January 2021
Being Church In A Pandemic

Leading In a Pandemic

On one of the first Sundays of Coronatide worship by Zoom, I choked up as I sang a short blessing over our people. My voice got squeaky and my face got red. A breath and a pause, and I was able to move onward and finish, but what our dear good people remembered was seeing, up close, the depth of grief we were just beginning to feel as a congregation and a country. There’s no pastoral distance with Zoom.

I serve God as the rector of a small congregation and campus ministry a block from the football stadium at the University of Colorado, Boulder. I’m also a single mother of school-aged children, and this pandemic season unfolds from a corner of the big dining room table that longs for 18 or more around it again, our large backyard, and, of course, the square video of my face interfacing with church and world.
As a church, we are sharing the losses with so many others: not gathering, not meeting, not singing in person. We have had more than the usual number of things in one year – vandalism, mailbox theft, storm damage. And we also experienced the loss of about 40 percent of our annual operating income when college football was wisely and necessarily cancelled.

In good days, our proximity to campus is a boon for selling parking spaces. In hard times, it’s just an empty parking lot to manage along with everything else. Whether it’s expectations or math assignments or pastoral care or staff meetings or vastly amended budgets, to manage is to care for. That is what parents and leaders do: we manage.

Freedom, transparency and humility

Almost nine months in, our congregation is doing all right, even thriving in our Zoom Sunday groove and taking care of each other. This is what works for us – and it has to do with freedom, transparency and humility. These leadership gifts matter in hard times and in easier times.

Early in the pandemic, I found a group that prays by Zoom daily for about 15 minutes, at just the right time. It’s a group I don’t lead, but I do my part when asked. What has been essential to everything is that I have a space to pray. Obvious, right? But easy to forget when home is work is school is playground is recess is leisure…is managing. I also know that I am reaping the benefits of a long-tenure and years of hard work. Here we have the trust and knowledge of each other that has let me lead clearly, knowing that if I make a mistake, I’ll learn and re-direct. This season is harder for those who have just started in congregations, and we need to support those colleagues even more.

The boundaryless-ness of pandemic life is real, as are parenting and priesting. But it goes deeper – I find that I am never not working, but just changing realms: folding laundry while listening to a meeting, teaching new math while planning a funeral. (Is this the managerial apex of multitasking or just frenetic coping skills?)

Another word for boundaryless is freedom. Had we not all been home, I wouldn’t have stopped during the day to jump on the trampoline during “recess.” I won’t ever regret other benefits, like daily lunch together during elementary school. One of the freedoms of priestly work relates to the ontological change at ordination – I am a priest always. A wise friend once reminded me that “parson” is etymologically related to “person.” In a season where over-functioning and isolating might seem the best choice, we have the freedom to be human.

There is still a lot to manage, and losing staff and changing the way we do every single thing only increases that. But transparency about our humanity matters. I reached a point where I felt I couldn’t do much more. So I said so: to the vestry, to the congregation and to colleagues. I asked for help. What unfolded was an abundance of lay ministry. It was the congregation calling each other to check in regularly; it was a vestry agreeing when I said, “I’m not going to learn to be a video editor.” It was people having enough courage to lead small groups by Zoom on their own, the first small groups in decades in our little congregation. It was groups and committees staying connected because that was what they could do. They could see each other on screen, and they accepted that faithfully.

Transparency and trust foster humility

We also decided to be transparent about our financial losses – not wringing our hands, not begging, just saying, “This is what we’re dealing with and the Finance Committee is starting to work on it and we trust we’ll get through it.” And God provides. We received a completely unexpected large gift from a stranger who heard our story; some bequests came just at the right time; some gave more, widows mites and also deeper abundance. We are enduring in lean times, seeing the challenges together. We are transparent without being self-pitying.

A third thing follows: good transparency is a kind of humility. It’s been clear to me that, though there are many things we can’t do, we are free to do what the church does. In tiny gatherings, masked and distanced, we’ve married, baptized and buried, with the church maybe more present than ever before in prayer and love, though not in person. We have led with what little we have, providing more than $15,000 in matching funds since May to our local food pantry – not because the church doesn’t need it, but because we have the humility to know we are all in this together. We have shared these events and others with photos and words at our Zoom services. We leave no doubt that our church loves and lives.

Pre-pandemic, I was used to perfunctory silence at the prayers of the people. Now, there are more prayers, spoken out loud or in the chatbox, than maybe ever in our broad-church Episcopal congregation. Thanks. Be. To. God. The word “liturgy” means “work of the people” and every Sunday we share words of hope and comfort, together managing the resources of the household of God with freedom, transparency and humility. I hope we never stop.

The Rev. Mary Kate Rejouis came to St. Aidan’s in 2005. Prior to that, she served as the vicar of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Basalt, Colorado, from 2000 to 2005 and as Associate Rector and Priest-in-Charge at St. Michael and All Angels, South Bend, Indiana. She was ordained to the diaconate and priesthood in 1997. A native of Boulder, Mary Kate finds St. Aidan’s to be a place of joyful ministry among the congregation and also in the Canterbury Episcopal Ministry. Campus ministry is vital to Mary Kate, who came through the Episcopal Campus ministry at Dartmouth College. She’s hoping to get back to swimming and running soon and mostly enjoys spending time with her two young children, John and Elizabeth.

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This article is part of the January 2021 Vestry Papers issue on Being Church In A Pandemic