As I write this, it is one of those brilliant mid-fall days where the whole creation seems sharp and clear. The sky is deep blue, with no visible clouds; the air is warm, but there is a pronounced undercurrent of coolness betraying the frost that is quite likely to come tonight; the sun is lighting up red, orange, and yellow foliage as a fresh wind sends jewel-like leaves skittering across the grass, which has begun the process of fading from intense green to washed-out brown.
Autumnal change is in the air. Perhaps it is fitting that Martin Luther was moved to post his 95 theses on the door of the Wittenberg castle church in October of 1517. As surely as nature was transitioning from fall to winter, his theses opened a debate that shifted the world, ultimately leading to the Reformation and the birth of the Protestant Christian church.
Those of us in the Reformed tradition understand that the church is still called to change. This is summed up in the expression ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda: “the church reformed, always reforming.”
The Word of God is alive and dynamic; the Holy Spirit is like the wind, blowing where it will, calling us and challenging us to biblical, faithful change in a world that needs a vital, active church now more than ever.
And remember: vital, active churches are made of vital, active Christians, who are called to realize that true life in Jesus Christ means having the freedom to love and serve God by loving and serving God’s people.
As Luther himself wrote, “Behold, from faith thus flow forth love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss.” ¹
As a pastor currently serving in parish ministry, I am well aware that many congregations are wondering what church looks like in a COVID world. Ours certainly is!
I believe that, pre-pandemic, many faith communities were already facing these questions, as they took account of recent and dramatic shifts in the cultural religious landscape; however, COVID has accelerated and exacerbated this trend.
A lot of what believers took for granted about church before COVID no longer seems so solid. The volunteers aren’t there; the funds aren’t there; with remote worship, even the old metrics for measuring meaningful involvement aren’t there.
Although there has long been a crisis in clergy health, the pandemic era has seen a marked increase in clergy burnout, which may be indicative of this profound change in the ecclesiastical landscape.
According to Barna, the percentage of pastors who have considered leaving full-time ministry was 42% in March 2022, up from 29% in January 2021. ² Leading reasons cited include “current political divisions” and “I feel lonely and isolated,” but the primary impetus is “the immense stress of the job.” ³
It is hard to imagine that the reported stress behind this significant increase, 13% in just over a year, doesn’t have something to do with the accelerated discernment of both purpose and method that COVID has forced churches to undertake.
As we go forward, two broad ways of framing this reimagining that have given me hope come to mind. One is compost. My spouse and HSHC co-founding partner, Karen, is working in the garden today; she told me earlier that all of the kitchen scraps we have put in the compost pile throughout the summer have become rich, loamy soil, which she has worked back into the beds. What a miracle! This means that the otherwise unusable peels, skins, and ends have become the nutrients that will feed next year’s plants. Likewise, it is not as if what we, as the church, have done in ministry before is now useless. Rather, it is the soil in which tomorrow’s discipleship grows, creating the structure for meaningful future work.
The second concept that is helpful for me is evolution. Therapist and retired United Church of Canada pastor Bruce Sanguin writes that “religious traditions are like cellular structures,” elaborating that, while the DNA holds the “sacred gift of our tradition,” the membrane both interfaces with the environment and holds the cell together; thus, the membranes “enable the cell to maintain its unique identity while also allowing new information from the environment to pass through,” which can “override or even change” the cell’s genetic structure. ⁴ Thus, Sanguin observes, “for a religious life and tradition to remain alive and relevant, its membrane needs to be both porous enough to enable new information to enter and reshape the tradition, and at the same time stable enough to preserve its core identity.” ⁵
Our current reality has injected a tremendous amount of new information into the cell that is church. Our tradition, though, is more than strong enough not only to hold it, but to adapt in meaningful ways, forming something excellent and new that is nourished by, and incorporates, all that was good before. Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda. Daunting? Yes. Easy? No. However, a strong theological foundation, combined with the faithful flexibility to meet a profoundly fluid context, has worked many times before. I trust it will do so again.
