Six months. Apparently in trauma research there is some evidence that a six month window marks a significant milestone for many. Professor of Political Science Aisha Ahmad, of the University of Toronto, has written and tweeted about this. It may have to do with how our heads, hearts and bodies have navigated and adapted to the new circumstances. That’s a hunch on my part, not from the research. It seems true in my own case, and I’ve observed it, I think, in others. I’m curious about your experience of this.
I’ll name my current experience, and then try to unpack it some.
I’m back. That’s really how it’s felt over the last few weeks. A slow emergence, like waking from a dream. Or like when you’ve felt congested for a long time, so you can’t see, smell, taste or hear well, and then the congestion clears and the world opens up.
I look in the mirror in the morning and think, “Oh, there you are…” It feels good. Like getting a second wind and now feeling ready to settle into a comfortable long distance stride.
I’m aware that I haven’t been fully present in my external life over the last six months. At work this coincided with our hiring a full time colleague, who has taken on more than her share of the responsibilities - partly because I wasn’t fully present and partly because, well, she’s a “get stuff done” kind of gal and so she’s been taking up the slack. And sometimes it’s easier to just do it yourself than ask for help, but that’s another discussion. ;-)
Everyone’s been living the Covid Pandemic Upheaval. We’re not “all in the same boat” as some have wanted to say. We are all in the same storm, but some are in luxury yachts and some are clinging to pieces of floating wood. Me, I’m doing better than many in terms of not having my income disrupted, and I’ve tried to do my part to help some others. My work as a pastor has been affected in all the expected ways, and then some (more on that in a minute). School for our son. Spouse work stress. You know all that stuff. It’s weird, and hard, but so far we are weathering it ok, i think. (Denial? Maybe.)
More personally, there’s been the disruption of our congregation’s life even before covid hit our shores. Central has been declining for decades, and at the beginning of 2020 it became apparent to me that we’d fallen below a threshold for realistic recovery. People had become so disengaged that we were below 25 in total attendance for months BEFORE the covid shutdown. (NOTE: 25 in worship is perfectly respectable, but not when you are spending half a million dollars each year, more than a hundred thousand from reserve funds. That had been the pattern for several decades.)
So on March 8th (covid was here but we still weren’t expecting THIS) I told our Elder Board that I believed the time had come to acknowledge that the congregation was nearing the end of it’s viable life, and that it would need to be allowed to close in a dignified way, or change and be reborn in dramatic fashion. The elders took several weeks to pray, and then unanimously agreed, with one even responding, “Ken has said for us, out loud, what all of us have been thinking but no one wanted to say.” So we entered into a 3 month engagement with Eddie Hammett, chronicled elsewhere, but never were honest in that process about this starting premise, so we didn’t get out of that what we should. (Absolutely not Eddie’s fault.)
Through April, May, June and into July I was anticipating that we would probably be drawing the congregation to a close, and that we might not be able to gather in person again before that time. Honestly, I was experiencing some, “How much effort should we put into this if it’s only going to be around another month or two?” reflection on our planning and programming at church, including but not limited to our online worship production. I was spending nearly all of my energy (which was already limited) trying to discern and lead the closure of the congregation based upon the Elders’ agreement that this is indeed where we were headed.
I’d never done this before. I was grieving. I felt like a failure. I sympathized with the congregation and community who would lose what the congregation could offer. AND I studied and strategized what to do and how to lead in this situation. I felt an increasingly heavy burden to both help the congregation die well, and also to try and keep the campus ministries alive and growing.
Now (September 28, 2020) we are at the end of another 3 month process that has resulted in two dramatic proposalsThe first is for closing the congregation, selling the campus, and creating a charitable fund that would make grants to worthy causes. The second is for the continued growth and flourishing of our campus model - “Central Westside: A hub of community engagement, innovation and impact and an incubator for new churches and ministries.” Both ideas have merit, and would result in significant blessing for many people. I strongly favor the second option.
I grieve that some cannot see that the work we are doing on the campus is impacting people’s lives. They do not value it as highly as what they think might be done through the gifts of a new charitable fund. Their words make this clear, though they bristle when this is articulated. I grieve for the scores of congregation members who have left over the last 3 years because they did not believe in the campus mission center strategy. They either stated that it isn’t the work of the church, or that they liked it but didn’t believe it could succeed. The congregation could have experienced dramatic renewal and even revival and new growth had they embraced the campus work as Their Ministry. I will wonder for years to come if anything could have been done differently to change the outcome and avoid this present circumstance.
So we’ve also been at that discernment process for six months. Through it all, we’ve seen a renewal of energy among some members, a “gumption” and feistiness (not always friendly or gracious and sometimes mean-spirited). Whether these are enough for renewal, or are simply the last surge of energy before the end, I’ve no idea. I’ve always believed in the campus and still am confident it is God’s will that this work continue. I’m beginning to wonder if there are enough people in the congregation who are willing to make the major changes and do the hard work for a new birth. I’d like to think so. I also know it’s much easier and healthier for congregations to be born from scratch rather than trying to instill a new culture in an old organization. We are, after all, creatures of pattern and habit.
AND, my dad died six months ago tomorrow.
I’m not sure what else to say about that at this moment, other than that it’s had a significant influence on my mental fog. Six months of the stages of grief. Six months without the man who has been a constant source of personal and professional wisdom and encouragement for my whole life. And of reflecting on the parts of him I never got to know. We never moved from Father and Son to friends the way some do. Six months of being an orphan (Mom died October 28, 1997).
In the meantime, we’ve also become empty nesters, of a sort. Our youngest is a college freshman, but he and his sister are both close enough that many weekends we have at least one overnight guest. And we are remodeling our empty nest, which is expensive and frustrating and has gotten delayed by covid, etc… So there’s lots of additional change, upheaval even, and the accompanying stress.
Each of us would do well to consider the Holmes Rahe Stress Inventory as a check in on how much stress we might be experiencing. My current score is far too high, so I am actively taking steps to lower it, and to counteract stress with healthier habits of food, drink, exercise, and spiritual practices. I also started counseling in August. And I've started keeping a gratitude journal which is surprisingly impactful for how simple it is. And I'm working to communicate honestly with others about my journey, including saying, "I haven't been my best self. Not making excuses, but here's what's been going on." If I get some grace in return, that would be lovely.
The last six months have been hard on everyone.
Please be sure you are taking care of yourself, and each other.