Learning to Live With Uncertainty

I am a part of a book group at my church. We are reading, “Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us,” by Layton Williams. One chapter of her book is called, “The Gift of Doubt.” She writes about doubt and how it impacts faith communities, but our conversation moved into the lack of certainty that has invaded our lives in this time of Covid 19. It is true that we have never been able to know the future or have the kind of control over our health we would like to have. There has always been a certain amount of unknowing that we have had to tolerate or ignore. But now, basic things that we used to be able to predict have become unpredictable. Will my daughter be attending school in the fall? Is it safe to go grocery shopping? When will we be able to worship as we used to? Just how does this virus spread and who is contagious when? When will we have a vaccine? We don’t know. Or at least we do not know anywhere near as much as we would like to know.

However, Layton Williams’ framing of things like “Doubt” and “Argument” as “gifts” caused us to think about how this time of unpredictability can be a time of spiritual growth for us. After all, learning to live with uncertainty would be helpful to all of us even in the best of circumstances. This is a time when uncertainty is heightened, but we understand that our old sense that we knew what tomorrow was going to look like was never true to reality. We have always pretended a certain degree of control in our lives. We experience unwelcome surprises in our health, jobs, family relationships, weather and more. Sometimes we can ameliorate our risks, but there has never been a scenario in which we truly know what tomorrow will bring. This is a source of great anxiety for us even in the best of times. In this time of coronavirus concerns, our pretending has even less credibility

Perhaps this time of heightened uncertainty can be a gift for us. Perhaps it will push us to learn to become more comfortable with not knowing our futures. We may become more comfortable with adapting to what comes our way when we get there. This can be a time to embrace our humanity, relieving ourselves of our need to pretend divinity, and learning to trust God as we turn the next corner. Once we give up our anxious struggle to know and to control, we might find we turn to prayer more often, express gratitude for the gifts of the present, and more easily find contentment with what tomorrow brings. Perhaps this time of uncertainty can also become a gift for us.

Partnerships Taking Shape!

I am in conversations with several other pastors in Hudson River Presbytery about creating a system to share adult education and other ministries via Zoom. The idea is that we would ask congregations to let us know what they plan to offer in the upcoming season of the church year. Courses, groups, classes, and even special services will be compiled and organized onto a website page, along with contact information. We would then send seasonal updates to participating congregations about what is available to share.

As we talked this idea through, we thought about the adult education offerings that a few people in are congregations have interest in, but only a few. Such groups could then be offered across the Presbytery and get a critical mass of people in attendance. Pastors and other congregational leaders could be freed up to pursue particular areas of interest and expertise. Groups of pastors could get together and collaborate to make a larger, more labor intensive offering more feasible. Smaller congregations that struggle to assemble a group of youth for a Confirmation Class, would be able to band together. We could team up to offer grief groups and other groups of support, as needs could be met across congregations. Even special services, such as “Blue Christmas,” could be made accessible via Zoom. The possibilities seem endless. Extending our ministries while also lightening the load.

In addition to these opportunities, we could also strengthen relationships across the Presbytery, with experiences of growing and sharing together. More people within our congregations will have tangible experience of a connectional church. In a time when every congregation is constantly needing to adapt to cultural change, a shared book group also becomes an opportunity for ideas to be shared. “The way we always do things” will come to have more “ways” added as each congregation shares what they know. Even better, collaboration will give birth to new ideas.

I am looking forward to seeing the HRP Course Catalog (name in progress) form and grow. This is an idea that likely would never have come about had it not been for the peculiar context of COVID-19. What other ideas for ministry can we imagine resulting from this time?

More Choices

I am struck that our worship attendance numbers have actually increased during this COVID-19 time. In particular, it seems that our worship strategy of having the service available in multiple places; YouTube, Facebook, and a Zoom meeting, has been beneficial. I have noticed that the YouTube and Facebook numbers climb for the first three days or so of the post and then level off. I suspect that, in this era, when we watch what we want to watch when we want to watch it on Netflix, having worship accessible in this way in particularly beneficial. We live in a time when flexibility and choice are prized. Those of us who organize church services may recoil at the individualism inherent in these preferences. But, we might want to have compassion for others who, for whatever reason, have had difficulty accessing worship in our buildings on Sunday at 10:00 a.m.

