As chaplain in a volunteer fire department, I accompanied survivors wandering through the wreckage of fires, picking up pieces of the past and pondering next steps. I think of those moments as we move beyond lockdowns and start charting the future.
Many are assessing the damage to health, careers, families, neighbors and institutions. Some continue to feel the initial shock of loss. Some are moving through the debris looking for treasures to salvage and recalling what came before. Others recognize that they never had a place in what was lost and hope that whatever comes next will be different.
Those with energy are ready to make decisions about the future. They are considering the condition of structures and processes that are still standing. Some are deciding to raze everything and start from scratch. Others are looking at the insurance money and any other resources they have to determine what seems possible and practical.
In the case of a home that burned, at some point the family asks, “What sort of life do we aspire to live in this place?” They consider both their present circumstances and their hopes for the future.
Some are determined to replicate what has been lost. Almost all want to make improvements. A few want something very different — a new place with new neighbors. But most feel pressured to decide what is next before they feel ready.
What have we learned in these last two years about our lives, our neighbors and our world? What is our vision for the future? What do we rebuild, and why that thing? How have we been changed by seeing injustices that we had previously ignored or accepted as facts of life? What will we do differently? Can we take the time to decide?
More than a decade ago, I facilitated a visioning and planning process for an affluent white congregation that had a reputation for generosity in missions and a vision for justice. In the process, the congregation looked closely at its immediate community and realized that they had focused their attention on the major thoroughfare and the connected neighborhoods that their building faced. They had completely blocked out the neighbors behind their building, who had socioeconomic situations and racial and ethnic identities very different from those of the neighbors on the thoroughfare.
In discussions, the congregation decided to open itself to the neighbors in the back. The fence and bushes that shut out those neighbors were removed. This had an immediate impact, because it cleared a pathway for the neighbors to reach a bus stop in front of the church property. The congregation looked to cultivate relationships with both the neighbors and those the neighbors trusted.
The visioning process was complete and the fence down when the church sanctuary burned. The education and recreation facilities were spared, but the sanctuary was gone. In the next years, the congregation decided to build a new sanctuary that looked similar to the previous one but was oriented in a different direction. The new front doors would face the side yard and parking lot. Church members would no longer enter and leave worship looking at the thoroughfare.
They would see all their neighbors and be reminded at each service of their place in between.
What have the viral and racial pandemics exposed that you need to acknowledge in the rebuilding of your congregation or organization? What neighbors have you now seen? With whom are you joining forces? What public policy have you challenged that needs further revision?
This is a moment when we can examine fundamental assumptions. For congregations, this can be as basic as considering how we measure effectiveness.
For generations, congregations have gauged their vitality by average worship attendance. In the 20th century, this was an elegant measure that told insiders and outsiders much about the dynamics of a congregation, from the number of staff to hire to the size of facilities needed. Those who attended were the most likely to give money, serve on committees and attend Bible study.
COVID-19 made average attendance worthless as both a measure of vitality and a sign of faithfulness. If we need to measure effectiveness now, we need something else.
Recently, Reginald Blount invited me to consider how to measure the impact of Christian discipleship on the world. How could we measure social impact from Christian witness? How might that measure help us figure out what to rebuild and where?
Surveys by the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations project at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research indicate — and even the casual observer knows — that many congregations made redesigning worship their highest priority during the COVID-19 lockdowns. For example, congregations figured out how to do outdoor and virtual services. The second priority for many congregations was what sociologists call social outreach — meeting human needs for food, clothing, shelter and more.
In the 20th century, congregations saw worship as the gateway to deeper involvement in their activities. The implication was that the number of times people came to the church building was the mark of their engagement as Christians.
But what might happen if we saw worship as the occasion of focusing on God, from which flowed an invitation to engage our neighbors? Instead of rebuilding programs to attend, congregations might address the working conditions in the community. Instead of planning a building for the members to gather, congregations might re-envision the property as a staging area for life-giving resources or quality working conditions.
If we need examples of this life, we can look to the stories of many Black congregations. I recently visited the Bethel AME Church of Morristown, New Jersey. Their building is a place of worship and home to a feeding ministry that extends throughout the county.
