By Rob Price
Through the Lenten season I learned, along with many of my clergy colleagues, the new skills ministry demanded by shelter-in-place ministry: Facebook live-streaming, Zoom meetings and Bible studies, home officing, etc. And several days ago, like many of my clergy colleagues, I celebrated Holy Week and Easter in front of my laptop. I realized after the fact that I had been operating from the irrational premise that if I could just get through Easter, that everything would be alright and back to normal; that somehow, along with the strife being o’er, the pandemic and lockdowns would be, too.
I wonder if I’m the only priest feeling a huge let-down today: no happy exhaustion from a liturgical job well done and multitudes of joyful Christians well met, no sense of entering a new season of ministry and community life. Easter Monday is not a holiday this year, but just one more day of lockdown. Meh.
One of my coping strategies to get out of a funk and back into creative ministry is to get my brain out of “today” and into “tomorrow.” Now that I’ve settled into a shelter-in-place routine, what will the next season of ministry look like and how can I start preparing for it?
I am now convinced that there will be no “all clear” siren signaling that the return to normal life can begin the next day. We will not be going straight from lockdown to life as usual: public worship will be among the last things restored to us, along with concerts and major sporting events. And that resumption of common life may be six months, not weeks, away. We will have a long interim period in which groups of ten or fewer are allowed to gather, with social distancing. Furthermore, when we do emerge from our homes, it will be into a Second Great Depression, with a combination of high unemployment among the young and dramatic losses in the retirement funds of our elders. The acute stress of confinement in one location will give way to the stress of economic dislocation, both for families and the institutions that serve them.
The first conclusion that I’ve reached is that I need to rethink my metrics of success. I’ve read some online commentary on the impact of the COVID restrictions on average Sunday attendance. I think the concern is somewhat tone deaf in its establishmentarianism: as if to say that the most important impact of COVID on churches will be a decrease in their ASA!
Here is my hot take on the subject: we need to do the equivalent of burning the records of debt in the Temple treasury. It’s time for a Jubilee of Metrics. In light of our circumstances, we need to simply let them go. The attendance for the Sundays prior to mid-March are an artifact of a world in which we no longer live and to which we will not return. ASA simply doesn’t matter for 2020–2021.
To all the pastors out there, let me say this: there is only one metric that matters now. Survival is success. If your parish still exists, if it is still functioning in March of 2021: you win. In February of 2022, if you have anything resembling the ministry you had in February 2020: you win. My ASA data from last January and February will only be an interesting benchmark to measure the degree to which we have recovered in 2022, and that is all. Let’s all burn those boats behind us and face into the future in the ways that will really matter.
The paramount value of survival means that a key metric in this season and one that follows will be how much cash you have in the bank. As with any small business, if you run out, you die. If you haven’t already, I would urge you to immediately suspend all services from outside vendors other than your internet service, which is now your true lifeline. Work with your lay leadership to renegotiate contracts for trash removal, cleaning services, landscaping, etc., and do so with the idea that your campus may lay idle for several months. At the Cathedral, we found our vendors understanding and grateful that we intended to bring them back to normal use when the suspensions are lifted. Reset your thermostats through your entire plant, even shutting down whole areas or buildings, delaying the switch from winter heat to summer cooling.
More painful will be a clear-eyed and thorough evaluation of all staff. Are they really able to perform their full duties with all public services suspended, let alone in a shelter-in-place regime? If not, fairly and objectively reduce their hours and compensation to fit the circumstances. They must understand that your only goal as a leader is to have a parish — and a job — for them to come back to when the crisis is resolved. I have given myself a 10% pay cut, which has helped me look my people in the eye (even if it was over the phone) in these difficult conversations.
Given the economic depression that is coming, all labor and compensation will have to undergo a “re-pricing,” and clergy are no exception. For clergy who are too young to have been in ministry during the 2009 recession, this will be a much more painful introduction to difficult decisions in the midst of systemic financial contraction. But remember: survival is success, and abundance is going to have to take a different form than one’s budget. More on that later.