As I look forward, and peer into the world of limitations with singing and physical distance, masks and smaller groups, I see an opportunity to experiment with new worship opportunities. Perhaps we could add an evening outdoor worship service, with acoustic music, a conversational sermon, and quiet spaces. We could offer a more formal service with a meditative style in our sanctuary in the morning. It’s possible that smaller groups will create a more intimate sense of community and contribute to stronger relationships. Perhaps new forms, times, and places can meet the desires for worship, relationship, and meaning that have materialized in this time of social distance and collective concern.

I know what I’m suggesting is not radical in the world of church worship. Many churches offer the types of services and choices I am suggesting. What previously would have been radical for many churches is the idea of changing worship from whatever it is that we have always done, to anything that is different. But our new circumstance gives us the ability to experiment without a sense of judging what we have always done. We aren’t changing the service because we disliked it. We are changing the service because we are adapting to the needs of the moment. This is a natural temporary period that allows for open ended and fluid ideas. We shouldn’t use this time to race back and approximate a clumsy and impoverished version of what we have done before. We can instead use this as a time for vibrant experiments that will inform our future together.

Thoughts from Chaplain Ken Sampson

Post by Rev. Ken Sampson

Thanks Pastor Tricia, for this blog invitation on Imagining Church in light of the current restrictions in place due to the coronavirus.  Here are a couple of thoughts:

What have we learned?

Community.  Especially through Cornwall Presbyterian Church on-line worship and sermon texts/exposition, we’re made more deeply aware that we are a community.  Not only of faith, but of friendship and common “hunkering in place” experience.

Continuity.  Whether through “Zoom” sessions, Church website worship postings, email announcement and prayer updates, some flow of experience continues.  And perhaps because we’re invited into homes when we Zoom, a different sort of transparency takes place.  Yet there remains a longing for the fuller face-to-face in-person connection.

Opportunities for reflection.  From our confirmation class reading, the following questions in finding meaning in difficulties, seem to apply to many of us: “Who do I love?  What have I done with my life?  Am I ready for whatever is next?” (The Question That Never Goes Away, by Philip Yancy, p. 49).  I think most of us have a greater appreciation for God’s glorious out-of-doors, creation, and the beauties of this Hudson Highlands region as a result of the slowdown in activity.  Many of us may also experience a sort of “closing in on oneself.”  That is, our worlds become more focused on day-to-day matters, less outreach, more relaxed goals and fewer projects to pursue.

Priestly function.  On the other hand, there is a dynamic of appreciation for and empathy with so many negatively affected by this stay-in-place mandate.  For many of us, prayers for members of the congregation and neighbors who directly work and engage the public (first responders, fire, police; medical care communities, orderlies and hospital janitors; trash haulers, civic employees…) are a real dimension of our devotional lives.  The priestly role of our faith, an empathetic helping-to-carry-the-load, whether through prayer or other means of support, is deepened and enhanced.

What comes next?

On-Line Presence.  We have moved more fully into the digital, social media world.  As a Church, I would envision that our website becomes a “threshold” or doorway by which many newcomers and interested folks discover CPC.  Interviews with congregation members could enhance communication of the richness of worship and community at Cornwall Presbyterian Church.  Livestream or recorded services, in addition to full sanctuary, in-person experiences, may become the norm.  Use of web-based platforms, especially for memorial and funeral services, may broaden the span of influence and pastoral care.  Classes may be augmented with Zoom sessions periodically to take advantage of the different transparency and sharing dimensions offered through this technology.  Additionally, when restrictions begin lifting, a dual track (on-line and in-person) worship experience may be helpful. 

Those on the margins.  Members of our Church community who are not digitally engaged, or are physically hampered, may be an increasing focus of attention.  Tapping the broader Church for innovative pastoral care and spiritual growth for those with disabilities may be a calling some would like to pursue.

Seminary or broader Presbytery educational offerings.  Perhaps we could link-up with facilitators from the broader church and offer youth and adult opportunities for learning.   

Face-to-face, small group, in-person opportunities.  I’d envision we continue intentionally offering times of study, fellowship and community, that allow us to enjoy the richness of our shared humanity, faith and friendship in deeper, in-person ways.    

COVID-19 Conversations

Post by Lynn Costa

Working in NYC has been a true challenge.  Somewhere around the end of March, we were told that coming into the office would be impossible and the new challenge became figuring out how to effectively support 350 employees who were working in the city streets, working from home and working in an office building.  

