I had a visit recently with a friend who is also my colleague. We talked about our families, our summers, our Covid-19 scares. And then we talked about our churches. She wanted to know about my parish’s attendance and finances. In my response, I noted some of the resilience of my congregation. This included the astonishing way that they had continued and even expanded our feeding ministries through Covid-19, as well as their staunch and faithful support of other outreach initiatives.
My friend wanted to know about my parish’s attendance and finances.
“But… attendance is nothing like it used to be,” I shared. There has been a particular sadness in observing the attrition of young families in our congregation, not to mention the loss of so many faithful people through death and infirmity. Two and a half years after the start of the pandemic, our congregation has been viscerally and visibly impacted by this supreme disruption to our communal patterns.
“Oh thank goodness,” my friend replied in response, “I thought it was just me.”
She immediately apologized for her reaction, but she needn’t have. She was naming something true and important, and something that all of us in ministry need to work conscientiously at challenging for one another.
The weight of ministry success sits heavily on our shoulders. We don’t always notice how heavy this is, particularly when things are going well and we are heaped with praise for our congregational development prowess.
I’ve had certain successes in ministry and enjoyed full and modestly growing congregations. I could not have realized how hard it is to assume the responsibility for that until it goes away. I was praised when things went right, so surely I am to blame when things aren’t so rosy. When my friend said, “I thought it was just me,” she meant that she had initially wondered if it were only her congregation experiencing these things. Even more tellingly though, and at the heart of her words, was the worry that haunts so many church leaders in the core of our being: that the difficulties our churches experience are our fault.
I was praised when things went right, so surely I am to blame when things aren’t so rosy.
In some sense, Covid-19 has revealed the lie of individual power. We watched the whole fabric of society fall apart. The most basic things—like being able to gather to practice our religion in peace—felt suddenly taken away from us. It felt that no matter the regulations put in place or the faithfulness with which we followed them, the sweep of Covid-19 across our world couldn’t be stopped; it could only be slowed.
All of us—no matter who we are, how hard we work, or what great ideas we have—are now finding ourselves in a vastly altered landscape in which to build faith communities. It’s also an altered landscape for things like restaurants, retail, schools, travel, tourism and network television. Everything about how we consume goods and services, what brings us together and motivates us to act, has changed.
In some sense, Covid-19 has revealed the lie of individual power.
Also, it was changing anyway. We’ve been talking about this for decades in the church. We’ve also been talking about it in print media, community bands, social clubs and the scouting movement. People don’t join and commit the way they used to. A generation that has been exceedingly generous in their offerings of time and money to our various organizations, not to mention that has had entrenched consumer habits, is passing away. We have woken from the Covid-19 slumber to find ourselves toppling over a demographic cliff that had been looming in the distance for a long time—yet the reality of our freefall still feels surprising. We will look back on the year 2022 and the global marker of Queen Elizabeth II’s death, and we will appropriately name this as the end of an era.
Into this unsettled world, our church in Niagara [Ontario, Canada] recently ordained four new priests. We celebrated their ordination at our cathedral this past weekend, and the gathering was an interesting (if not slightly eerie) mix of the familiar and the chaotic. It was the first such diocesan gathering without masking mandates and capacity limits. The moment where the college of presbyters comes forward to join in laying hands on the ordinand, participating in making visible the power of the Holy Spirit, was electrifying. We need her powerful direction and burning energy now more than ever.
All across our church, morale is so low and stress is so high as we look at tatters of church attendance and budgets—and really, we just don’t exactly know how to measure congregational health apart from these two things.
Restructuring and rethinking the life of the church is so clearly needed.
There is palpable fear about even naming this new reality, let alone figuring out what to do about it. Restructuring and rethinking the life of the church is so clearly needed. The responsibility that parish priests and leaders feel is representative of the personal nature of our faith communities, along with our attachment to our buildings, our ways, our people, and our place.
Surely as we emerge out of Covid-19, we don’t want anything other than the familiar and the comforting. In our leadership, in our congregations, exhaustion is palpable.
The helpful thing about ending eras, unsettled times, and sky-high stress is that we have to get real about hope. It’s not just that I am a priest of the church, it’s also that I want to be a priest of the church. My hope in continuing on, and welcoming new priestly colleagues to continue on with me, starts with honesty. My friend and I needed to share what we are seeing and feeling. All across our patios and cafes and phone lines, these quiet conversations are taking place about what is in tatters and the weight of responsibility we feel about that. Anywhere that we can drop our guards and help one another toward that healing realization that “it’s not just me,” is a holy and helpful place to start. We need to have these conversations more widely, and it needs to be okay to be hurting.
