By Paul Baxley
One year ago today, a large number of congregations in and beyond the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship worshipped for the first time virtually as the coronavirus pandemic began to redefine all aspects of life in the United States the week prior. A week or 10 days earlier, many congregations started to realize that everything was changing, but still many of us weren’t sure on March 8 that a week later we would not be gathered in person. By March 22, another wave of congregations had made the same decision.
Those weeks in March a year ago were astonishing because of the speed and scale of the changes they brought. Congregations and their leaders joined every other sector of our common life in responding, re-imagining and coming to terms with a pandemic the likes of which we had not seen in a century. Schools ceased in-person instruction suddenly, businesses either closed or transitioned to remote work, athletic venues were suddenly empty and courts of law suspended in-person hearings.
Those early weeks were filled with uncertainty, exhaustion and rapid innovation. We adjusted our patterns for worship, study, missions and pastoral care. Our congregations were not closed as our ministries continued in different forms.
Early on, most of us had no idea exactly how long this season would last. But early on, it started to become clear that the acute coronavirus pandemic would also accentuate and intensify other pandemics that had been at work in our nation for much longer, namely a mounting pandemic related to political partisanship and polarization and a centuries long pandemic of racial and ethnic injustice. After all, in the same weeks that we were first coming to terms with the public health crisis, we also were horrified by the violent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks. We were noticing that those who were already most victimized by racial and economic injustice were most at risk for the physical and economic consequences of the coronavirus.
It also became clear that the political partisanship that was already tearing our nation and our congregations apart was going to turn coronavirus response into a divisive political matter. So, we discovered in short order that we were not just seeking faithfulness in the midst of one pandemic. Instead, we were at the intersection of multiple pandemics, and our faith required that we respond to them all.
These last 12 months have been exceptionally challenging and have required innovative, difficult, courageous and even bold faithfulness from individual disciples of Jesus, their congregations and the leaders of those congregations. When we look back on these definitive days, we very likely see times we wish we had spoken and acted differently. Perhaps we even wonder if we would have made different decisions if we had known in the beginning how long this season would last. But I pray we also see evidence of incredible innovation, courageous leadership and bold faithfulness. From my own perspective, I have been awed by the faith I have seen in so many congregations and their leaders.
Among us now there is a growing awareness that we are entering another transition period. As vaccinations expand, we will see more signs of re-opening and resuming around us. More and more of us are starting to wonder what the next season of congregational life will be like. How will the changes of the last year form the next stage of our ministry and mission? What will it be like to gather in person again? Or to do so with more and more of our congregation? How different will our congregations be after we come back together having been apart during a tumultuous and challenging year? These are only a few of the questions I’ve overheard congregational leaders asking in a series of formal and informal conversations my colleagues and I have had with groups of leaders and in individual spaces.
Underneath all these questions there lies a realization that the work ahead of us will be even more challenging, require more innovation, demand more bold courage than even the last year. Amidst all these questions is the awareness that all of us come to this anniversary exhausted on multiple levels and we know the tasks ahead will require energy. And for all the predictions about how different things will be in the days ahead, the truth is that none of us knows for sure, which is why these days (like all days) are ultimately about faith.
In the early days of this pandemic, I charged us to cling to a truth found in the Lord’s words to Joshua: “you have not passed this way before.” Even though Joshua had not passed this way before, the Lord who called him had. As we move toward Easter Sunday, we will hear the messenger announce that the Risen Lord has gone ahead of us. So, we should approach the days ahead in hopeful faith, not because we have them figured out, or can even now summon the energy, but because we know Christ is going ahead of us to prepare the way.
What then should we do as we enter a new kind of transitional space? What is most essential?
Though it is counterintuitive on so many levels, I encourage all congregations to make space for leaders to find time for rest and renewal. The pandemic year means that many of our ministers did not take allotted vacation time. While a small number of our colleagues have well-timed sabbaticals this summer, many of us do not.
There will be a temptation to keep going, keep working, but all that will do is leave us even more exhausted and even more unable to navigate the road ahead. The last few months have demonstrated that exhaustion is not confined to a small number of pastors or other leaders. It is rampant and widespread. Just as Jesus would sometimes withdraw to lonely places for prayer and renewal, we should do the same and give permission.
Secondly, before we rush into intense decision making about all that lies ahead, we should make space for prayerful remembrance. Sometimes the best way to train our eyes to see the Risen Christ ahead of us, or even to notice God at work among us, is to look back and see how God has been at work in our midst. In these days, shouldn’t we all be making space to ask ourselves:
What have we learned about our congregations, our communities and ourselves?
What do we most celebrate? What do we most grieve?
Where and when have we experienced the comforting, convicting, renewing presence of God?
How has our faith grown and been challenged?
How do these reflections guide us as we look toward the future?
Finally, we need to create spaces for the kind of faithful imagination and collaboration that is required to discern next steps. The days of anyone producing a “six step program” for congregations to emerge from the pandemic are over. All congregations did not enter the pandemic season in exactly the same place, or in the same way, and none of us have exactly the same gifts, opportunities and challenges. But in the days ahead we will begin to release a series of resources to help congregational leaders in the discernment of next steps in life and ministry, and to help congregational leaders learn from one another. We trust absolutely that what has been true from the beginning of the church’s story is definitely true today; namely, the Holy Spirit is always giving the church everything we need to do what Jesus calls us to do.
Our CBF Global staff in Decatur, the gifted leaders of our state/regional organizations and our deeply committed ministry partners are all committed to doing all we can to come alongside congregations, offer support and lean toward a new season of resurrection thriving that is to come.
The last year has been challenging in every way. We have been gifted with amazing innovation and resilience, and we recognize the times we have fallen short. The days ahead are uncertain and filled with challenge. But we are hopeful because these are the seasons when God does God’s best work among those who are open. And we know the truth of the hymn “grace has brought us safe thus far and grace will lead us home.”