This relatively small church is the catalyst for collaboration among multiple organizations and individuals. The number of people participating in the feeding ministry on a weekly basis far exceeds the number attending the congregation’s worship. By engaging in ministry, the people see with new eyes.
In rebuilding, perhaps we should start with why we are rebuilding and who is at the center of our rebuilding. If God’s love for the world is our why, then our neighbors can be our who. If so, what we rebuild might have renewed purpose and profound impact on the world.
They would see all their neighbors and be reminded at each service of their place in between.
“When we return, we will all be newcomers.”
It was just a casual observation, but as soon as she said it, the nods of affirmation and recognition in every Zoom rectangle made it clear that she had put words to what we were all describing but could not quite name.
Of course! We will all be newcomers, again.
As church and office buildings begin to reopen in larger numbers after a year of on-again, off-again COVID-19 closures, our habits in these once-familiar physical spaces have been broken.
What was instinctive and comfortable in March 2020 is now, for many of us, just outside the realm of memory. How did we share life in these spaces? How did we get work done here?
Even with a widespread yearning for a return to normalcy, we may find that our familiar places now feel somewhat foreign. Ongoing and necessary health and safety precautions will change the ways we interact in these spaces.
Office doors that a year ago were usually left open to invite casual conversation may now be closed so that we can work without having to wear masks all day (for those of us who have that privilege).
There will no longer be a communal coffeepot, no impromptu lunch around the table in the office kitchen. Meetings will still be on Teams even though we’re all in our offices just a few feet apart.
On Sunday mornings, social distancing may mean that our usual pew can no longer be “our pew” because it’s now reserved to be the buffered distance between us. Some of us may find ourselves distributing individually wrapped, carefully sealed communion wafers to the faithful kneeling 6 feet apart at the altar rail.
It’s not only that our past habits have been broken; in some cases, our very ways of being in spaces together may no longer be advisable or possible. We will have to create new ways of being community together. How did she say it?
“We will all be newcomers.”
There’s also a deeper distancing that has occurred over the last year in our churches and office buildings. We may now be strangers not just to physical spaces but also to those with whom we previously shared those spaces. So much life happens in a year, even in a year of pandemic lockdown.
While congregations and organizations have tried to sustain community in difficult circumstances, there are still so many stories, so many experiences that we did not share with each other in real time. There’s been grief and joy that simply went unspoken.
The poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes, “When someone you haven’t seen in ten years / appears at the door, / don’t start singing him all your new songs. / You will never catch up.”
If she were to write it today, we can imagine her saying, “When someone you haven’t seen except by Zoom / appears at the door …”
While it is tempting to agree that catching up will be virtually impossible (pun intended), one of the particular gifts of religious communities is that most of us do some of our most intentional ministry with newcomers.
In this moment after we have missed so many other moments, we will need the best of what we know from that to help us find a way of being back together.
For example, we have cultivated practices for welcoming one another and inviting one another to share in something larger than ourselves — the mission of the church in the world.
At our best, we know how to listen for, celebrate and receive the gifts of each new person.
We know how to help each other share our stories of heartbreak and hope and, in each telling, find new layers of meaning.
We know how to invite people into service in the world that is good for the world and deeply fulfilling for them personally.
We will need all those capacities and all that experience to help us be, and become more than, newcomers together.
She said it so casually, so clearly: “When we return, we will all be newcomers.”
In eight words, she named the truth that reopening our buildings was never going to be as simple as unlocking the doors or turning on the lights, roping off a few pews or putting out hand sanitizer — not that those things are all that simple.
Reopening our buildings, resuming life together, is an emotional and spiritual challenge. In the language of Ron Heifetz, it isn’t just a technical challenge but an adaptive one too.
It is good news for us that congregations know how to be in those spaces with faith, hope and love. Now as ever, the world needs all three.
Words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians have been on my mind lately. Most days and evenings, my husband and I, along with our two working-from-home sons, move from Zoom to Zoom.
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12).
The truth is, I lean into the screen and see only dimly. Yes, I love seeing dear faces, but I long for the days when we will meet in person as colleagues, church, family and friends. Then we will all be more fully known.
Meanwhile, I am resigning myself to Zooming for the long haul.
If we must Zoom, how do we do it well and graciously? As someone who loves to think about in-person hospitality, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions lately about what good online hospitality looks like.
