This week I was a guest on a webinar organised by the Presbyterian Church in Ireland. As well as the webinar including an interview with one of their ministers, and a presentation on an excellent resource that aims to help leadership teams reflect on the way forward for their congregation, I had been asked to feedback on conversations I have had with various leaders.
Over the past few months I have hosted a series of podcasts in which leaders (mainly in churches) have talked about their work during the time of Covid-19: the podcasts are available here. I also hosted a Zoom meeting with a number of leaders as churches began to envision returning their buildings: you can read some of the highlights here.
In addition, over the past week or so I have been in contact with almost a dozen leaders from a range of church backgrounds, discovering what they are doing and what are some of the challenges they are facing. Again, here are some of the highlights of these exchanges: I imagine at least some of these will resonate with what other leaders are experiencing.
- There are varying degrees of enthusiasm for a return to gathering in the building: some leaders have been surprised by the amount of caution they have witnessed. At times it has been older people who are most keen to get back (presumably there are various reasons for this, including the fact that many of them may have experienced a significant degree of isolation in lockdown): ironically, some of them will be discouraged from attending, because of their health vulnerability. Some leaders have found that it is middle-aged folk who are most keen to get back: presumably they are less likely to be vulnerable, and don’t have the concerns of families with young children
- Families of young children face an additional challenge in that kids’ programmes that are usually offered on Sunday morning are not able to run as yet in the building. Perhaps they find it easier to have kids running around their living room while the online service is on TV than attempt to keep kids calm for an hour in church.
- Related to this, there is an awareness that for some young families, Sunday routines have changed during the past few months and while for some, online church has featured, there is a danger that church has dropped from its priority Sunday morning slot and attending church going forward may not be a priority.
- There is also a fear that some younger people have dropped out of church during the online season: this may be because of Zoom fatigue with work during the week, or may be because many young people prioritise connection over content in church life, so tuning in for a sermon rather than connecting with friends on WhatsApp has less appeal.
- There is a range of views and expectations around the return to gatherings in the building. Some views (around masks or singing) are strongly held by some folk and there are even hints of conspiracy theories appearing. Leaders need great wisdom in handling strong voices on either end of each spectrum and in working to maintain unity and love.
- Some have been forced to ask questions around the nature of church and what activities are actually core. Examples include the place of communion or the extent to which some contemporary churches have adopted a very music-centric approach to worship.
- There is a realisation that community and fellowship have suffered.
- Connection with new people has both been exciting and a challenge. On the one hand, online services have the potential to reach much farther than church in the building. Allied to this is the fact that some folk who may be reluctant to enter a church building are happy to connect with a broadcast service. On the other hand, the absence of services in the building (or the restrictions which mean people need to book in ahead of time) means that people cannot really just drop in off the street.
- Leaders are having to think about everything all the time. As regulations and restrictions are adjusted, guidelines for gathering are not fixed. Leaders are dealing with expectations (and likely to disappoint someone!) and patterns of work have changed.
- Yet at the same time there has been an opportunity to rediscover the nature of true spiritual and pastoral leadership, and at the same time there has been a realisation that ministry may still get done, even if it is not done by the minister.
Here are some of my own hunches about how leaders might consider their priorities:
- Be on your guard, work and pray for love and unity as opinions perhaps become more strongly held.
- Work hard to identify and reach those who have not been engaging and are in danger of dropping out – and don’t forget those who are unable to gather for legitimate reasons.
- Identify some of the good practices of the past 6 months (like regular pastoral phone calls) that can be retained.
- If the situation is still transitory, hold decisions lightly.
- Don’t assume that the bench mark for the future is being able to resume all you were doing on March 15.