talk with their boards, councils, sessions, or vestries about rethinking their roles as pastors. For the past 50 years more and more has been piled onto the pastor’s plate. Originally pastors focused on preaching, teaching, and worship. Then they became responsible for visiting. Then they became the main evangelizers. Soon they were responsible for developing small discipleship group programs. They became more and more like a corporate CEO or organizational executive director. They’ve been tasked with leading the congregation to become more missional. The pandemic has forced them to become technology wizzes. In the process no one’s advocated for taking things off the pastor’s plate. Most pastors are past the breaking point. So, whether it starts with a personnel committee, a task force, or the board, it’s time to talk about what needs to be taken off the pastor’s plate and shared with the congregation. This reflects a reality I faced 25 years ago: I realized that I could focus on visiting or on leading, but I couldn’t do both. We re-envisioned my position so that the laity did more visiting, which allowed me to focus on leading. We did it again 10 years later to allow me to spend more time writing books and speaking across the country as part of a mission of our church. The key is having honest conversations about what is realistic for pastors, and engaging in a process to restore pastors to what’s realistic.
Talk with members about the need to move forward. Whether it’s through newsletters, videos, a congregational letter, or sermons, let the congregation know that this pandemic wasn’t the first time the church faced an upheaval. Christianity is a religion that’s thrived through so many catastrophes and upheavals (think of the early church growing despite persecutions, attacks from barbarian tribes, the Renaissance, and the Reformation). Remind them that God doesn’t call people backward, but always calls them forward.
The Rev. N. Graham Standish, PhD, MSW, MDiv, MA