While I’m still in beginner’s mind, I’ve noticed that good online hospitality is not magic. Nor is there one single formula for success. And while doing our technical best for any online gathering is an important sign of respect for our audiences — an important part of hospitality — technology is not the heart of hospitality. You don’t need a computer science degree or fancy equipment to provide it well.
Instead, online hospitality is the dedicated effort to create the same ethos as in-person hospitality — but in a new land. For Christian hospitality to work — in person or online — it needs to be grounded in setting a place for God, paying attention, honoring participants and expecting transformation.
First, warmly welcoming participants to a Zoom gathering reflects that the love of God is present. Three tiny ants crawled out of the crevices of my son’s laptop the other day. Where ants can go, my guess is the Holy Spirit can go as well! God is with us, even in virtual settings.
Though not the same as the gathered-in-the-same-room body of Christ, the gathered-over-Zoom body can still experience an embodied welcome through the host’s facial expressions, laughter and gestures. You don’t want participants to mistake your expressionless face for a frozen screen.
As a virtual host, be clear about what will occur in the meeting, how participants can access what they need, and who will help them with technical glitches. This information, set out at the start, helps participants feel safe and cared for, and less anxious about their technical skills.
Consider offering social time 15 minutes before your meeting starts. The energy and warmth generated by this experience of informal chatter and fellowship will set the mood for the meeting that follows.
I watched a worship service last week where different segments were set in the homes of various pastors on the church’s staff. Each had carefully set the stage behind him or her — a vase of flowers next to a cross, a special cloth laid carefully on a small table, a set of candles beside a bowl of water. These details conveyed hospitality; they expressed a personal welcome that said, “You are in my home, and this too is sacred space!”
Second, good hospitality is about paying attention. How are others experiencing the format? One participant in a church formation group stopped coming because she saw only couples in each Zoom box and it reminded her painfully that she was the only “singles” face in a box. She had to see her singleness the entire time. How might you change her experience?
Pay attention to power dynamics and ways to flatten that curve. For those whom society has often silenced, how might it feel to know that the host can mute you? The chat function helps mitigate this by giving everyone an always-open avenue of expression. The host can also invite everyone to speak and make sure that no one voice is dominating. Even if you’re good at this in person, facilitating over Zoom takes practice.
Likewise, after you’ve placed participants in a breakout room, don’t automatically cut them off after the designated time. Instead, as host, visit each room and remind participants of the time limits or send a group message. This is more hospitable and more like what a host would do if participants were in a room together physically.
Pay attention to the ways in which tangible elements can unify us and bridge the gap of physical absence. One of my colleagues sent a piece of cloth in the mail to each participant so that everyone’s laptop would be resting on the same fabric. Similarly, you might have everyone light a candle for worship or as a symbol of a unified space. Each person could share a personal object and describe why it is meaningful. Even a bark from a neighborly dog in the background can root us to reality and be grounding and humanizing in a virtual world.
Third, good online hospitality honors participants. For longer Zoom events, consider sending a gift box ahead of time, with nice paper for note taking, a coffee mug, a bag of trail mix or some other small gift. The boxes need not be expensive; rather, they are a signal that you honor the participants and recognize that life and gatherings are more difficult for everyone these days. A pastor friend of mine drives through her town and places bags of pre-Zoom activities on the front porches of her congregation’s youth.
A sense of timing is also important for honoring bodies in virtual gatherings. We can’t simply roll over onto Zoom what we would normally do in a room. Zooming all day is exhausting. Zooming for half the day is exhausting. Keep whatever you do as short as possible and add stretch breaks, polls, screen-sharing times, music, play breaks, small groups or silence. Teach people to do the wave!
Set up trust with your audience. Those with social anxieties have a double burden to bear in these times. Honor all participants though your kindness and patience, especially those who may need to step away from being looked at for the entire meeting. Be kind as internet connections go out, cats jump onto shoulders, and children decide they need mom or dad NOW.
Finally, good online hospitality affirms that whenever and wherever God is welcomed in, God provides transformation. God’s work is still being accomplished even with so many of us confined at home.
