What's Tony Thinking

What’s Your Pandemic Exit Strategy?


We are into a new phase of this whole thing. The pandemic and the various measures — which have been adopted variously — for combatting it are sort-of-but-not-quite over. Even if we’re not out of the woods yet, we are near enough that people and organizations are thinking about their pandemic “exit strategy.”

For individuals, Arthur Brooks offered a provocative reflection and assessment in his most recent Atlantic article. He notes that there were some things, perhaps many, that we did or discovered during the pandemic that we don’t want to give up. It’s not so much “back to normal” as “forward to a new normal.” Or . . . a whole new life (see Brooks).

I’m mostly concerned, in this blog, about churches. What’s their pandemic “exit strategy”? What are things congregations and their leaders have learned during the pandemic that need, in one form or another, to be taken forward? And what parts of pre-pandemic church life need to be recovered and renewed?

Yesterday I took part in a conversation (yes, on Zoom) that included a pretty wide variety of clergy, different denominations and in different parts of the country, on these questions. Here are some thoughts and observations based, in part, on that conversation.

# 1, by and large, mainline congregations have — prior to the pandemic — been slow and late adopters when it came to digital technology. Pre-pandemic one might hear, “A screen in our sanctuary . . . over my dead body!” Or “Recorded music in worship — never!” The pandemic has quickened the pace of technological change and adoption, particularly in mainline churches. I’m not saying that’s good or bad. Just is.

What is also true is that congregations and their leaders that never would have dreamed of all sorts of things — on-line communion? zoom funerals? face-time pastoral care? — haven’t just dreamed it. They’ve done it!

Take-away # 1: technological adoption, by mainline congregations, has been accelerated, big time, by the pandemic.

# 2: the future is hybrid. Congregations that have a new cadre of people who join them via Zoom or Live Steam may not retain all of them post-pandemic. But they will retain some, and others will come. Some few churches may return entirely to pre-pandemic forms, but not many. If hybrid is the future, what are the strengths and weaknesses, challenges/ opportunities in hybrid-land?

# 3: while a “spiritual a la carte” approach was already well under way well before the pandemic, but it too has been accelerated. What do I mean by “spiritual a la carte?” Instead of getting all your spiritual nurture through one institution, form, or faith tradition people were already picking and choosing. A little Zen meditation here. Some UCC justice advocacy there. An Episcopal compline service thrown in. And pastoral meditations, sermons, and bible studies from an array of people and places. People have been, and now are more than ever, cobbling together what works for them among a wide, sometimes bewildering, array of choices.

Again, what are the upsides, and the downsides, of religion “a la carte?” (Personally, I’ve always preferred a well-planned and prepared meal to a buffet.)

Fourth and last, some things work great on-line, Zoom or what-have-you, and we may be better for it to do them there. Like board and committee, i.e. administrative, meetings. When the focus is primarily on the task, getting together in person may not be as needed. Maybe people can participate easier on-line?

But there are other parts of church, not so much task-oriented, as relationship-oriented. For these being in-person and in-the-flesh is the needed thing. One more time, can you say “hybrid!”

Our adaptation to and from the pandemic, our “pandemic exit strategy,” is a moving target. So take care of yourselves, don’t get exhausted and over-whelmed. If possible enjoy the changed and changing landscape. Scout it out with curiosity, caution and delight. Look for where God is, what God is doing.


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