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Preparing to Open Our Churches

We’re beginning to get ready to slowly and gently reopen our churches for corporate gatherings again, and we’re all a bit uncertain what that will look like. I’m checking in with the CDC guidelines and always paying attention to what we’ll need to do to care for those most vulnerable. But, also, as a pastor and theologian, I’m preparing myself in many other ways.

Here are a few things I’m attending to and some resources I’m finding helpful in preparing for a post-COVID19 church life.

Inhabiting a Liminal Season… A liminal space is an in-between space, a transition from one thing to another, neither here nor there. Liminal space is marked by uncertainty about the future, passing through into the unknown. Susan Beaumont’s work has been so helpful to me and I cannot recommend her book Leading in a Liminal Season: How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going highly enough. In this season of such macro-level change, I think it’s important to get comfortable with these growing pains and settle into a long season of uncertainty. Also, I would suggest Esther De Waal’s tiny book To Pause At the Threshold and the ways the Celtic Christian tradition engages a spirituality of transitions / thresholds. And I love Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Learning to Walk in the Dark as a guide to living with uncertainty and trusting God’s creative and redemptive work in the midst of the fog.

Understanding Trauma & Grief... This has been such a weird time for everyone-- and we’ve all experienced some disappointments and some level of anxiety about the future. But for some, this has been a season of really intense grief and even some serious trauma. I think we need to be prepared for a season of communal PTSD. I’m reacquainting myself with the stages of grief be re-reading On Grief & Grieving by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross & David Kessler, and slowly moving through The Body Keeps the Score by trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk. I’m also convinced we need to lean into our rich tradition of lament, so I’m returning to some favorite texts on Lamentations: Prophetic Lament by Soong-Chan Rah and A Liturgy of Grief: A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations by Leslie Allen.

Getting serious about mental health care… Understanding of grief and trauma is just the beginning, which ought to lead us to doing serious work caring for the mental health of our people and ourselves. This is the time to make sure we have updated contact info for licensed mental health professionals so that we can easily make responsible referrals (because I’m sure we will have to). And, I also think this is the time for pastors and church leaders to get into therapy and do their own work, so that they can care for their people without bringing in their own baggage / triggers. Seriously, I hope all pastors / church leaders take the initiative to complete at least a few sessions with a licensed therapist, because I don’t think we can effectively care for our people if we’re not dealing with our own stuff first (the equivalent of “put on your oxygen mask before assisting someone else”).

Discerning who we are and who we’re becoming-- knowing what’s necessary and what isn’t… As we come back to our church buildings and re-establish new rhythms, I think it’s important to name the fact that we’re all just going to be discerning the next right thing one step at a time, so I’m preparing for that by strengthening my own discernment muscles and talking to my spiritual director a lot. Also I’ve loved listening to the podcast The Next Right Thing with Emily P Freeman (she just published a book by this title as well, that’s basically the podcast’s “greatest hits”), and I highly recommend it as a resource for “discerning the next right thing with love.” Also, I highly recommend the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown (get clear about: what is mine to do and what isn’t? What’s the most important thing? What’s the thing only we can do? What do we need to let go of in order to do that one thing?) … But also, it’s not like we’re just making everything up as we go-- we can stand on a firm foundation of our community’s key memories, core values, the root of what makes us US, and trust that God will continue to lead us forward. I think this new season ought to be a time of shaping our communal memory of who we have always been and our collective imagination of who God is calling us to be in this next season. All of that is discernment work, so I think it’s important to be growing our capacity there.

Naming our ecclesiology and pastoral theology… This season has pushed us to really look at our theology and how it’s lived out-- What do we do when we can’t break bread together? Who are we when we aren’t a physically gathered people? What is the real work of the church, the pastor, the saints? I know we’ve all been wrestling with questions like these and I hope we’re emerging from this time with a clearer ecclesiology and our pastoral theology, so that when we’re gathering again we do so with a clear sense of identity and purpose. I’ve returned to some of my favorite pastoral texts: Working the Angles by Eugene Petersen, The Unnecessary Pastor by Marva Dawn, Sabbath as Resistance by Walter Brueggemann. Personally, I’m anticipating all kinds of pressure to “get things back to the way they were” and I’m steeling myself to resist that pressure and instead get really clear about what we’re called to do here and now, and what we need to be faithful to that call. I’m getting prepared to not renew old programs, and instead cultivate more space for connection and congregational care. I’m getting ready to cut certain things from our responsibility list so there is more margin for whatever new thing is emerging. But all that work depends on a clearly articulated ecclesiology and philosophy of ministry so I’m cultivating that conviction now before we come back.

Mostly, I’m praying that the God who has always made a way would continue to show us the way we ought to go.

“Let me hear of your steadfast love in the morning, for in you I put my trust. Teach me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.” Psalm 143:8

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