What if Nothing Changes in 2021?
I wonder if we should not dub 2020 the year of the virus. I know if is simplistic and maybe overworked. It might also be a way to dodge the problems that many of us face. I wonder, if we could just face up to the reality that things have changed in ways we never anticipated back in 2019, or even January 2020. What changes if we admit this is an intractable problem that just will not go away? What happens if we face the reality that the many of the changes that have occurred will not “reset” once we have a vaccine? Wow, that is not what you wanted to hear from a guy who is focused on helping you become renewed and revitalized is it? What we expect is a sense of we can get through this. Kind of like the old disaster movies of the 70’s. If you are old enough to remember the movie The Poseidon Adventure”, it was a story about a cruise ship that capsizes in a tsunami. Then you follow a small group of survivors attempting to escape this disaster. What stands out for me is the song, “The Morning After”, by Maureen McGovern . “There’s got to be a morning after, If we can hold on through the night. We have a chance to find the sunshine, Let’s keep on looking for the light.” If you are old enough to remember these movies, there was also one called “Towering Inferno”, “Airport”, and few others. The theme was always about holding on through incredible odds, and at the end, everything would turn out fine.
I am a bit of a skeptic, but I must admit I did go to the theater to watch some of these, but what strikes me now in life is that each film held out an idea that human ingenuity and determination would always win out. Of course, the back-story was always some other human ignored some safety standard, which puts everyone else at risk. At the end of the movie, some unlikely hero carries the day and people return to normal. Hence Maureen McGovern’s song about holding on through the night. Unless I miss my guess that is what a lot of us have been doing. If we can just hold on, everything will be all right. However, look at the subtext of the 70’s. Nothing was going exceptionally well. We had the oil embargo, the Cold War was in full swing, and life was filled with anxiety. Therefore, we turned to the movies to see disasters turn into feel good moments. If it were not for the virus, Hollywood would probably be churning out blockbusters to distract us from the reality of life around us. But alas, with the virus we cannot gather to worship much less pack theatres!
What happens when we realize life has fundamentally changed. What is different if we know we are not going back to pre-Covid 19 reality, any time soon if at all? Some would encourage you to focus on self-care and resilience. I for one am a strong proponent of that. However, an article in “Psychology Today” makes me wonder if there is more at work than meets the eye. The article that appeared in the May/June 2020 edition is “The Healers are Hurting” and details the way the medical professionals are experiencing this season. While there is a lot of good information in the article, what caught my attention was the experience of one physician, who noted he was approaching burn out. So he hired a coach, started yoga, changed his diet. All the things we encourage people to do. Here is his comment: “I felt great at the beach. But coming back to work on Monday morning, I felt exactly the way I did before; the environment was eating away at me.” (PT, May/June, 2020) I wonder if that is not where the church is. After all, we can practice our own personal resilience and self-care. However, if the environment has become toxic and inflexible what can the pastor do? I want to throw a disclaimer in here; I am not blaming anyone, or any particular situation. The rate of change required by the virus has far exceeded our ability to adapt. When that happens the system becomes anxious and leaders are susceptible to not just fatigue and burn out, but total loss of self. At this point, hoping for a vaccine or some miracle is not enough. Adapting to this is the recognition by pastors and church leaders that the system is not going to suddenly spring back to pre-Covid levels once a vaccine distributed and we achieve the fabled “Herd Immunity”. I am of the mind that what has happened since the beginning of this year signals a shift in the world as we know it and now is the time to consider what this means for us as pastors.
What I am suggesting here begins with self-care and resilience. That begins with facing the reality that none of were trained to deal with the situation we find ourselves in. Like the early church facing persecution, the time for pointing fingers is past, the time for what is God doing and how do we join him in that is at hand. The time for business as usual is past, the time for adaptation and innovation is at hand. This is not something you will find in a bookstore or a pod cast. Now is the time for each congregation to begin the hard work of innovation based on our own context. This is the time, to paraphrase an old saying, “For all good Christians to come to the aid of their communities.” This will mean different things for different groups. It may mean the end of silos of ministry in communities. This may mean that large congregations will cease to exist. Then again, I could be wrong. My point us, as long as we attempt to maintain what was, we will find the environment stifling and restrictive. However, if we are willing to innovate, the step outside the box, we just might find God has some exciting things for us to do, and ministry will no longer be a “burn out” position, but a life giving and invigorating place to be. I also want to add a caution in this; once again, the adjustment rate may exceed the ability of the community we serve to adapt to this change. What that means for leaders is once again we have to put our trust in the God who called us not the place that is paying our salary. However, if the body of Christ is to overcome the challenges it will be adaptive change, similar to the Israelites when they left Egypt. We cannot long to go back there, regardless of how difficult the journey may be.
At the end of the day, I may be completely missing the boat here. You can dismiss my ramblings as that of a “has been”, washed up pastor who could not cut it, so he wandered off into the woods. You could, and you might be right. However, I want you to consider that God is always at work and the world has shifted dramatically since the 1950’s. What this year might reveal is an inherent weakness in the way the church has operated and God may have given us a good swift boot to move us in a new direction. At the end of the day, it will be history that will record the good the bad and the ugly. It is my prayer for you that you will find the strength and resilience to continue to serve wherever God is leading.