We have always shared our neighborhood with squirrels. But over the past few months, the squirrels seem to have forgotten our unspoken agreement to coexist peacefully.
They are chewing through play structures and windowsills, digging up plants, nesting in cars and moving into attics. Our neighborhood listserv is replete with DIY suggestions for waging battle against the invaders — everything from spraying hot sauce or rubbing habaneros on a swingset to scattering a bunch of fake snakes around the yard.
Mark Rober faced a similar problem: squirrels were devouring his birdseed. He had taken up bird watching at the beginning of the pandemic, only to bear witness as squirrels took down not one but three “squirrel-proof” bird feeders.
Rober could have taken the same approach as my neighbors, arming himself with squirrel repellent and giving up on a new hobby he found “so lovely.” But the NASA engineer-turned-popular YouTuber had an entirely different reaction.
He got curious.
And then he channeled his indignation into a good-humored appreciation for the squirrels’ ingenuity and persistence, meeting their creative problem solving with his own.
Over a few weeks in spring 2020, he built an eight-part Ninja Warrior-style course for squirrels. If they wanted to get to the birdseed, they would have to successfully navigate such obstacles as a swinging bridge, a maze, slanted steps and a catapult (“squirrelapult”). And the prize was not just birdseed but a treasure trove of walnuts (the treat Rober found they liked best after observing which nuts or seeds they ate first in a buffet he set up).
More than 95 million people have watched the utterly delightful 20-minute video that follows Rober’s adventures with the squirrel contestants he named Rick, Marty, Frank and Phantastic Gus. (Spoiler alert: All four made quick work of solving the puzzles laid out for them.)
What makes the video especially charming is Rober’s growing appreciation of the creatures he initially describes as “adversaries.” You hear him cheering on the squirrels, marveling as they experiment, fail and hop right back up to try again.
“They’re kind of adorable,” he says at the end. “Incredibly crafty, curious by nature, athletic and persistent.”
I was reminded of Rober when I heard a Christian leader wonder recently, in this challenging moment, how to cultivate creativity among clergy and lay leaders. “How,” he asked his colleagues, “are you successfully helping church leaders expand their imaginations?”
Behind his question, and the nods of solidarity from other leaders who work closely with congregations, was a recognition that many church leaders are tapped out. And the burnout extends beyond clergy. How can you guide a congregation through a pandemic when many of the lay leaders you count on for volunteering, fundraising and leadership are currently minimally engaged?
It’s far too simple to blame COVID-19. Matt Richtel, in an essay adapted from “Inspired: Understanding Creativity. A Journey Through Art, Science and the Soul,” writes that while we may say we want to be creative in navigating a puzzle, we are actually averse to innovation: “Subconsciously, we see creativity as noxious and disruptive.” (This may be especially true in religious settings, as researchers have found that thinking about God can stifle creativity.)
The issue? We don’t naturally like uncertainty.
“The reasons for this implicit bias against creativity can be traced to the fundamentally disruptive nature of novel and original creations,” Richtel writes. “Creativity means change, without the certainty of desirable results.”
And haven’t we had it up to here lately with uncertainty? Well, yes.
But if we change our relationship with uncertainty — from exasperated and impatient about those darn squirrels to curious and openhearted — we might just push through the weariness of leading in a pandemic to notice glimpses of possibility and playfulness.
Sarah Stein Greenberg, the executive director of the Stanford d.school, writes that the key is to develop a design mindset — one in which we know that the world is not as it should be yet also know that we have the capacity to meet the challenges as they come.
“In an era like this one, we all need the ability to adapt, to be resilient, and to be creative and generative even when we are uncertain,” she writes in “Creative Acts for Curious People: How to Think, Create and Lead in Unconventional Ways.”
“It’s not enough to know how things have worked in the past; we must be open to creating a dynamic future.”
