By Tim Smith
Before the COVID-19 pandemic grounded most of us, I took a flight from Dallas to California. Storms had been rolling through Dallas overnight and continued into the morning. After I boarded, the captain came on the speaker to let everyone know it was going to be a very bumpy flight. And boy was it! The fasten seatbelt sign came on and it never went off. When that sign comes on during a flight we are not sure what to expect. It could be a little turbulence or so much of it that we want to pull out that little bag in the seatback pocket in front of us. All we want in the midst of turbulence is for it to be over.
Right now, we are living in uncertain and stressful times. It is as if the fasten seatbelt sign has come on for almost everyone. We are hoping the turbulence or disruption we are experiencing ends soon so our lives can return to normal. However, disruption does not always work that way. When major disruptive events happen (e.g., the Great Depression, World War II, 9/11) life never really goes back to the normal we knew before. Things change. We change. When we are in the midst of disruptive times we need to consider two questions: “What impact will it have on our lives, our communities and our churches?” and “How we will alter the way we do things – right now – so we can thrive in new circumstances?”
Mike Ramsdale, a leader in the Central Texas Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, recently sent a summary of a sobering, but ultimately hopeful article by Andy Crouch, Kurt Keilhacker, and Dave Blanchard entitled “Leading Beyond the Blizzard” (a podcast is included – I highly commend both). They maintain COVID-19 is not something for pastors, leaders and churches to just get through for a few days or weeks. Instead, they argue it is an economic and cultural blizzard on the front end of a “Little Ice Age.” In other words, it is likely to affect our culture, our economy, and our churches for years.
Unfortunately, many churches and businesses will not survive this “Little Ice Age,” and for those that do, Crouch, Keilhacker, and Blanchard say they are “effectively out of business” because the underlying assumptions that sustained them are being radically altered. So, our priority, as disconcerting as it may be, is to set aside confidence in our current “playbook” as quickly as possible and write a new one that honors our missions and builds on our churches’ assets: our people and the time, talents, and gifts they offer.
This is a time of great disruption that will force us to re-imagine who we are, what we will be about, and how we will minister to the people in our communities. As hard as it is to do in the midst of a tragedy, we need to: (1) carefully consider our churches in light of our mission contexts; (2) pray, and then (3) discern how God wants us to change so we are faithful witnesses in radically altered environments. As Christians, we have always believed times of suffering and hardship are often essential to seeing new visions, but we must be alert and open to them.
What is needed now in our leaders are two things: visioning and shepherding. As much as we might want things to go back to the way things were, they probably will not. It is very likely we will have to adjust to a “new normal.” Crouch, Keilhacker and Blanchard believe the COVID-19 blizzard presages a mini-Ice Age that will last between 12-18 months. And yet the reality is no community is better equipped to deal with disruption, loss, and new possibilities than the Church. Our faith provides us comfort in the midst of loss and an assurance that nothing will thwart God’s plan. We know God is always looking to do a new thing and can work even in the midst of a tragedy to accomplish His will. But let us also be clear, what we are talking about are not small adjustments but radical innovations, far beyond doing church online. The new normal is likely to demand painful and difficult decisions.
Already, social scientists are studying other countries who are on the other side of the COVID-19 curve to see how people are reacting and how their attitudes have changed their perceptions and their actions. Research will give us some small insight as to what lies ahead, but the reality is we will not know what the new normal is for another 12-24 months. Nevertheless, church leaders must do their best to discern what it will look like rather than simply wait to see what comes to pass.
Our tendency as the church is to shepherd first and look to the future later. We must now learn to live into the future by seeking for and working on a new vision in radically altered circumstances, and continue shepherding our people with warm hearts as they grieve what and whom they have lost. In short, we must help them grab hold of the hope and power of resurrection in the midst of death.
How we react and respond to this crisis will be determined by what we do today! This is a time for the Church to shine, for Jesus to be lifted up and for the world to see what God can do, even in the midst of a pandemic and economic disruption. May we have the faith to begin leaning into the future of our new normal, trusting in God’s gracious and loving hand.
Dr. Tim Smith is the Director of Connecting Ministries and Generosity at Trinity United Methodist Church in Arlington, Texas.