July 21, 2020

Ministering From an Empty Cup: A Survey of Faith Formation Professionals and Volunteers - Part 2

In a world before the pandemic, many of us may have felt that our glass was half full or that our cup runneth over. But for many of us engaged in the ministry of faith formation, it now feels like we are trying to drink from an empty cup while trying to fill up the cups of others. And once we are aware of our cup's emptiness, we can take steps to fill it.

This is the conclusion of a two-part article. The first part described a survey created and sent to faith formation professionals and volunteers asking them to rate their level of functioning. You can read more about how the survey was conducted and the results here.

Continuing the Conversation

In the survey the majority of respondents provided additional written comments. These comments highlight the struggles, the hardships, the blessings and the opportunities that formers of faith are experiencing in their ministries and in a world whose landscapes have dramatically changed over the past few months.

There are three categories of comments based on whether people perceived no change in their functioning, a positive change or a negative change. I have included portions of quotes from respondents to illustrate themes that have emerged. Out of respect for the respondents who shared vulnerable feelings, they will be identified by their initials.

The Unchanged

This is a time that is different than before. But every season is different and each has its own advantages, disadvantages and opportunities. So I am functioning more or less as I usually would.

"The opportunities during COVID are different than before. Zoom, etc. has opened up many avenues, but also excluded some people."
-A. H.

"In my context, both part-time at each a parish and at the diocesan level, there had been varying degrees of transitions happening leading into the pandemic. I gave myself the same rating for each as I am still able to function relatively well given that uncertainty is something I've had to learn to navigate and work in for a few years now…"
-E. W.

The Positive

This is a time of being creative in new ways, tending to old relationships in new ways and creating new ways of connecting people. This energizes me and I feel like I am functioning at a higher level than before.

"….Having to invite a new way of creating...has helped open myself and our community to seeing that showing up and engaging makes it what it is and that has transformed both my college ministry and church community. "
-H. C.

I have a natural skill set for digital formation and evangelism. I very much enjoy it. I think it's challenged me to think outside the box. It has unlocked a new level of creativity. I love building relationships, and this has stretched me to try new things and work with new people. It's also gotten me incredibly close to people I admire that lean in on me for support. I've seen God at work in new ways during this time...
-E. D.

The Negative

It was hard before with the duties and responsibilities of my job or volunteer role plus the other demands of my life. It is even harder now. Because of this my capacity to form others' faith lives is diminished.

I do not have another priest on staff, and an ASA of 300, and 600 folks or so come on by. so pre-pandemic I was struggling to keep my eye on the prize... Now I see it as I have even less time to get (things) done.
-M. M.

...the personal toll of the pandemic makes it difficult to have predictable levels of energy or creativity. ...I have spurts (of) creative thinking, but not as much sustainable energy to execute the plans I dream up.
-J. C.

I would say as a person who had shift home from my office and work along with do(ing) online learning with two kids, it was a lot to keep up with. Also, the work was constantly shifting depending on what was announced about phases in our state. While faith formation work can shift due to environmental influence, over the past 20 years, including active ministry in Washington, DC following 9/11, I have not experienced anything like this. ....It is has been one of the most challenging times I can remember in my career.
-E. G. C.

The Impact of Going Virtual

Especially in negative change comments but also throughout all comments, there was a specific challenge named over and over again. The process of moving from in-person gatherings to virtual meetings. Here are portions of quotes that speak to this challenge:

Going from all in person gatherings to all online activities was very hard. I consider myself fairly computer literate but I was nowhere near prepared for the level that I had to be at to perform on a weekly basis...
-L. W.

….So much of my ministry relies on "reading the room" and adjusting lesson plans/questions based on that. Trying to do that over Zoom is...exhausting.
-E. S.

I do technology to assist churches with their Evangelism. I've been doing more, but with no ability to consult in person, it's frustrating...
-E. L.

I think I work best when I can be in direct, open communication with my colleagues and those for whose formation I am responsible. While technology is a useful tool, I'm finding it doesn't compare to organic, in-person communication, which is making my day-to-day experience quite difficult...
-K. K.

Not having those one on ones with people who can't afford computers or internet has made it very hard to interact with people...
-R. C.

A Ministry Gap Plan

In many ways,the survey results speak to good news and speak to ways in which God is active in peoples' ministries and in the world. Many of the quotes in the unchanged and positive change categories spoke to that reality. The struggles and the hardships of this time were abundantly noted in the negative change comments. What I want to explore more of now is what seems to be true for nearly everyone.

For almost all respondents, there is a gap. There is a missing capacity. The ratings offered were from 0% to 100% and were relative to the person responding and their perception of themselves. So when someone says they are functioning at 80% that means 80% of their 100%. Not 80% of a universal 100% that applies to every person in the same way. However people rate themselves and whatever the difference between current and past ratings, almost all seem to be missing or lacking a degree of their own capacity to form others' faiths. I would call this their ministry gap. What also appears to be true is that most peoples' ministry gap seems to be more significant than usual.

So, what can we do about the gap? I offer an episode of the podcast, Unlocking Us with Brene Brown called Brene Brown on Comparative Suffering, the 50/50 Myth, and Settling the Ball. At 6:35 of this nearly 25 minute recording, Brown starts explaining her concept of a family gap plan. Brown states that the idea that relationships like the one between her and her husband are 50/50, an even split of giving and taking, is a myth. Brown describes that each person in her family perceives themself at a certain percentage at any given point in time. Ideally, when they add all the percentages up, it should total 100%. Often, this does not happen, so their family has a gap plan to address the lacking and make up for the missing percentage.

At this very moment, a question that God may be asking you and every faith formation minister and every minister of any kind, professional or volunteer, lay or clergy, is what is your ministry gap plan? How will you plan for yourself, your ministry and your community when you find yourself not feeling 100%? How will you set up support for yourself and others to function and thrive more consistently even when things are so unpredictable?

These responses will be particular to your unique self, ministry and community. Here are a few ideas that you might include in your gap plans for yourself and family or for your ministry:

-Not responding to work emails and phone calls for a full 24 hour period

-Unplugging from the internet for the weekend or other two day period

-With staff and volunteers, regularly check in naming what percentages you are at and asking one another what specific acts you can do to support each other.

My hope for each respondent to this survey and each person involved in ministry anywhere is that you sit in prayer with these questions. My own prayer is that you can discern any calls God may place on your heart. And that as needed and as helpful, you reach out to others for support and together you make family and ministry gap plans. We will need to mind our gaps in the days to come. Likely we will almost always need to mind some gap of some degree.