So how do we do that — become builders rather than maintainers or controllers? How do we become more like Rober and, well, less like ourselves? Rober describes in a TEDx video the three steps he follows to generate ideas:
Be curious. Develop a childlike wonder about the world. Ask yourself: Why is this thing this way? What old ideas can we let go to make space for something new? If we sit long enough to observe something difficult, what insights surprise us?
Work hard. Experiment, fail and learn. Over and over again. What could you try without being overly invested in the outcome? Whom might you empower to join you in trying something new?
Get lucky. Some parts of the creative process are outside your control. That is uncertain, yes — but it also means the world is awash in possibility, waiting to be discovered.
“As you are creative and you observe and question your world, as you work hard [and] build early and often, you increase your chances of getting lucky,” he says. “We are all way more creative than we give ourselves credit for.”
Truth be told, I still find the overbearing squirrels in my yard somewhat irritating. But now I carry Rober’s spirit with me through the challenges of church life — the youth who don’t show up anymore, the languishing ministries, the empty pews — and wonder, not how to fix them, but what they are trying to teach me.
But if we change our relationship with uncertainty…we might just push through the weariness of leading in a pandemic to notice glimpses of possibility and playfulness.
Waiting is just the worst.
Whether it’s with joy (anticipating a vacation, an out-of-town guest, a new job), fear (a test result, a jury verdict, a conflict with a loved one) or aggravation (a delayed flight, a trip to the DMV, a parent-teacher conference), waiting robs us of being present. We miss what is happening in our lives right now while we’re busy making to-do lists or fretting or simmering.
It can be exhausting.
And yet here we are.
We are in the midst of our second pandemic Advent, and who wants to spend more time in intentional waiting? We are over it, as Episcopal priest Elizabeth Felicetti writes in The Atlantic — not just individually but collectively.
We’ve been waiting for the end of masks, the arrival of vaccines and the opportunity to sing. We’ve been waiting for the return of people to the pews, money to the offering plate and parties to the fellowship hall.
We’ve been waiting for the end of arguments about precautions, empty Sunday school classrooms and drive-thru celebrations. We’ve been waiting to move past the need to pivot with each new variant or surge.
We have been waiting to get back to normal.
“Back to normal” might be familiar — but that doesn’t make it faithful. The waiting posture robs us of hope, curiosity and imagination. It is a privileged position that suggests that what we found comfortable was loving enough, liberating enough, just enough, healing enough for all of God’s people.
The Faith Communities Today report released this fall, “Twenty Years of Congregational Change,” summarizing findings from the largest-ever survey of U.S. congregations, makes plain that our churches were not universally thriving before the pandemic: “Overall, the portrait shows a majority of congregations are growing older, smaller, and, by many measures, less vital.”
Among the key findings: most churches are small, but most people are in larger congregations; attendance at most churches has declined rapidly in the past 20 years; and most congregations skew older than the national average, with aging participants and leadership.
Last month, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research released a report offering an early picture of how churches are navigating the pandemic. It suggests, from surveys this summer, that the pandemic is “exacerbating and accelerating” the declines detailed in the Faith Communities Today report. It also notes that the overall picture is “turbulent and chaotic,” though “not all churches are experiencing the pandemic equally.”
“Normal” before the pandemic wasn’t so great.
Maybe we need this Advent after all.
Advent is not a season for waiting to usher back in the old or get through with gritted teeth. It is an invitation to wonder about and actively work for transformation: What new creation are we invited to participate in birthing? As the Faith Communities Today report notes: “A time of challenge and upheaval can also be a moment of opportunity and revitalization.”
That is not to say that this work is easy or to suggest that we forget the trauma our people and our churches have endured for almost two years. We are called to what Old Testament scholar Ellen Davis terms a “chastened hope,” a hope that keenly understands our current suffering and dependence on God.
Choctaw elder Steven Charleston in “Ladder to the Light” offers a mantra for faithful activism: “Don’t look down, don’t look back, don’t look away.”
He goes on to urge: “Look up and be confident. Look forward and learn from the past. Look at life as it is, without editing it to look better. See what is really there.”