Another kind of financial sacrifice that clergy may be required to make is to obtain part-time employment in the short term (meaning one to two years). One form that this might take is performing the sexton’s duties at the church (which should be easier now that there are no people on the campus). Those with musical gifts are now the choirmaster, choir, and celebrant, all in one. The money saved from those positions can be retained in the priest’s salary.
However, in smaller parishes with less payroll and staff to absorb these sorts of adjustments, clergy may need to seek secular employment. I would call on bishops of the Church to relax restrictions on secular employment, even granting a plenary permission to obtain it for a period of two years, in order to give clergy the flexibility they need to provide for their families. The key goal across the deployment system should be keeping clergy in place, in their parishes, even with diminished ecclesiastical incomes, until their parish finances can stabilize. Of course, dioceses will need to be vigilant in making sure that clergy are not taken advantage of. Nevertheless, a generous flexibility regarding employment norms will be required in these times. The bi-vocational clergy and church planters will not be the only “tentmakers” in the season ahead. And I’ll say it again: survival is success.
Despite these challenges, I think this can also be a time of creativity and growth in ministry. In particular, if you’ve ever wanted to reboot your discipleship ministries and become a small-group church, now is the time, because that will be the only kind of church happening. I am working towards having a plan in place to do church ten people at a time.
Schools will not reopen anytime soon. So my families with children could very well be available on weekday afternoons: can we do “Sunday School” ten children or youth at a time, Sunday through Friday at 10 a.m. or 3 p.m.? Many college-age children are living at home again and deeply missing their friends and campus community: can they be gathered into a “St. Matthew’s Alumni Association Meeting”? I bet a larger parish could group them by athletic conference!
This is a golden opportunity to build ministry among the Millennials in your parish: virtual life is more natural to them (as a cohort), and a generation known for multitasking and overcommiting themselves currently have fewer demands on their time and attention. Surely, you can draw them out of binge watching Breaking Bad for the third time! Use technology platforms to make meetings with your young adults, and ask them to invite their friends — this can be a season of effective evangelism, enabling you to hit the ground running when your community can gather again in the flesh.
Pastors need to be “group planters,” forming up Zoom Bible studies of 10 adults with the intention of meeting in someone’s home or at your campus once that becomes possible. I’m working on developing my pastoral creativity to imagine the needs of the newly unemployed members of my congregation: spiritual and emotional support, resume re-building skills, maybe networking? A deepening recession will open up new and vital ways for your parish to be there for its members and the community in precisely the format that is most conducive to the support of people facing similar challenges: the small group. And you know what? We, the Church, have an app for that! As group life and parishioner participation ramps up beyond the bare minimum required to livestream services, you will be able to recruit new volunteers in ministry who now have more time on their hands, as well as begin to on-board furloughed staff as giving ticks up.
Finally, I would encourage my colleagues to have some fun and dream of the Day of the Lord. Or, at least the Sunday that will feel like it: you know the one I’m talking about — when we can all come to church to worship together again. I propose you celebrate it like Easter Day — literally. The Easter vestments, readings, hymns, flowering the Cross, egg hunts, the whole smash. Give them what we all missed this spring. I figure that with all the liturgical innovations being foisted upon us by the coronavirus, having Easter in August (let us hope!) is perhaps the most conservative one you’ll hear. After all, you can always snap back to Proper 9 — or wherever we are in ordinary time — on the next Sunday.
Regardless, the First Sunday Back will be one that you only get to do once, and I suspect that we will have Easter-sized crowds for it. Whatever you do, start thinking about it now and be ready to pull out all the stops. Let us have one Sunday in which we recognize that we are, indeed, stepping into a new world: and by God’s grace, it will be one in which our love for another has not grown cold, but has been fanned into a brighter flame as we emerge from our tombs and hear each other sing, “Alleluia!”
The Very Rev. Rob Price is Dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, Dallas, and has recently taken on an additional position as the Canon for Congregations in the Diocese of Dallas.