No Stomach for Change

What should churches do now that Covid is relatively over, and things are moving back together? If you answered that question by saying, “What my church really needs to do is . . . (fill in the blank),” I would encourage you to step back and think about that action just a little more.   

The Lombard Mennonite Peace Center staff has been heavily engaged with church leaders regarding post-Covid Christianity, the loss of membership and the changing landscape of church in America. As consultants who seek to design processes to resolve conflict, restore relationships, and find win/win solutions for congregations having difficulty moving forward together as a unified body, we face these questions. Church boards are wrestling with the new reality, wrestling with priorities regarding worship services, youth programming, finding volunteers, and, in it all, wrestling with one another. Some are keenly intent on recreating the past; others are keen to get busy and create the future. 

Tensions are running high. When such churches contact us and request we design a process to to get them unified and get them moving, after an initial assessment, I find myself giving a response that is not always well-received. I don’t think a congregational engagement process would be a good process to undertake at this time,” and I offer this analogy: 

Imagine, if you will, a family on a chartered boat out on Lake Michigan. Things start out well, but later on a cold front moves in and the wind picks up. The water grows choppy, and whitecaps appear. The boat heaves and falls and rolls from swell to swell. Soon everyone is feeling sick, very sick, hurling sick; the coolers of sandwiches and drinks go untouched. The boat finally makes its way back to harbor, and the family gathers its gear, disembarks and slowly makes it way to the parking lot. The ride home is slow and quiet.  

The sense I want to convey is the tenuous nature of a seasick stomach, cautious and protective, extremely wary of any triggering episode that might set it off. The stomach must be still; it cannot be pushed or cajoled and it can’t be ignored. The system shuts down and needs time to quietly reset.  

Anxiety is a great driver of hypervigilance and action. Church leaders have every reason to be concerned about their ministries and their churches, and the desire to get them up, or get them back, is normal. But church leaders are also stewards of congregational health, and sometimes leaders need to pause and wait. Is now the right time for this?   

Coming out of Covid, we are all a little disoriented and unable to focus on the horizon. Churches, in particular, have been hit hard and are nauseous, deeply fatigued, and sad. Churches are not ready for a rollercoaster ride of anything.  

We all must do what we can, where we can, but we must also be cognizant that the sheep are woozy. What can the church stomach at this time? Maybe a slow, quiet ride together is about all it can manage.  

Jay Wittmeyer