That practice, he says, allows us to “recognize darkness but trust in light.” Charleston urges us all to choose each day to believe and to hope. By doing so, he writes, “we turn what we believe into what we see.” That is fitting for the season of preparation we are in and the seasons of incarnation and revelation we are anticipating.
How might we unlock creativity in this season, grieving what has been lost while also holding some hopeful curiosity about the future? We begin with practices of rest, lament and remembering, alone and in community.
In “God and the Pandemic,” N.T. Wright writes that “fresh action” must follow our lament, that God’s kingdom is emerging through the “creative, healing, restorative work” of humankind.
“He sends in the poor in Spirit, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the hungry-for-justice people. They are the way God wants to act in his world.”
Wright goes on to suggest three questions these Jesus followers will answer: “What needs to be done here? Who is most at risk? How can we help?”
These seem like good questions for church leaders to ponder in their contexts, as a way to stay true to who and where they are while also waiting for an uncertain future with energy and wonder.
They also gesture toward some of the characteristics researchers with Faith Communities Today have seen consistently in “spiritually vital and growing communities” — strong leadership, a clear mission, a spirit of innovation and openness to change, active engagement in the local community, significant lay involvement.
“In the midst of all the unsettledness,” the author writes, “now is the ideal moment to sustain the efforts toward innovation.”
Which got me thinking about Mary and her bold “yes” to a transforming and uncertain future. As pastor Isaac S. Villegas writes in The Other Journal, we are all like Mary: “Mary surrenders control; she welcomes the mysterious workings of God. She embraces God’s plan for the world, even though she doesn’t know how it will turn out. It’s a risk. And she says yes to God.”
We don’t have to know what the future of the church will hold. We don’t have to like waiting or uncertainty or change. We can be tired and annoyed about it.
But Jesus is coming anyway. Something new is birthing in the church.
It will be worth the wait.
If you have ever doubted that miracles can happen, consider this: I fell in love again with my congregation because of a church committee.
Last year, in fairly quick succession, both priests left my parish to pursue other calls. Under the double challenge of a pandemic and a discernment process about our property, endowment and mission, this felt like a gut punch.
Parishioners, some already disengaged from disembodied online worship and formation programs, felt shocked, abandoned, spiritually bereft and even angry.
In the midst of this communal ennui in late 2020, I was appointed to the rector search committee as a member of the vestry, the congregation’s governing board. While eager to advocate for my own vision for our leadership, I was steeling myself for the impatience I sometimes experience with the plodding, secular feel of church committees.
But this ministry surprised me.
Over the eight months we met weekly (and then some), we did many of the things church committees typically do. We prayed, studied, discussed, trained, questioned, planned, designed, facilitated, hosted, updated a website, took meeting minutes and wrote reports.
Our group, nine adults and one youth, was guided by a diocesan process we adapted to our parish and the realities of COVID — which meant nearly everything we did was mediated by Zoom.
What distinguished this committee was a palpable sense of hope, genuine affection for one another, and an understanding of the holy responsibility of doing God’s work together. This ministry was heavy and yet light, because we trusted one another and shared the load. But these characteristics did not emerge overnight. As happens with formation, they manifested slowly with practice and with God’s help.
While this experience was particular to this moment and my context, some of the generative practices of our search process are replicable even in seasons of stable leadership.
What better time — as some churches return to in-person worship, anticipate a new program year and wonder about church life post-pandemic — to discern why we choose to live life in community with God and one another and to wonder where God is leading us next?
Center conversations in the movement of the Spirit.
In my experience, some church committee meetings can feel an awful lot like meetings in other sectors. We may sandwich our discussions between prayers, but the meat of the conversation is more about our own opinions or weighing pros and cons than about God’s mission, our relationships with Christ, or how the Spirit is working right now.
One of our committee’s first tasks was to write a collect together.
Developing shared language from the outset and repeating this prayer over many months formed us to engage a process of discernment rather than decision making — aligning our desires with God’s rather than simply meeting our own goals. This prayer helped get us on the same page about our church’s mission, situate our work within our baptisms, and invite the whole parish into the process.