Two months later, we continue to focus on keeping employees safe and well, but our attention has turned to June 15th, and the beginning of the return of employees to NYC.  It’s a scary proposition, but the process we’re using has uncovered some interesting approaches that might be utilized as we think through what church will be in this future world with COVID-19.  Here are some of the things we’re talking about:

Create an RTC (Return to Church) team.  Part of the process has meant bringing together the owners in the “returning process”.  Bring together a Return to Church team; church member “experts” who can think about the return from all of its angles including worship, stewardship, Christian education, finance, facilities, etc.

Some things don’t need to return.  We’ve learned a lot about what we can and can’t do from home.  And there are lots of things we can do from home!  What if virtual church continued on a biweekly schedule, maybe twice per month?  What if Session meetings continued on Zoom?  What if Bible study or learning groups continued on Microsoft Teams?  How about virtual committee meetings?  Many of these gatherings can continue virtually until there’s more consistency in our system.

Create informational and directional assistance.  Changing church culture can be a slow boat to turn, and anything that assists with the change will be welcomed.  Signage, floor and pew spacing (6 ft distancing) and information in a “welcome back to church” packet can provide written guidelines for worship, information on new virtual programs, updates, hand sanitizer and a mask for church-goers.  

Cleaning is a must.  We all have an answer to this, and a cleaning process in place, but what will need to be done, now that COVID-19 is a regular concern?  If you hold two services on a Sunday, how will you clean in between?  Or does the early service need to be virtual and the later service located at church?  How will pews and common areas be cleaned?  This of course, can be an additional burden on both the facilities team and the budget.

Communicate.  A lot.  Letting the church community know what’s going on is critical.  Even though the full plan may not be realized, letting the church family know what steps are in place, what and when things may happen and the changes they can begin to expect, will assist with the process getting us back to our new normal.  And it needs to be a constant, weekly update.

There are no easy answers.  But with planning and discussion, we can find solutions that help us learn and flex and deal with our new normal church lives.

The Worship of the Future

When the time comes for us to worship in person once again, it clearly will be a different experience than what we are used to. I have seen many people imagine worship with face masks and social distance. Every other pew will be marked off in order to give us the requisite 6 feet of space. Singing, we are told, is also a problem, as the air-borne droplets can carry the novel coronavirus. We won’t be singing in church any time soon. Many of us have been plumbing whatever creativity we can access to imagine how we can serve communion in a safe way. Bring your own elements? Prepackaged, sterile containers? It is hard to look ahead at such a worship service and imagine that it would be more satisfying than the worship we are currently experiencing remotely. However, what would happen if we didn’t try to recreate the worship we know?

I am convinced that the unusual circumstances we are living with offer opportunities for our spiritual growth, both as individuals and as a church. Maybe the next phase in our journey will include a worship service that makes use of silence, or meditative spaces, rather than singing? The music of Taize might serve as an example, if the music is used to create a prayerful experience rather than for corporate singing. Perhaps we can find ways to imagine the spaces we must create between us as spaces filled with intentions and prayers for one another? Maybe we can create these experiences in smaller groups and build deeper relationships as we do so? What about using visual art in our worship?

This has been a season of many losses for all of us. Let’s not experience worship as a loss as well. Building a service that attempts to be what worship was, will inevitably feel like such a loss. Instead, let’s enliven our worship with new patterns and practices, broadening our experience and creating new opportunities for our neighbors new connect with us and our faith. What are your ideas for worship in our next, less socially distanced season?

Challenge Lemons into Opportunity Lemonade

Post by Erik Simon

I am far from technology’s biggest fan. That doesn’t mean I’m completely inept. Professional reasons compelled me to learn more than I’d ever intended, yet whenever the choice was between tech and no-tech, I invariably chose the latter.

But one point my seminary has been driving home is that clergy must become more proficient in all that technology can do. The argument is basically this: people are not coming to church, and if you want to appeal to them, you have to go where they are. These days, where they are is usually somewhere virtual—Twitter, Facebook, YouTube—especially the younger set. 

The pandemic jump-started virtual ministry for all of us. Still a seminarian, I was asked to fill the pulpit at my home church until they could get an interim pastor; our minister had left for a call  to hospital chaplaincy. My first Sunday was the first Sunday of the official lockdown. Hmmm.