We have to get real about hope.
When we’re honest, we can start to see things more clearly. Sometimes in naming how alone we feel in the burdens and responsibilities we have come to carry, we can begin to open our eyes to just how much of that heaviness was never supposed to be about us at all. In the last few weeks, it has been another colleague, Mike Degan, who works with me at St. George’s, who has put words to the things that I most need to remember, to the truths that feel strong enough to hold this shaky ground on which we all stand.
The first truth is this: so many of the feeding programs and social justice initiatives across our society are founded on the religious principle that a better world is possible. As Christians, we see that vision for a better world manifested in Jesus, in the healing and bread he offered and in his insistence that God’s will is for a world where all are fed and all are valued. Ultimately this vision is baked into the DNA of our churches, and is realized through our churches in ministries that do untold amounts of good in holding together the fabric of society. We insist that our lives of prayer and worship are not just for ourselves, but are meant to draw us to the love of a God whose love must be lived out in our care and respect for our neighbor. I feel powerless a lot of the time lately, but that reminder gets me out of bed in the morning. I, too, have seen how the kingdom of God has drawn near, and it is beautiful enough to devote my life to — again and again. A better world is possible, and God has given me a few meager, but not insignificant, offerings that can contribute in some small way to how that gets made visible. God has also given me the witness of countless others who have caught that glimpse, too, who make their humble offerings as well.
I, too, have seen how the kingdom of God has drawn near, and it is beautiful enough to devote my life to — again and again.
Here is the other truth: our gatherings and even our church buildings stand as testament to something. That something is not that a bunch of people keep getting out of bed in the morning in order to make the world a better place. That something is that God raised the dead; God is raising the dead. In Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, God revealed this vision for a better world. More importantly, God revealed life and love so powerful that death doesn’t get the last word.
God revealed an intimate devotion to mending the broken places of our lives, faithfully reaching across the chasms of pain and death that seem to defeat us. God did so in order to hold and heal and raise us from the dead, dark places of our lives, and to promise that those dead and dark places aren’t the end. This gets me out of bed in the morning, too. It’s not my personal power which propels me forward—it’s my experience of being lost and broken and found and loved.
God did so in order to hold and heal and raise us from the dead, dark places of our lives, and to promise that those dead and dark places aren’t the end.
The life of faith is a nuanced combination of empowerment and humility. Jesus insisted on our hearing voices from both the centers of power and the margins of society. Jesus no doubt values my voice, and equips me in the choices I have to make. But what is critical is that as a follower of Jesus, I get to keep discovering how little anything is “just about me” at all.
In that truth I am united with something greater than myself.
I get to be attentive to God’s power, not my own.
I get to be honest and unguarded;
I get to grieve and I get to hurt;
I lead in the midst of my people’s grief;
I hurt for all that is different, changing or passing away.
And I get to do so knowing that it’s not up to me to fix that.
I get to name hard truths and be part of how we remind each other that we’re not alone and we’re in this together.
And with the grace of God, and the gift of honest friendship, I think that—together—we can get out of bed in the morning with hope for the new day that is dawning.
This essay originally appeared on Martha Tatarnic’s Medium page and her personal blog. These ideas are explored in more depth in her new book, Why Gather? The Hope and Promise of the Church.
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Ruth Marie Johnston says
The current “correction” (and I hope that’s what it is) may be the gift of these times. The Spirit’s intervention comes through small personal acts more often than sweeping gestures. It seems people feel it is not enough any more to sit weekly in pews alongside others they don’t really know. There is a hunger not for top leadership, but for vulnerable, loving, mutual community. The pandemic taught us how very much we need each other.
I would like to see leaders in every sector strip off what is bloated, including an overweening sense of power and personal responsibility, and get back to the essence of their role and the legitimate work before them. Many sectors are struggling right now including healthcare, which is my own field of work. Thank you for this thoughtful, reflective, and honest essay. Even needed change rarely comes without pain. We are all feeling it right now.
Collegeville Institute says
This is very profound, Ruth: “There is a hunger not for top leadership, but for vulnerable, loving, mutual community. The pandemic taught us how very much we need each other.”
Thank you for this response.
Susan Sink (editor)