Remember what you love.
One of the candidates we interviewed asked us, “What do you love about this place?” What a good question.
Church life can be aggravating, with its debates about pew cushions or carpet color. We wish the sermons were shorter or longer. We may not agree with the hymn selections or budget priorities. And church can become so familiar that we forget why we showed up and decided to hang around in the first place.
This question invites us to engage church emotionally, not just intellectually. With renewed affection, we remember how the floor creaks, why the same casseroles are always served at fellowship dinners, the predictable jokes about stewardship season.
We remember the saints who departed too soon, the dedicated volunteers who sustain ministries, the young people we have watched grow up. We remember those times we felt nurtured, delighted and purposeful.
Might this question serve as an icebreaker to a routine meeting? Might we answer it when welcoming newcomers? Might we incorporate it into our daily devotions, thanking God for the gift of the church we call home and inviting us into deeper service to its thriving?
Listen, really listen, to one another’s stories.
A centerpiece of our search process was a parish survey and six listening sessions. More than 100 parishioners — including almost 20 youth — showed up on Zoom to share their stories. Some of these parishioners, who spoke passionately and sometimes tearfully, had not been attending worship but were willing to share their histories, hurts and hopes.
The conversations centered on four prompts:
- How would you describe our church’s mission and values?
- Remember a high point, when we were doing God’s work and fulfilling our mission. What was happening?
- Remember when you most appreciated the ministry of a priest. How was your well-being nurtured and supported?
- Using single words or short phrases, name three strengths of our congregation.
Storytelling, with its power to create healing and hope, is needed more than ever after more than a year of isolation and distancing. The fellowship that sustains us during periods of transition or conflict is nurtured when we stop to ask one another meaningful questions and allow ourselves to be shaped by what we hear.
We concluded our first-round screening interviews by asking candidates what questions they wanted to ask us. One of the candidates posed three questions we returned to later in our discernment process: What was God dreaming when this church was founded? Where has God’s hand been since then? What is God dreaming now?
Imagine what might happen if we considered these questions while preparing our annual budget or hiring staff. Instead of trying to get everything “back to normal” following the pandemic, we might stop and reflect on how COVID has created opportunities to be bold and try something new.
The search committee was not just making a hire but discerning a mutual call. Reviewing resumes and checking tasks off our to-do list was not sufficient to envision building beloved community together. We needed to pause to see ourselves woven into God’s story of salvation — past, present and future.
Make space for individual and communal vocations.
We often enter committee assignments with a point of view we want heard. Effective, collaborative committee work requires that we create brave space for individuals to share their identities and calls — and then knit those together.
Our search committee had difficult conversations. We disagreed. We named our worries. We each authentically showed up. And in the end, we arrived at a moment of clarity, unity and joy.
We announced our new rector at the end of July. And for the first time I can remember, I felt genuinely sad that the work of a church committee was ending. For so many months, it was church for me.
When my son was in first grade, he joined the chorus at his public magnet school for performing and visual arts. He was a reluctant singer, not a fan of being the center of attention, so I beamed and teared up when he and dozens of other children joyfully belted out “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “(Something Inside) So Strong” and “It’s a New Day.”
I was proud of me, too.
Every day, I drove past the mostly white neighborhood elementary to drop off my white son at a school with as many Black and brown children as white children. I privately sneered at other white parents I knew who opted for much less diverse private or charter schools while my white son was singing songs, coached by three extraordinary Black female teachers, that demanded liberation, decried oppression and celebrated the election of President Barack Obama.
This scene could have been plucked from the New York Times podcast “Nice White Parents,” which traces the outsize influence of white parents on one school building in Brooklyn, I.S. 293.
Like some of the white parents featured in the podcast, I thought during my son’s early elementary years that mixing a diverse group of students in one school was the goal. If I could just be a nice white parent who said the right things and endeavored to raise a nice white son who valued all people, I was doing enough for diversity and equality. I clearly remember gazing at those beautiful children onstage and thinking, in a self-satisfied way, “This is what the kingdom of God looks like.”