For example, I’ve discovered that online meetings in a quarantine provide the blessing of multiplied hospitality — the hospitality of the host and that of all the households into which we are welcomed. As host, you may receive joy and blessing through all the other hosts who welcome you into their homes for the hour. Let them describe the history of the quilt on the chair, that plaque on the wall or the garden shed into which they are scrunched, seeking quiet space!
Online meetings are here to stay. Post-pandemic, we’ll continue to have options to work at home, because it’s cost-effective. We’ll continue to have online church committee meetings, because attendance is up. We’ll continue to meet as friends on Zoom, because some are unable to drive, travel or be away from home. So we might as well get it right.
Meeting virtually can be more than “see[ing] in a mirror, dimly,” if we offer good online hospitality and understand it as sacred space.
Duke Divinity School professor Kate Bowler called me to talk through a critical direction-setting choice she faced. A few months before, she had chosen to fight for her life by aggressively treating stage 4 cancer. She wrote her story, later published in the New York Times, to explore what had happened and what it meant. On this day, a publisher had offered to publish her memoir as an “airport book.”
She knew what this offer meant.
The publisher thought her book could be a best-seller. Sharing her story could help many people by offering hope and a picture of faith in Christ. But to write this book and manage her growing public presence would take enormous time and effort — time away from her research, her scholarly writing, her teaching, her family. And she was still sick, dealing daily with doctors and treatments.
Kate was pivoting.
She had a foot firmly planted in God, in her family and friends, and in her vocation. She was very clear about where she stood. But she wasn’t sure whether she should turn from the classroom to mainstream media.
With “Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved” now a New York Times best-seller, and her podcast, “Everything Happens,” cracking the top 100 podcasts on iTunes in February, it is clear that Kate made excellent choices in her pivot.
On the day we talked, Kate had a vision for what could be. She was pivoting into a world that she had carefully researched as a historian of the prosperity gospel movement. She knew that it would take time and sacrifice — but she didn’t know how much, and she didn’t know how much help, or what kind, she would need to succeed. She had no guarantee that this pivot would work.
In a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA), leaders must constantly figure out how and when to pivot — to shift direction. Each person faces such pivots in his or her career. Each project, department and organization faces pivots. It is exhausting to consider so many moves. The future beyond each pivot is not more certain for us than for Kate. I recently explained to colleagues at Leadership Education about the latest shift in our strategy. The looks I got signaled exhaustion, their eyes silently saying, “Not again.”
How can you build up your capacity to determine how and when to pivot?
- Know yourself. What are your strengths and growing edges? What is your tolerance for risk and your level of energy? What do you have faith in? What is true and right? Answering these questions illuminates where you stand, your place to plant your foot.
- Know those you serve. What are the dreams, desires, needs and requirements of those you serve? What will help them?
- Evaluate your impact. What difference do you want to make? Is your current work making a difference? As the audience changes, what adjustment (if any) is needed to make an impact? Is that shift consistent with who you are?
- Decide how much to invest. Pivoting requires more trial and error than staying the course. How much time and energy will you give to a specific direction? New opportunities emerge constantly. How much attention can you pay to them?
Every organizational pivot involves hundreds of personal pivots. Leaders who pivot are asking many others to join the move. Changing behavior is never easy. An organizational pivot can mean learning new skills, paying attention to a different audience or different element of the audience, and risking failure.
One of the ministries I oversee has made three major pivots in the last five years as we’ve sought to make a significant impact in a financially sustainable way. Each pivot has led to new learning, deeper engagement and more impact. Unfortunately, none of these pivots has led to financial sustainability. Now, faced with the possibility of yet another pivot, we are wondering whether we have the energy — and whether this one will work.
It requires so much energy to figure out the next move that I often make the mistake of taking the planted foot for granted. I talk with people about whom we should serve and what can be different, but my conversation partners often don’t realize what’s stable and what grounds us. Maybe it would be helpful to give my colleagues a whistle and empower them to call a foul whenever I talk about what is changing without also clearly affirming the foot that remains planted in our mission and values.
Working with Kate is a regular reminder about what is at stake in considering a pivot. Every decision Kate makes has life-and-death implications. I have yet to see her lose sight of either foot. She has a clear sense of what is important and what she is willing to change. I hope to be that thoughtful whenever I have the chance to pivot.