What's Tony Thinking

Re-Entry As a Spiritual Practice


I’ve been talking with a lot of clergy/ church leaders of late for my work with Vancouver School of Theology. I really have a sense, from those conversations, that we are smack dab in what William Bridges, in his classic book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, calls “the neutral zone.”

By that term, Bridges means the messy time between an ending and a new beginning. While we can’t say the pandemic has ended, the locked-down phase is over. Many people are vaccinated. Many groups and institutions are somewhere in the process of resuming in-person gatherings. But we haven’t gotten to the “new beginning” — not by a long shot. We are in a messy, in-between phase, fruit-basket-upset, neither full-on pandemic, or “that’s-done” and “it’s a new beginning.”

Bridges labors to say that while nobody likes the neutral zone, the time between an ending and a new beginning is absolutely necessary. We need to live into it and work through it if we are to get to a new beginning. You can’t short circuit the work by pretending it’s all “back to normal,” all just the same as it used to be.

Which brings me to one of those conversations, with a pastor I greatly admire and have known for more than two decades now, since she was a student of mine at VST. Cari Copeman-Haynes is the pastor of Crossroads United Church in Delta, B.C. She and her congregation are readying for their July return to in-person worship with an intentionality that I’ve not encountered elsewhere.

Weeks ago, at the initiative of a lay leader, that congregation created a “Home By a Different Way Working Group,” to plan their re-entry in what Cari hopes will be an “emotionally intelligent and spiritually grounded way.” Both their intentionality around this work and having a special team leading it, not the pastor managing it all by herself, seem brilliant.

The Crossroads Working Group has drawn on work done by Diane Strickland, a United Church of Canada minister who has, for the last decade, been doing work in the area of trauma and is informed by larger societal experiences of trauma. She has done two you-tube videos addressing the challenges of re-entry for congregations and tools for managing. I’m linking you here to the first of the two. It will take you to the second.

Stickland focuses on five themes: Realizing What’s Different About Us Now, Resetting Expectations for Worship, Modifying Assumptions about Stability in Decision-Making, Using Collective Wisdom, and Approaching Re-Entry as a Spiritual Practice.

At the outset, she also offers a handful of observations that are both true and important. Number One, most of us are less resilient now than we were when the pandemic started. Two, most of us are more needy than we were then. Third, energy levels in the community of faith are likely decreased. And a fourth — a bit of a kicker but spot on — re-entry to in-person worship will be more labor intensive, not less.

I think other churches and pastors might be interested and find these resources and approach helpful. Don’t start calling Cari — she’s got her hands full. But do watch Strickland’s videos and share them with people in your congregation. Create a team to manage and lead re-entry.

I also bring this up as a confession of sorts. I have been the kind of person who tries to skip the “neutral zone,” it’s messiness and ambiguity. I would really much prefer to go straight from an ending to a new beginning. I’ve tried that more than once and managed a few face-plants. I needed to hear from Cari, from Strickland, and to re-visit Bridges.

The worst thing, besides pretending this isn’t a messy and confusing time, is when people in groups — congregations — sit back and expect someone else to do all the work for them. We heard, during the pandemic, “We’re all in this together.” I don’t know if that was every really true. But I am clear about this: the congregations that get to a new beginning now and in the year(s) to come will be those where people accept responsibility for themselves, engage this work together and don’t expect someone else to “do it all for us.”

For me, that’s the heart of “re-entry as a spiritual practice.”

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