Dear Siblings in Christ:
Just past Idaho mile marker 20 going east on I-90 is a statue off to the right. It’s a statue of a photographer with an old-fashioned camera high up above Lake Coeur d’Alene. When I first moved out this way, this became one of my guides on the trip from Seattle to Camp N-Sid-Sen. You can’t see the camp from there, but when I saw this sculpture and this view off to the side of the road, I knew it was time to start paying attention so I wouldn’t miss the exit. This sculpture, for me, marked the beginning of the end of my journey. It was a transition point.
We’re at a similar place on this COVID journey. Even though COVID is not going away, our tools to deal with it are improving. Our understanding of how it works and what it does is, too. We’re figuring out how to exist and, to some degree, manage in this emerging reality. We’re not there yet, but it’s time to pay attention and begin to prepare for the way for what might be next.
Several of you have put up with me trying out a couple of tools for churches and church leaders to use at this moment. They are pretty straightforward and simple but hopefully not too simplistic to be helpful. The first thing to understand about this is that these are not timeline-based, strategic planning tools. Anything with a timeline isn’t going to be useful for a while. Good planning will be based on the right conditions, not a calendar and clock. This is an offering of condition-based tools that can help us have a conversation and then make plans for what we might consider when the conditions are right. Both are centered deeply within the ideas that to make changes to the way we do things from here on out, we will have to take some time to ask questions and make sure that consent is central and clear to participation.
The first tool assumes three possible stages that will be unfolding:
- The pandemic continues more or less as it has.
- The pandemic enters into a significant transition stage. Either:
- Enough people are exposed, and enough people are vaccinated that we’re on the way towards herd immunity of some sort. We’re not out of the woods, but things are going in the right direction.
- The vaccine or previous exposures do not temper the variants and recombinants, and we move into a new round of needing to be cautious.
- The pandemic is behind us. COVID is still around but, between treatments and vaccines, we learn how to manage it. It becomes more like the flu. There are also ongoing health problems for those who were infected as well as ongoing economic and social fallout.
The temptation is to move right into making plans for each stage. Instead, I’d encourage you to ask three questions;
- What information would confirm the stage we’re in?
- What information would be helpful to know about that stage?
- What resources might we need to live into that stage?
One of those needed resources is the consent of your church leaders and members. The second tool is four questions to help determine what people are called to consent to. We have all been changed by this pandemic in some way. It will be essential to ask each other some questions about who we have become and who we are called to become.
- What is something you did before the pandemic that you are looking forward to doing again?
- What is something you started to do during the pandemic that you hope to continue?
- What is something you did before the pandemic that you want to let go of?
- What is something you started to do during the pandemic that you will be happy to stop?
To get clarity and consent, these questions work best if the answers are rooted in a role. You could preface each of these questions with phrases like “As this church’s pastor…”, “As a member…”, “As this church’s custodian…”, etc. It works best if the answers are as specific as possible, too. The listening and the sharing all need to be done in a spirit of love, grace, and wonder.
As I said before, we have all been changed by this pandemic in some way. There is no getting back to normal. There will be grieving of that reality and all those we have lost. There is also freedom in sharing the truth about what we’re called to. I am convinced that only by being faithful to God’s calling in our individual and collective lives can we find that holy freedom.
It was years before I visited the sculpture off of 90 to try and find out which famous photographer the sculpture depicted. Ends up, it wasn’t a famous person at all. It was a sculpture to honor everyone who ever enjoyed that view and took a picture to capture it. This pandemic journey is one we’re all on. It’s not over, but the end is getting closer. Those who will be honored or vilified for their role during this time will be few. The more extraordinary long-term story will be what we all figured out to do together. Taking some time now to clarify the right conditions needed to make the right plans will save us time, energy, and a lot of frustration in the long run. This will be our legacy and our gift to those who come after us.
Rev. Mike Denton, Conference Minister of The Pacific Northwest Conference ofThe United Church of Christ
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