But is it?
Does God prize a tidy vision of unity over justice? A pretty picture of reconciliation over liberation for all of God’s people from oppressive systems? A community whose primary demand on me is showing up to take pictures from the front row over one that asks me to acknowledge my privilege and use my power to love all those children as much as my own?
As “Nice White Parents” host Chana Joffe-Walt reports, Brooklyn school administrators are trying to help white parents see something I also needed to see those years ago: “Their mere presence in the school does not make it integrated. They have to work at making this place fair.”
Sociologist Margaret A. Hagerman, who studies how white children learn about race and racism, sounds the same message when she notes that many white parents focus on how to talk about race and manage individual children’s behaviors without questioning structures that benefit them.
Talking isn’t bad; it’s just wildly insufficient to address the socially constructed system of racialized oppression that privileges whiteness. Instead, she writes in San Antonio Review, white parents committed to anti-racism must focus on aligning their actions with their values and “make different decisions that prioritize the common good.” And doing that, becoming more than not racist, requires a regular, honest and humble reckoning with our identity, our history, our relationships and our world.
The church has a path for such reorientation, alignment and decision making. It begins with baptism.
In “Desiring the Kingdom,” James K.A. Smith writes that baptism creates a new “social and political reality,” a “baptismal city” where privilege of all kinds is erased, family is reconstituted to include all of God’s children, and all evil, injustice and oppression is actively resisted: “Our baptism signals that we are new creatures, with new desires, a new passion for a very different kingdom; thus we renounce (and keep renouncing) our former desires.”
Baptism is the beginning of a lifelong process, Smith writes, to learn to love what God loves and actively and intentionally join in the collaborative project to build a community animated by justice, peace and dignity for all.
But for many churches, our approach to baptism is insufficient to inaugurate such a radical reordering of our hearts, minds and lives. What would it take for white Christians to participate in founding a baptismal city?
We could start by “troubling the waters,” renewing the ancient ritual of baptism, the Rev. Dr. Brad R. Braxton writes in the “T&T Clark Handbook of African American Theology.” Baptism must engage our present reality, he says, acknowledging our culture’s violence and sickness and economic inequity and oppression of Black bodies.
How different would our practice of baptism be if, as Braxton suggests, it focused more on Jesus’ gruesome death that we join as we sink under the water? How different would our practice of baptism be if we focused less on the “cleansing of our souls from sin” and more on the “marking of our bodies for struggle”? How different would our practice of baptism be if the liturgy affirmed that Black lives matter by naming such martyrs as the Birmingham Four and the nine murdered at Mother Emanuel?
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism, Braxton writes, has such a justice focus. In Matthew 3:13-17, Jesus agrees to be baptized by John “to fulfill all righteousness” (NRSV). That purpose is both personal and political, Braxton says, demonstrating Jesus’ participation in God’s mission to fight oppression.
Baptismal services that maintain a fidelity to Jesus’ baptism must, then, be much less polite and much more political, Braxton says: “Baptism is vacuous if it morphs into a genteel moment to acknowledge godparents, provide a gilt-edged baptism certificate with filigree font, and share an after-church baptism brunch for family and friends at an upscale restaurant.”
That sentence takes my breath away. As well it should.
In baptism, we die. In baptism, we are invited to renounce and resist the evils of the world, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to respect the dignity of every human being. In baptism, we give our bodies and all that we do to God’s struggle for justice and peace for all people.
Depending on our context, such action could look like reflection and education on racism, white supremacy, and implicit bias; donating money; marching; writing government officials; voting; challenging family and friends who make racist remarks; advocating for those whose voices are typically ignored; and constructing our daily lives to listen to and learn from people of color. Seeking and serving Christ in all people like this requires ongoing formation, repentance and returning to God.
That is what we promise we will do in our baptism. But is it what we practice? Or are we instead becoming and raising nice white Christians?