Recently I was watching an episode of Anglican Unscripted. Fr. George Conger, one of the hosts, is a priest in the Diocese of Central Florida where I once served. The topic was the blah feeling many clergy have these days – he nailed it MALAISE. Part of it is the effects of the Pandemic. Most of our churches have taken major hits in attendance and some of the rural or small family sized churches may not survive. It is a scary time.
Conger and Kallsen went on to describe why we feel this way. I think some of us think of it as nailing Jello to a wall. What I have seen is a doubling down on administrative structures to protect the institution, but Conger and Kallsen are right, we are in a time without any real revival efforts. It is a time we should think about sanctifying a fast, repenting of our sins, and reaching out to the Great Creator who is now doing a new thing.
I once had a colleague who did significant ministry with seniors. She had done a study of the effects of exponential change. As we age, many people begin to interpret change as loss. Thus, her research showed, that the exponential level of change caused periods of depression. I would even say that in the midst of this pandemic, this exponential change has increased, just at the same time that our schools were locked down, social distancing devolved into increasing isolation, and every facet of ministry began to change. Almost overnight, every pastor became a televangelist and the emergent principles of cyber church became part and parcel of parish life.
So how do we lead through this ‘malaise’? What is at stake, and how can we make the church stronger in the long term? If you are like me, you ponder these questions constantly and are accumulating your own research, trying things that often fail (but not always), and remembering that with such stretching of our capabilities, we must practice good self-care.
First, how do we lead through this malaise? This is not the time to fantasize about the old days of full churches. This is also not the time to have anxiety. We need remember that this movement to more digital presentations was a long time coming. Our old metrics no longer work. Even at the judicatory level, they are trying to figure out what makes a good measurement to show the effectiveness of a given congregation at a time where online engagement is hard to measure and average Sunday attendance is flat, stagnant, or simply not a measure of the ways in which your ministry is affecting lives.
If you find yourself in a spot where you need a primer on how to engage through technology, I would recommend Fr. Cathie Caimano’s site Free Range Priest. It offers individual coaching on how to navigate this new digital world. The farther it is from your seminary graduation date, the more likely you need some help. I get it, not all of us are technology people. I admit I still hand my phone to my son when I need help and am confused as to how to operate a simple app. The great hope I give myself is that I pace myself to continually attempt to learn something new each day. Set a goal that is realistic and measurable to embrace some of these new technologies.
Secondly, what is at stake? I think we need to be realistic that the ministry is not about building bigger, it is about building better. We need recognize that our efforts are to yield souls for the Kingdom of God. I can imagine that in the midst of this chaos, we will find new church plants trying completely new online and interactive groupings that gather digitally for everything but Eucharist. While we are told to “not forsake the assembling of ourselves together”, the scriptures did not tell us that an online gathering was not an assembly.
This is a good place to look at baby steps. Above all else, regularly assess how those baby steps are assisting others to get exposed to quality spiritual development, in your sermons, in your teaching, and let us never forget the power of pastoral care.
Lastly, how can we make the church stronger? One of the curses of this time with so much isolation is that activities have ceased and people are now “out of the habit” of attending our events. We need remember that just because an activity is held at a church does not make it a church event, and conversely, a church event can most assuredly be held away from the church. We are not constrained by our buildings. If anything, this malaise should remind us that we need to be with and strengthen people. One of the sure-fire, tried and true ways of growing a congregation is to offer small groups. Such things can be a simple gathering that reinforces relationships. I have one such group and the content is merely for fellowship. We have dinner and play a round of cards or a game and alternate in each other’s homes. Plan a sing along and perhaps explore music that would never be welcomed in church. Try having a group soaking prayer session – in homes. The opportunities are endless.
One of the deacons in my parish offers an online rosary, especially as an act of mourning for those who have died in faraway places. Another deacon in my parish offers a Facebook daily devotional online using the Forward Day by Day. I have offered online Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. The possibilities are only limited by your unwillingness to try them.
So how do we bet the malaise – labor on. Learn new things, pray for revival and repentance. Rest in the knowledge that the cycle of these lulls in history has often been followed by an awakening. We are changing, but we are not defeated. The methodology is changing, but the message is timeless.
If you reading this need a little bit of encouragement as you navigate this season of being a leader in the midst of malaise, drop me a line at frrobertlewis@gmail com. I would love to pray for and with you.