¹ Martin Luther, Treatise on Christian Liberty.
² “Pastors Share Top Reasons They’ve Considered Quitting Ministry in the Past Year,” April 27, 2022, viewed October 15, 2022, https://www.barna.com/research/pastors-quitting-ministry/.
³ “Pastors Share Top Reasons They’ve Considered Quitting Ministry in the Past Year.”
⁴ Bruce Sanguin, Darwin, Divinity, and the Dance of the Cosmos: An Ecological Christianity (Kelowna, BC: CopperHouse, 2007), 33.
⁵ Sanguin, 33.
This past spring, my husband and I moved to Pennsylvania after having lived in the South for the past eleven years.
One of the changes I found myself recently needing to take advantage of was a forecasted warmer fall day to finish preparing our garden for the upcoming winter months.
Up until that point, I had already pushed off the task of laying a blanket of mulch on our garden to protect our newly established fruit bushes and other perennial plants for several weeks, in part because I didn’t feel like working outside in the cooler weather, but even more because I had been constantly feeling the pressure to get my work done – deadlines were looming, and I was already anticipating the stress that comes from the busyness of the holiday season.
However, between the gift of a warmer day and the extended weather forecast, which was projecting some very cold upcoming nights, I found myself no longer able to… Click to Read More
It is hard to believe that in a little over two weeks it will be Thanksgiving, which officially kicks off the traditional franticness of the holiday season, and before we know it Christmas presents will have been unwrapped and the ringing in of the new year completed. While there are many aspects of the holiday season that are joyful and are fun to anticipate, it is also important to acknowledge that we are also entering into our second COVID impacted holiday season. A time where we will be combining the “normal” stress of the holiday season plus dealing with the chronic stress of dealing with COVID, which has caused: increased anxiety, depression, fatigue, restless sleep, stress eating, decreased physical activity, and more.
One the one hand, this may look like the perfect storm for our overall health and wellbeing. On the other hand, if we take a few minutes now and commit ourselves to doing several small (and manageable!) caring-for-self practices throughout the holiday season (click here for some tips and ideas), not only will we feel much better in the midst of the stressful season, but we will also be able to enjoy the celebration of Christ’s birth and excitement of the new year more fully!
In addition, due to the chronic stress that many of us have and will be facing, we hope you will check out some of the other stress-oriented articles, resources, as well as the information about our new 6-week “Restore and Renew: Strategies for Stress” program (starting in mid January) found in this stress edition of our newsletter.
Karen and Travis Webster
“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”
Stress-less Holiday Recipes:
Let’s face it, cooking during the holidays can be stressful enough, but it can be even more stressful when family, friends, and other guests have various allergies and/or dietary sensitivities that need to be considered when meal planning.
To help reduce that stress, we’ve provided a few websites with recipes that are both plant-based AND avoid some of the most common food allergies.
*This last site addresses many food sensitivities/preferences like dairy, eggs, and seafood, but the recipes may need to be modified to address some of the other common allergies (gluten, soy, nuts, coconut, etc.)
Dealing with the physical aspects of COVID has received a lot of attention in media. However, the mental, emotional, and spiritual impacts COVID is having, particularly among COVID survivors, need far greater awareness than it is currently receiving. In order to get a better understanding of the impact of COVID on these other aspects of health, Karen Webster, HSHC Executive Director, recently interviewed a community of faith member who shared their COVID journey. To learn more, check out their Q&A session below.
When did you have COVID, and how did you experience it?
“I had COVID in mid-November, and I’ve no idea where I got it. I wore masks everywhere. I started coming down with COVID symptoms right in the midst of celebrating my husband’s mother’s 90th birthday with a very small gathering of close family members, followed the next day by our daughter celebrating her 16th birthday with a very small group of her closest friends in our front yard with everyone wearing masks and socially distancing themselves.
Since we had visited family out-of-town, my husband’s boss had said, ‘I want you to get a COVID test before you come back to work.’ My husband’s result turned up negative and, for a moment, I thought I would be ok, but mine, however, turned up positive. And I just remember thinking to myself, “What? How can this be?” I was shocked and mortified.
