By Ed Thompson
For our last Pastoral Leaders’ Gathering, I had suggested that we might discuss a recent episode of the Three Minute Ministry Mentor podcast by Eileen Campbell Reed titled “Leading Through Loss.” You can listen to it here. (Even though it’s called Three Minute Ministry Mentor, this episode lasts a little over 5 minutes.)
It contains nothing all that profound. Nor does it have any earth-shattering insights. However, it recognizes the losses that we’ve experienced during the pandemic. On some level, we all know that. Naming that reality, discovering that we all shared that experience, even if we have never really talked about it before, hit home. At least it did for me.
Among other things the podcast mentions “a loss of a sense of certainty and control.” Maybe as ministers we’ve never really been in control, but most of us probably thought we were. Even though we may know better, we probably thought that if we worked hard enough, our church would grow – or at least it wouldn’t shrink. If we preached solid sermons and offered thoughtful, well-designed worship services; if we provided good pastoral care and at least adequate administration; and if we offered good programs, such as Sunday School, Bible School, youth group, and Bible Studies, people would be attracted to our church. We thought it was all up to us. We acted as if it was all up to us. Maybe that wasn’t explicitly taught in seminary. It certainly wasn’t an intentional part of the curriculum. But I think it was an underlying assumption that permeated everything we learned while we were there.
Maybe the pandemic removed the veil from our eyes. Maybe these past two years have forced us to admit, “This isn’t working.” I think in some ways we have come to the end of an era. Maybe that era really ended back in the 1960s. The church has been in decline since then. Or maybe we would want to say that rather than the end of an era, the pandemic marks the beginning of a new era, an age that is as frightening as it is uncertain to most of us because we have no idea what to expect. Maybe the only thing we can know for sure is that what used to work no longer does. For most of us, that creates a significant sense of loss. We can only mourn what was, what used to be.
We need to recognize, acknowledge, and name that loss. Not that we need to wallow in it. But we can’t move beyond it as leaders, we can’t help our members move beyond it, until we name it. I’m reminded of Miss Havisham, a character in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations who was never able to move beyond the fact that her intended husband never showed up on the day of their wedding. She remained stuck in the past.
I was also struck during our conversation by how many losses our presbytery has experienced. We’ll have had a turnover of almost half our staff in about 18 months. Nellie Howard retired a year ago. Barbara Chalfant took a new position in September. Rocky Poole retired at the end of February. I’m going to get off the bus this summer. Plus we sold our office building and moved the resource center to a new location. In some ways, I can say that I – and we – haven’t missed a beat. I’m still getting email, still going to meetings, still answering the phone. There’s still a psychic loss, however, since we no longer have that common gathering space. We can still do – and I think we are still doing – good ministry. We’re just doing it differently. Whether we like it or not, whether we admit it or not, there’s still a sense of loss, though.
Two things give me hope. One is the phrase “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda” – the church reformed, always being reformed. In spite of the changes, in spite of the losses we’ve experienced, we can also see everything that has happened and is happening as part of a process of reformation. That phrase not only summarizes our heritage, it also describes our reality. God is still at work shaping the church towards greater faithfulness. Belief in the sovereignty of God gives us this assurance.
The other is the fact that we are now and always have been Easter people. Resurrection gives us hope. Resurrection means the future is always open. Resurrection provides the foundation of our faith. Maybe like those first disciples all we can see now, all we can know now, all we can imagine now is death. But God has something more, something better in mind. God is not done with us yet.
I try not to worry about the future. I know we’re in God’s hands. I keep trying to do my best to live out the 8th ordination vow, to “serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.” That’s really all I – or any one of us – can control.
But before we forget the past, before we bury our feelings or try to deny the losses we’ve experienced, let’s take the time to mourn, to lament – and yes to celebrate – what used to be. Unless and until we recognize our losses, we won’t be ready for or open to the future our God has in store for us.
Excellent commentary. Thank you for sharing your deep thoughts. I am going to miss them. Have you thought about writing a blog or doing a podcast?