Bishop Bruce R. Ough who serves as the resident bishop for the Dakotas-Minnesota Area of The United Methodist Church, outlines the state of the church in the Dakotas Conference, during the COVID pandemic and the potential split of the denomination. View the entire 30-mnute video message here. In this segment, he thanks congregations and church leaders for their efforts as the church never closed admidst the pandemic outbreak. "I could not be more pleased or proud of the manner in which the clergy, lay leaders and our congregations have responded, and continue to respond, to the pandemic," Ough says. He also encourages every congregation to re-invent themselves. "Will your new normal be a new church, or a return to a pre-disruption, pre-pandemic normal?"
THE CHURCH NEVER CLOSED
If I say nothing else of consequence in these reflections about the state of the church in the Dakotas Conference, please hear this: I could not be more pleased or proud of the manner in which the clergy, lay leaders and our congregations have responded, and continue to respond, to the pandemic. Even though you have never traveled this way before, you have been faithful, courageous, strong spiritual leaders. You have trusted the Lord would show you the way you should go. Because of you, the church never closed – it just moved to new platforms. Because of you, Holy Week and our great canticle of hope – Easter – could not be stopped, or delayed, or diminished, or defeated. Because of you, the COVID-19 infection curve has been flattened and lives have been saved.
The stories and examples of your creativity and adaptability are heart-warming and transformative. You are perfecting on-line worship. You are conducting drive-in worship services. You are promoting and practicing social distancing as an expression of our commitment to heal a broken world. You are feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless. You are advocating for our immigrants. You are cheering our health care professionals and supporting our essential workers. You are doing on-line Bible study and discipleship groups. You are using your phones and IPads and window visits to stay in touch with vulnerable and sheltering-in-place parishioners. You are being the Body of Christ. You are lifting up the name of Jesus in remarkably fresh ways. You are being good shepherds of an overwhelmed people.
And, in the process of keeping the church open and holding true to our mission “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” we are learning much. Amen! We are learning that the old adage that “the church is not the building; the church is the people” is absolutely true. As on-line worship attendance soars in many of our communities, we are learning that there are people hungry for the gospel of abundant life in Christ, both within and outside our current memberships. I realize we are struggling to measure on-line worship or to determine how valid the numbers really are. But, I remind you, we are a people that embrace the doctrine of prevenient grace. Never discount that the curiosity of an individual or family tuning into your on-line worship, for even a short time, is the work of the Holy Spirit. Many of you know my personal faith story. I came to saving faith through watching a few minutes of a televised Billy Graham crusade.
We are learning anew that our people are generous and desire to support the ministries of the church during this season of uncertainty and chaos. We are learning that change – even rapid, unplanned change – will not destroy the church. Now more than ever before, we understand that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
It has become an inescapable fact that everything will now be different, but that does not necessarily equal bad. Rather, it means opportunity to be unshackled from “we have never done it that way before,” or from entrenched church politics and conflicts, or our obsession with legalistic, regulatory, structural-oriented, decision-making filters. We are learning that the church is most alive, most relevant, most vital when it stands in solidarity with the suffering and impoverished and those yet to come to our sanctuaries.
Friends, thank you again for your courage, creativity, resilience and adaptability during these weeks of crisis. But danger lies ahead; or at least the possibility we will miss a new beginning.
RELAUNCH EVERY CONGREGATION
We are currently in a liminal space between an ending and a new beginning; between crisis and choice. The season of crisis is beginning to end, albeit slowly, carefully and in a series of staggered or gradual steps. As you know, I recently encouraged our Dakotas congregations to begin to develop detailed plans for safely returning to in-person worship, but to go slow and take the entire month of May to do so, if necessary, and certainly in communities with a high number of COVID-19 infections.
The season of choice will soon begin to return. And, we have an unprecedented (there is that word again) opportunity to re-launch every one of our congregations in the Dakotas Conference. Never before has every church been thrown out of its building by a pandemic. Never before has there been so much disorientation. Never before have we had to learn so much in such a short period of time. Once the initial crisis calms, every congregation will have the choice to return to “normal” or to re-invent themselves based on what they are learning about themselves and their neighbors. Will your new normal be a new church, or a return to a pre-disruption, pre-pandemic normal?
For the past six or seven years, we have been utilizing a number of congregational transformation processes in the Dakotas Conference – namely, Journey Renewal, MCCI and multiplication training – to assist churches in launching new life cycles. We have learned some things from these processes that are key to the post-pandemic re-launch of our churches.
Re-launch requires what Gil Rendle refers to as Level Two leadership. Level one leadership is about the energy and learning that accompanied being thrown into the COVID-19 context for ministry. Level Two leadership won’t be about how to fine tune on-line worship or giving. It will be about asking and responding to the questions about the choices we must now make. Questions like:
a) What are we learning about ourselves and about our ministry and about our neighbors?
b) What is God doing in our midst?
c) To what is God calling us after shelter-in-place?
I also like the level two leadership questions recently articulated by Rev. Fred Vanderwerf, the Minnesota Conference’s Southern Prairie District Superintendent:
a) What is surprising us right now? How are we experiencing God’s presence in a way that was unexpected?
b) What are we recognizing we need to put aside, put away, or let go of forever?
c) What expressions of the church are being born that we can help midwife?
The window for these courageous, re-launch conversations may be surprisingly brief. When it is finally safe to fully return to our church buildings, many congregations and leaders will be sorely tempted to rush back to the familiar. This is absolutely understandable given the emotional and vocational stress of having to make decisions so quickly and trying to care for an established congregation while creating or maintaining platforms for those yet to be reached.
Another key learning of our transformation processes that will inform re-launching our post-pandemic churches is that the churches best positioned to emerge strong from the changes imposed by shelter-in-place will be the ones that had the clearest sense of purpose and had embraced our Wesleyan commitment to the evangelistic task before the pandemic. Some congregations may have to painfully admit they cannot name the purpose of their church’s ministry. But, the good news is this liminal season between crisis and choice can be used to dream and determine your church’s purpose and create the narrative of the church you discern God is calling you to be.
I have been overwhelmed by articles with predictions and recommendations for the post-pandemic church. I am sure you have experienced the same. I don’t have time to curate a list or summarize the articles in this address, but I do encourage you to review the several articles and resources Doreen Gosmire, our Dakotas Conference Director of Communications, has shared. Or contact Rev. Ben Ingebretson, our Director of New Church Development, for ideas and strategies for re-launching your congregation. You are entering the season of choice. I urge you not to miss the opportunity to choose a new normal that is life-giving and positions you to reach new people.