5 Ways Churches and Clergy Can Use the Covid Crisis Constructively as We Head into Month 7

As the shadow of World War II loomed heavily over his country, and his career, Prime Minister Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

I’ve repeated this phrase over and over in my life, both to myself and to others struggling to make heads or tails of a specific season of existence. I’ve especially quoted it to new pastors who find the bumps of the parish to be more mountains than mole hills.

Never let a good crisis go to waste.

I no longer serve a parish regularly, though I’m still very involved in coaching pastors, especially those new to their calls. I’m hearing a consistent consternation about the future of the looming Fall.

Will churches meet in person before the New Year?

Will outdoor worship be able to continue in cooler months?

How often can we “open” and then “suspend” meeting in a building before everyone tires of the seesaw?

The recent article by baptistnews.com on pastors and suicidal ideation in these pandemic days was a gut punch to many. Unfortunately, though those feelings and thoughts may be heightened right now, those thoughts are not exactly new to this service profession, despite how little pastors might talk about it, at least out in the open.

I was chatting yesterday with a pastor who has taken a position in the non-profit field, and nearing retirement he was considering going back into the parish to ensure his pension would be in place (he was not Lutheran, and apparently his denomination had odd requirements around this sort of thing).

“I might do it,” he said, “but you know what I haven’t missed these last 14 years of being out of a church?”

I nodded…because I knew first-hand.

“The fear of looking in your email box. The nasty anonymous letters. The complaints at the end of a Sunday service because the organ was too loud for her and too soft for him, and ‘Why are you so political, anyway?’ and ‘We’re leaving this church because, well, you.'”

His reply?

“Bingo.”

As the article points out, those emails and notes are even more legion these days because, well, it’s the only way many people are regularly communicating.

That’s all a bit tangential, but it’s all to say: this is not new, even if it is intensified, and we can’t imagine that somehow, once this pandemic is over, the clergy mental health crisis will magically disappear, as some claim this virus will.

But let’s take stock really quickly and, as Churchill notes, not let this crisis go to waste. What are some ways that churches and clergy can take advantage of this time? Here are 5 thoughts on it…

Thought 1, for Clergy: Practice ignoring the inbox.

I know, I know, it’s your only connection to some parishioners these days. I’m not saying don’t send messages; far from it! I know you are communicating even more in these days than you usually did pre-Covid.

What I’m saying is, when you don’t have control over a situation, forego the long, rational, thought-out response to that long, run-on, emotional email that so-and-so sent you being mad about in-person worship being suspended.

They threaten to leave? Ok. Let them threaten. Maybe, even, let them leave.

Because your call is not to keep them happy, but to keep them safe. Your call is not to play their favorite hymn, but the appropriate hymn. Your call is not to preach what they want to hear, but what you think God is calling your community to hear.

That’s your call in all times, but is especially prescient in dangerous times like this.

Do you respond? Maybe. I’ve sometimes not responded at all.

But if you do respond, maybe it is just,

“Dear ____________, Please know that I love and care for you, and I am sorry all of this is happening right now. I feel as powerless as you do at the moment. I understand if you feel a different community is better for you, and though I would be sad to see you leave the church here, I know that God’s church isn’t limited to our little piece of it, and we’ll remain together in Christ. Happy to talk on the phone about this, but not right now. I can tell it feels too raw. Let’s both wait, discern, and pray a bit.”

Thought 2, for Churches: Go A Little Crazy with Sunday

I see so many faith communities right now trying to replicate the Sunday morning gathering in the virtual space, and honestly it’s just not always working. The flow of the liturgy is not easily translated online.

Now, I’m not saying you abandon the liturgy; by no means!

What I am saying is that you can be super creative right now and try things you’d be wary of trying in normal times.

Go with a sermon series you’ve never considered doing before. Maybe you do a string on the Hebrew texts for a given Sunday, or as we enter Autumn, do a series on the ecology and the Earth. Lutherans Restoring Creation has a bunch of resources to help.

If we are spending any time out of our houses these days, it’s normally in wide open spaces, right? And if you are gathering, so many are doing it outside. Why not capitalize on the theme and make it a thing?

And as we head into Advent, consider doing an extended Advent this year. Imagine 6 weeks of glorious deep blue expectation that actually mirrors Lent instead of just the truncated 4 weeks normally allotted. I’ve enjoyed doing this in the parish occasionally, and the resources are ample and easily adaptable.

Plus, no one is going to walk out of the service if you try some of this stuff in these days…and if they do, no one will notice!

Be experimental. Don’t try to virtually replicate something that can only be experienced in person. Try something new and don’t just regurgitate the norm.

Thought 3, for Clergy: Invest in Yourself

Instead of overworking your inbox and wracking your brain trying to figure out how to do everything you did when you could actually physically be with people (it’s not possible, Beloved…hug that cactus and it’ll stop hurting), take this opportunity to engage some professional passions and skills you’ve neglected.

What if, right now, your call was to take an online class on video creation and editing? Instead of trying to wing it or fret about how little skill you have in this, use the professional development dollars you have allotted to you (and if you don’t have any, lobby your Council to give you an allowance) and lean in.

Or maybe that’ll never be your thing. So instead of doing that, you go all-in on non-profit fundraising. Books, Udemy, free webinars…don’t make this learning an “add on” to your current list of work, but rather embrace it as “the work” right now.

I’ve heard pastor after pastor tell me that they feel they need to “earn their salary” in these times, proving they’re still working hard.

But let’s imagine that your people know you’re working hard. Take that for granted for a minute. If you knew that, and trusted it, what would you do instead of trying to earn their favor?

Go and do that for a bit.

Thought 4, for Churches: Online Everything

I mean, you can decide to do what you want about communion, Beloved. We don’t have online baptisms because you can’t physically be there, so I’m not sure why we feel we *have* to enable online communion (just speaking as a theologian), but that’s a conversation for you and your people.

What you definitely should be doing online, though, are two things integral to the life of the church: education and offering.

Get those offerings online. Set it up. You’re probably about to enter “stewardship season” as it is, so get it going.

There are so many platforms now, I’m not even going to link to any because, well, that’s a conversation for you and your council (make sure to read the fine print regarding cost and functionality!). But you have to get it online, and there is no better time than right now to enlist over 60% of your community in online giving.

Every bank can do it. Unless your folks are stashing their gifts in a mattress or a beer barrel, it’s simple, safe, and easy.

And as for education? Google meets, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, there are so many ways to keep education going, and this is the perfect time to do it, because: we’re all at home! Folks on vacation, folks who have moved away, folks who are perpetually home bound…had I known how effective this tool was in doing education, I would have been doing it from the start.

Seriously, want to get that face-time with the folks who think you might be slacking? Weekly education opportunities are the key. Plus: it’s a great way to keep community going right now.

After this pandemic, these two things (in my opinion) should absolutely continue.

Thought 5, for Clergy and Churches: Take Stock

This pandemic is allowing everyone to take stock of their lives, both individually and communally.

Take stock and ask the tough questions together.

“What would be missing from the world if our community didn’t exist at all? Not just what individuals inside the church, but for the greater community? For the world? What would be missing?

“How nimble is our mission? Are we filling it, even now? If not, does it need to change?”

“What *needs* to resume when we come back to gathering in person? What can we let go of, that wasn’t really working, anyway?”

Take the time to ask the hard questions, Beloved. Take the time to look deeply.

This is a crisis. Moment to moment we’re fragile or have fortitude, and it all feels so tenuous. But this crisis should not go to waste, by God.

Use it. Listen to the wisdom it offers. Dismiss the fears it peddles. Then go and implement what you learn from it.