In the balance: Coming back, going forward

David Thompson

7.4.2022 | Congregational Life, Easter

David Thompson, Secretary of the Council for Congregational Life and Witness, reflects on some of the felt tensions and fine balances facing congregations as they seek to rediscover a more regular pattern to church activities as the disruption caused by the pandemic begins to draw to a close.

Are we coming or going?

Sometimes when life is complicated or there seems to be so many things to be thinking about or doing at once we aren’t sure whether we are coming or going. It feels a little bit like that as congregations gradually edge out of two years of an interruption to regular patterns of church activity caused by the pandemic.

We have been through periods of almost complete inactivity as we felt the impact of the lockdown of everyday life bite. We have found ourselves in periods where it was possible to do more, but in which everything we tried to organise was so much more complicated, and even basic things hard to arrange, because of the need to mitigate against spread of infection. We have been through so many ups and downs, twists and turns in which we anticipated things were definitely looking brighter, only to see restrictions have to be re-imposed. The uncertainty of all of that only fueled both weariness and caution about what might or might not be possible. The last two years have been tough and taken their toll.

Both coming and going

As we edge towards Easter 2022 and take a peek over the horizon to what seems to lie beyond, maybe we are emerging into a new season and a fresh place of possibility. The signs are that we are learning to come to terms with living with the virus. Life is opening up. It does feel increasingly possible to be both wise in taking basic measures to avoid spreading or contracting the virus and to resume something that feels a lot more like life as it should be. That includes the kind of church activities around which the regular rhythms of congregational life and witness operate.

Nevertheless, there is a tension in this season. On the one hand we feel ourselves very much in a moment shaped by the need to be building momentum in coming back. Coming back as members to a fuller, more committed to the basics of church life together – worship, fellowship and community. Coming back as organisations, trying to reconnect with and re-gather those who were previously part of things, but from whom in many cases we have been separated by the pandemic for two years. Coming back to a greater depth of interaction and relationship once again, which often exposes a range of pastoral issues that to which we have been unable to adequately attend due to a long period of ministry that has had to be exercised at arm’s length. A lot of short term focus and energy is demanded for the ministry of coming back and the acceleration of momentum it requires.

Equally, there is a need to think about how our congregation and its particular activities will go forward in the medium to long term. The world has changed because of the pandemic. It is foolish to claim that it has changed everything and forever. The power of habit, the lure of the familiar and the limitations of our ability to either imagine or do things differently will ensure that many things return pretty much as they were before. But some won’t. There will be some things, which because of a two year hiatus, we will not be able to summon up the momentum to restart. There will be groups of people of all ages lost to us because of a prolonged period of disconnection. We may have leadership gaps to fill, or find that recruiting new leaders will require us to organise ourselves differently to do some of the things we know are still important priorities. More positively, we will see possibilities that we hadn’t seen before the pandemic, gained confidence in doing different things and doing things differently, have some sense of God’s leading to a refresh of our church life and a refashioning of our witness to others. Getting to grips with both the challenges and opportunities of going forward is also demanding. It requires an ability to slow down, consider carefully, listen widely, both learn to live with what has been lost and anticipate   new things done in new ways.

Back and forwards at the same time?

So, finding ourselves needing to come back and go forward at the same time, how can we approach both challenges? Perhaps it’s not as impossible as it sounds. Maybe there are ways of achieving both the necessary momentum for this moment and thoughtful reasoning for the season ahead. For example, might we set up a small group of kirk session or organisational leaders to do some ground work about the key questions facing the congregation as it goes forward, freeing up others to get on with more immediate things needed to achieve a resumption of core activities? Alternatively, might we resume our activities more simply, one month at a time, bit by bit, not at full throttle, allowing a better blend of coming back again while also creating space to be observing what seems to be happening that might call for a reshaping for the future? Our big lesson just now might be that setting a sensible pace to both coming back and going forward will be most profitable in the long run. It might be a bit like tactical driving in which we know when to go up the gears, but also when to drop down. When to press on the accelerator, but also when to use the brake. When to be careful to look for immediate obstacles, but also to be able to notice changes in the road that lie further ahead.

Congregational life and witness in the balance

In the period after Easter to early June, the Council for Congregational Life and Witness will be running a series of regional in-person gatherings bringing congregations in neighbouring presbyteries together around this theme of Coming Back: Going Forward. Each congregation will be invited to register three key leaders to come and be part of an evening programme that will offer a mix of reflection, discussion and congregational stories of the challenges of coming back and the opportunities of going forward in church life.

We don’t need to feel ourselves completely disorientated by this moment, as if we don’t know whether we are coming or going. Amid the felt tensions, we can find a fine balance as we seek to rediscover a more regular pattern to church activities as the disruption caused by the pandemic begins to draw to a close.

 Rev David Thompson is Secretary of the Council for Congregational Life and Witness.

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