My husband immediately called his 90-year-old mother, and he, too, started panicking because it was his side of the family we had just visited – his brother, who’s over 60, sister-in-law, his niece, and nephew. I immediately started having a shame panic attack.
The first person I called was my mom, and she said to me, “Well, did you get tested before you went?” She immediately made me feel even worse than I was already feeling about myself and all my regrets, the guilt. I hung up and cried. What did I just do? I just endangered all of these people. The people I love the most could die now. It’s my fault. I’m sick… That was the worst hour.
Whom did you feel comfortable telling/who was your support network?
“I’m a private person, so normally I would not have told anybody else. However, in this instance, I had to share the news with my husband’s family and the people who attended my daughter’s birthday party, which included telling my four closest friends who had been at the party… crying. In terms of my support network, I told my friends because I had to, but really it was only my husband and daughter. COVID is very isolating. First, you’re told to quarantine, and then, if you’re feeling shameful about it, it is a super isolating disease.”
What messages were you receiving that impacted how and with whom you shared your diagnosis? How did those make you feel about your diagnosis?
“Internally, I thought, ‘How could I have done this to people?… holding on tightly to shame and regret. Externally, my friends said to me, “You know, you didn’t do anything wrong. You were careful.” Through the process of sharing with my four friends, I felt cared for. And then, because they interacted with other people I knew, they would tell me, “Oh, I told so-and-so, and they’re really concerned about you,” and my first reaction inside would be, “You told them!?” I really didn’t want anybody outside of my super tight inner circle to know because I was afraid I was going to be judged. And the thing that surprised me and I did not anticipate is anyone being concerned about me and my health. Rather, I had been thinking, “I’m bad.. Are they going to be mad at me? They’re judging me…Who did I almost kill?”
What could your faith community have done to support you while you were sick? Is there any support you would like from them now?
In terms of my faith community, I emailed my two pastors because I knew they were safe people to tell and that they were there for me. They wrote back, “Oh no, let me know if there’s anything I can do.” And that was it. Looking back, I think what would have been helpful was to have received a phone call from one of, or both of them, to help me discern what I needed because at the time, I did not know what I needed!
I also serve on one of the congregation’s leadership teams, and, at first, I didn’t tell them because it didn’t occur to me. However, at a meeting shortly after my illness, someone started asking about how those in church could “help those people.” This upset me and, without having planned through what I was going to say, I immediately jumped in and shared my experience as a COVID survivor.
COVID is challenging enough physically, and then to add the stigma… you must have caught COVID by not wearing a mask or doing something you shouldn’t have done or going somewhere or not washing your hands or not doing something you should have done… I’ve even caught myself thinking, “Well, of course, that person got it, because they…” From a cultural-global-spiritual perspective, COVID is really highlighting our biases, stereotypes, judgments, and hypocrisies. The committee appreciated that I brought this awareness to them while, at the same time, I experienced being cared for.
Any final thoughts?
“I grew up in the eighties during the AIDS epidemic. My immediate reaction after having gotten the positive test for COVID was a deep, new compassion and empathy for people who had AIDS. In the eighties, we heard about them, and we judged them. Having COVID, I realized that they not only had to deal with being physically sick, but they also had to deal with mental and emotional pain from being stigmatized… guilt, shame, “Who got sick because of me?” It would be interesting to talk to someone who also had coronavirus and AIDS and see if it’s any kind of similarity.”
Reflecting on my experience spiritually, the only thing I can compare having COVID to is all of the grief, despair, and complete brokenness I felt when my dad was diagnosed with cancer and died, a six-week process from diagnosis to death. Through the experience of the brokenness I felt after my dad died, I learned that I was loved not because of how much I do and who I am (type A, high achiever, successful athlete), but I learned that people loved me, and I was lovable even at my worst, my most broken. And my experience with COVID was learning that lesson again, on another level. So, actually, it has been a very cool spiritual period.”