As congregations evaluate how to recover from pandemic restrictions, many church leaders harbor anxiety about if and how members will get back to attending.
“This COVID thing is not an abstract spiritual point. This is not a drill,” said Hesston College professor Michele Hershberger on Feb. 20 at the college’s online conference, “What If They Don’t Come Back? Pastoring Through the Pandemic.”
“There wasn’t any class at seminary about this. This massive uncertainty affects each one of us differently. It’s a scary thing, but I also want you to consider it’s a gift.”
Presented as a Weekend College event within Hesston’s Center for Anabaptist Leadership and Learning (CALL), the gathering pushed more than 110 pastors and leaders to be open to new ways of being the church.
Paula Snyder Belousek, pastor of Salem Mennonite Church in Elida, Ohio, identified a sense of grief within her congregation.
“For many people, church life was good before the pandemic, so it’s understandable that people want things to go back the way they were,” she said. “I think in mine we’ll look around and wonder where some people went. So how do we tend to the grief in the midst of whatever we’ll be?”
Hershberger said the prophets of the Bible tell us grieving is appropriate, but we can’t start loving our grieving or victimhood.
Guest speaker David Fitch, Betty R. Lindner chair of evangelical theology at Northern Seminary in Chicago, said the pandemic disrupted centuries of church habits, putting faith up for grabs, leading to a sense of desperation among pastors disconnected from their flocks. At the same time, he suggested this could also be a prime opportunity for God to reset a church that has fallen into stagnation.
Fitch, also founding pastor of Life on the Vine Christian Community, encouraged participants to identify their congregations’ core practices with an emphasis on fellowship — that place where people encounter Christ’s presence. This is not solely the realm of potlucks; it can happen online and over the phone as well.
“Pay attention to every phone call, every socially distanced gathering — the tending to the small groups and how they practice the faith,” he said. “Cultivating the practices and life of the church takes years, but now it’s intensified because people are so ready to connect with the presence of Christ in other people.”
One of COVID’s “benefits” was the way it forced people to meet in smaller groups, often without a pastor. Fitch suggested that empowerment of lay people can energize a church if leaders can get out of the way and let it flourish.
Top-down or hierarchical leadership styles have been flipped by COVID.
“Leadership like that works if you have a group of Christians who already think like you. Well, those days may very well be ending, or at least for a lot of us they will end,” Fitch said. “Now we need the incredible little skills of making phone calls and being engaged in close listening, empowering someone to do something because you can’t be there, making space for Jesus to work in people’s lives in smaller groups.”
Ramon Lianez, a pastor at Central Mennonite Church in Archbold, Ohio, said change is coming to churches no matter what, so it’s important to be proactive.
“We’re in the process of educating and doing some transformation within the body before things start opening up more and more,” he said in a feedback session. “If you wait too long, you’re going to be behind the eight ball, and you could have been thinking about things to do before that to be ahead of the game.”
Fitch held back from suggesting every church’s culture and priorities need to be rebuilt from scratch, because God typically works in more subtle ways.
“Don’t try to change a whole congregation,” he said, noting Jesus didn’t try to change Israel by taking it over, but by calling 12 people and starting a small group. “. . . Meet for dinner once a week. Tend what God’s doing in this place.”
Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg, director of the Hesston College CALL program, echoed those thoughts. She suggested experimenting with new practices in a small group hungry for something more.
“Go break bread and experiment with a small group until you start seeing successes, and then you celebrate. And people say ‘wait a minute, you didn’t ask me,’ ” she said. “Begin small. That’s how you enact change. They say it takes 16% of the community for change to be evident, and that’s really a small number. It’s possible to have culture change, but it takes time.”