Being Church In A Pandemic
Lamentations and Learnings
As I sit down to write this, my oldest daughter is upstairs giggling like crazy at her tenth birthday sleepover on Zoom. My baby, the child who made me a mom, has made it to double-digits! This, of course, has set my emotions coursing, and deep sorrow is one of them. I mourn for my daughter who lost out on a big life milestone because of the pandemic. She can’t hug her friends, she can’t whisper in their ears during Truth or Dare and she can’t cuddle under a shared blanket during a scary part of the movie. I am, however, elated and joyful that we have the blessing of Zoom. The girls are being as innocent as 10-year-olds should be, laughing over shared jokes, recording the moment when one was dared to hit herself in the face with a plate of whipped cream and just being kids. Yes, there is such loss right now, but there are also moments of joy and learning in all we do.
As the Executive Director for Gathering of Leaders (GOL), it is my blessing to be able to work with some of the most creative, innovative and hope-filled clergy in the Episcopal Church. If you are unfamiliar with this organization you can read more about it here, but one of the cornerstones of our work is to network and equip Episcopal clergy who aren’t afraid to innovate and be church for now and the future, however that may look. As the initial lock-down and ensuing pandemic and restrictions have increased, our members have leaned on each other for support, energy and deep lament at the losses they and their congregations were experiencing.
Lamenting our losses is a Christian response to pain and grief. NT Wright wrote, “It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain – and to lament instead. As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell.” However, just like my daughter making the most of her Zoom birthday party, the GOL clergy are finding hope in the grief. They are feeling the pain and loss, but also learning profound lessons about the strength of Christ and Christian community in the midst of this time.
When I asked the GOL network to share their greatest lamentations and learnings in this pandemic, their response was more than I could have hoped for. As you read and reflect on their comments, I hope you can take time to feel your own pain, to mourn what we have lost but also to see the hope-filled future ahead of us, as we learn about the resilience of our faith and our community.
By far the largest loss and source of grief has been our inability to be physically present with one another. During the lockdown and as people began dying, our clergy were cut off from their regular methods of pastoral care and burial. “The toughest part for me is hearing of people dying alone,” shares the Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher. “Clergy have been wonderful in saying prayers over FaceTime as nurses hold iPhones in front of the sick and dying, but it is not the same as presence. The Episcopal Church is not perfect, but we are adept at pastoral care and our burial liturgies are powerful expressions of faith.”
The pandemic and quarantine have also impacted the ways our faith communities interact with each other and the work of our priests. The Very Rev. Kristina Maulden says, “I feel that my job title has changed to be more accurately reflected as Manager of Disappointment, offering council when people are unable to plan the life milestones they crave like weddings, baptisms and the ever-growing number of funerals.” The Rev. Mary Vano shares her fear, “There’s a limit to how much time we all want to spend reading emails, watching videos or participating in Zoom classes. For the most part, it seems that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. I worry about people who may never re-engage with the Church.”
The Rev. Dr. Hillary Raining’s comments encourage us to contemplate our learnings: “There can be no resurrection without a death. There is a deep grief that comes alongside a transformation at the magnitude we are living through, and it is always going to mean that something has to die so that new life can come forth.” If we don’t examine our losses and learn from them, we aren’t growing and moving forward. We are a people of faith built around the resurrection, and we can see God’s work bring forth new fruit.
“Too often our patterns can become calcified habits and we begin to hold fast to ‘how we do things here,’ rather than holding fast to Christ and the Spirit which may be trying to pull us in a new direction,” reflects the Rev. Anjel Scarborough. “This pandemic has revealed our vulnerability and reconnected many to their deep need for Christ, but it has disrupted our calcified habits and forced us to try new ways of being the Church. New ministries have emerged along with new worship patterns.” Through these new ministries and because of tools like YouTube, Zoom and opening the Book of Common Prayer beyond page 355, Anjel’s congregation has connected with two generations of young people who were not previously part of her community. The Rev. Kyle Oliver shares his excitement over digital approaches saying, “The pandemic has reenergized my hope that church leaders can learn to engage thoughtfully and effectively with new media when they recognize the benefits to their work convening community and proclaiming Good News.”
Reading through these responses, repeatedly I see these phrases, “It gave us permission to take risks” and “we were able to try something new without fear.” Bishops from the around the church shared that they “are witnessing congregations focus less on receiving the Sacrament, and more on being Sacrament in the world.” I am specifically encouraged by the Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher’s comments: “I have learned what great community service our churches can provide when they collaborate with organizations that are already addressing issues like food insecurity. Almost all our churches in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts are now doing this. As Jesus said, we are called to be leaven in the bread. We don’t have to be the whole loaf.”
We are at a moment in time when feeling our grief and seeing hope in the future are critical. We must not ignore the hurt and loss, and we must not ignore the opportunities that are unfolding for us. I invite you to look at your life, your congregation, your vocation and ask:
- Have I given myself time to mourn the losses I have experienced personally?
- Have I prayed for acceptance and peace for those things?
- Have I spent time discerning what opportunities are ahead of me that weren’t there before?
- Have I made space in my heart to see where Christ is in all of this?
The Rt. Rev. Eugene Sutton shared, “The Book of Lamentations has become my spiritual companion along this sad journey of living in the age of COVID-19. I’ve learned, much to my surprise, that there’s a grace in embracing lamentation as a spiritual practice. I believe that we as a nation, as a people and as the Episcopal Church, have largely forgotten how to lament; I certainly have tried to avoid it whenever I could. But even now, as I lament in prayer, I find the comfort of the Holy Spirit reminding me that the journey is not over, the new Day is coming, and I will never, ever, walk alone.”
Haley Bankey is Program Director for Leadership Resources at the Episcopal Church Foundation and also serves as the Executive Director for Gathering of Leaders (GOL), where she guides day to day operations as well as long-term strategy and planning. Prior to working with GOL, Haley served as the Director of Operations and Management for her home parish of St. George Church and School in San Antonio, Texas, and ran her own faith-based operations consulting company. She also serves on the Congregational Development Committee for the Diocese of West Texas and is a graduate of the College for Congregational Development.
Haley grew up in the Episcopal church in the Middle East and brings an international perspective to her work. Her passion is equipping lay and clergy leaders alike through leadership training and community building to grow God's church into the future. She lives in San Antonio, Texas with her husband and two wonderful daughters.
- Dealing with Loss and Grief in the Midst of a Pandemic, an ECF webinar presented by Lynn Ronaldi, Laura Masterson and Rebecca Roesch, December 2, 2020
- Pray for Your Priest by Linda Buskirk, an ECF Vital Practices blog, December 22, 2020
- How are congregations being affected by COVID-19? An ECF webinar presented by David King and Manoj Zacharia, October 08, 2020
- Self-Care for the Sake of Others (in the Age of COVID-19), an ECF webinar presented by Chanta Bhan, April 6, 2020