It is no secret that the global pandemic has transformed the Church in a myriad of ways. Pastoral care is now offered by phone call or Facetime, worship by podcast or Zoom, and after decades or more of saying that the church is not the building, we are now really having to learn what it is to be the church without gathering in our buildings.
Yet from my perspective, disciples and parish communities across the Diocese of Rupert’s Land were going through significant transitions before any of us had ever heard the phrase “COVID-19,” and will continue to go through such transitions long after vaccines and public health measures have removed much of the danger of the novel coronavirus.
Parish membership is shrinking, disciples in the pews are aging, and budgets are in trouble. None of this is news to anyone. What might be news, however, are the stories of hope emerging from a number of our parish communities. In these parishes, disciples have chosen to risk moving forward into an unknown future instead of trying to restore a past that is, it seems, un-restore-able.
I think of St. Thomas’, Weston in Winnipeg. This parish has long been in the vanguard of experimenting with new models of ministry, having been a place where Local Collaborative Ministry was established early with a dedicated team of faithful disciples joining together to lead ministry and mission. That team disbanded two years ago, and new leadership has arisen. These leaders are younger than in many parishes, and have structured St. Thomas’ ministry around their mission in their neighbourhood. For example, Kreative Kids offers free programs for children; Kreative Kitchens includes community meals, teaching, and food distribution. A Mission Team comprised of postulants for priestly ordination are assisting with leadership, pastoral care, and worship.
I think of the Church of the Good Shepherd in Atikokan. For many years, the Rev. Ruth Ivall served in this small-town parish as their non-stipendiary priest. Ruth had to step back this past fall, and for a while it looked like the parish might disestablish, as tired and aging leadership simply couldn’t face going on. But instead, a new energy started to emerge, with people stepping up to share in ministry and mission to the community. As the parish moves forward, these new leaders will share in responsibilities for leading worship, and running community outreach initiatives like the regular rummage sales that allow local folks to purchase gently used clothing, with the money raised going back to community initiatives. While we’re not sure yet where this is going, there is a renewed hope for the future of their parish’s mission and ministry.
I think of St. Mary’s in Sioux Lookout. For many years, this remote community has been without a priest. Instead, the members have come together and shared in ministry. The parish leadership team chose to pursue a Local Collaborative Ministry model, and are currently working with a mentor, a retired United Church minister who lives in town. The team engages in bi-weekly training and study, learning everything from themes in the Gospel of Matthew to how to conduct pastoral visits. With each member of the ministry team claiming her or his gifts for mission and ministry, they’re partnering with the United Church to run Messy Church for families with kids, welcoming students living in town from northern First Nations communities to attend high school, and offering pastoral care to those in the regional hospital. Last year, a local Christian bookstore gave a bouquet of flowers to one of the team members during “Pastor Appreciation Month.” When the member told the bookstore that she isn’t an ordained pastor, they informed her that, although they knew this, the flowers were to recognize all the ministry that she and the St. Mary’s team have done for the Sioux Lookout community.
William Bridges is a well-known thinker and writer on the subject of transitions. He notes that, during times of change, human beings, groups, and organizations don’t move directly from point A to point B. Rather, between A and B is what Bridges calls the ‘neutral zone.’ As an example, he offers the time that the children of Israel spent in the wilderness between escaping slavery in Egypt and entering the land of Canaan. In this wilderness neutral zone, people have to come to terms with what they have lost in the past, even if that past doesn’t seem all that attractive (remember the former slaves complaining that at least in Egypt they had food?). In this time-between, there is confusion and lament to work through. Yet there is also return to a deeper understanding of the group’s core values—that which makes us who we are—and out of those values an openness to re-imagining what might be.
Susan Beaumont has written about the needs of leaders in what she calls ‘liminal times.’ In How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going, Beaumont notes that today it’s pretty common for communities of faith not to know where “point B” even is. We enter neutral zones without any sense of where else to go from here. We must look at who we are and who God is calling us to be, so that we can take the next step, and then the next one, and move forward in faith (with perhaps a little fear, too).
I suspect that if you asked them, the leaders in the parishes I’ve named here would tell you that they don’t really know where they’re going. They do, however, know who they are. They can tell you what’s important to them as disciples of Jesus and as ministering communities. They know there are no guarantees, and they know the future will not look much like the past did. They have let go of any attempts to recreate anything that resembles their past, and are moving into liminal space where little is clear. Yet, they are continuing to serve their neighbourhoods, continuing to nurture and grow one another in the faith, and continuing to worship God and follow Christ together.
Heather McCance is the Diocesan Ministry Developer for the Diocese of Rupert’s Land.