I saw the situation as a challenge, but honestly, I now see it as an opportunity. For it to be an opportunity, though, we have to rethink what we mean by community. It used to be our church community was pretty easy to define—the folks who showed up on Sunday, regardless of how often they showed up. But now, our community can be anyone across the country who has Wi-Fi, either via Zoom, Facebook, YouTube or whatever. And if you record the service, they don’t even have to show up on time or even on Sunday. It’s The Gospel On Demand. 

I think that kind of potential is awesome, in every sense of the word. It’s no mystery that numbers are falling in many of our churches. One way to increase numbers could be by permanently opening our church’s virtual doors.

Yes, there are a lot of questions we will need to answer, details we will need to deliberate. Can someone in Illinois become a member of our New York Church? When churches do open up again—can the virtual worshippers in Colorado and Georgia participate in the Eucharist with their own Welch’s and Wonder (grape juice and bread)? And (deep breath) could someone in Montana be on the Session? 

These are all questions we will have to confront, but rarely has the church ever known how to get from A to B until, through trial and error, it went from A to B. The point is, virtual worship could be a great opportunity for us to grow our communities in ways we’d probably not imagined even five months ago. Yes, it is a strange, new approach, but so was using the newly-invented printing press to widely disperse pamphlets at the dawn of the Reformation, and look how many new Protestant church members came out of that! 

The Benefits of Zoom!

I have long been concerned about leadership in the church. It seems that the numbers of people able to serve on committees or as elders on Session keep dwindling. Younger adults, especially those with children, are reluctant to take on an evening commitment. Many older adults have difficulty driving at night. Presbyteries also have problems with access as they tend to meet during the day when most people work. We then worry that the age demographics of our meetings skews upward. There are other issues that impact this problem, such as church membership and a movement away from long-term commitments. But, shelter-in-place has finally pushed us all to embrace one possible solution to some of our struggles: Zoom!

It’s not as hard as we feared. Yes, our older people managed to get there. Our technically challenged folks were coaxed along. We now know about Meeting IDs and Passwords and the very helpful mute options. We are now truly able to have a very quick meeting if that is what we want, eliminating the fuss of getting to a place, chatting, and driving home. We can meet while also taking care of children or finishing a meal. No one has to worry about driving at night No one has to worry about childcare. People who have functioned for years as “shut-in” due to health concerns are able to participate. One of our values as a church is inclusivity. We want everyone to be welcome and able to participate in all of church life. In this sense, online meetings really open up possibilities.

I imagine a future where meeting by Zoom is an option for every meeting. Perhaps a group would rather meet during the daytime, having discovered that a couple of people on a committee are able to take a quick Zoom meeting while at work. Perhaps parents can serve on committees more easily, not having to worry about finding childcare. Perhaps we don’t need to be concerned with snow in the winter or driving home in the dark.

We currently have Confirmation Class, adult education groups, worship, and of course committees meeting on Zoom. Maybe we’d like to keep this option around as our new normal?

What Comes Next?

Cornwall Presbyterian Church, the church I pastor, has now been worshipping virtually for some time now. During this period, we have experimented with Facebook Live, OBS Project, Zoom Worship, and with pre-recorded videos. We have turned to Zoom for online committee meetings, adult education offerings, confirmation classes, and virtual coffee hours. We have learned to make more phone calls and send more cards.

The time will come, when we will once again be able to worship in our sanctuary, likely with a new set of limitations and opportunities. We will find ways to put distance around us. We will make use of masks. Some programs and elements of church life may have to wait. We will return, marked by our time away from the building. Perhaps, in addition to managing new cleaning regimens, we will find that we bring new ideas with us, learned in our time away. Or perhaps, there will be space created for holy imaginings, that can now take shape. There are several excellent blogposts, which I will link at the bottom of this post, that offer good guidance for a return and ask thoughtful questions.

I am creating this blog as a place for us to imagine the possibilities of what comes next. What have we learned in this time of quarantine that we can carry into the next phase of our life together? What are the theological and ethical questions that we need to ask as we move into the next phases of this journey? What are possible answers to technical questions about worship and other aspects of church life? I invite contributions from my own congregation. I will also solicit thoughts from colleagues and their imaginings of what comes next.

Here links to posts that may be helpful:

http://www.hudrivpres.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/20200527_return_to_public_worship.pdf