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Being church in a COVID world

The Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana, a PC(USA) pastor, author and coach, brings innovation and fun to a presbytery gathering

by the Rev. Jody Mask for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The pandemic has led many people to worship from their kitchen table rather than in their sanctuary. (iStock photo)

What can you do with a photo of paper clips and a Zoom chat box?

Quite a lot — and it might be just the thing to open up a discussion on innovation and empowering servant leaders.

“We’re going to play a game called ‘Props,’” said Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Presbyterian minister, author and coach. “Here is a photo of some paper clips. In the chat box, I want you to come up with some alternative uses of paper clips.”

Answers flooded the chat stream as commissioners to the Central Florida Presbytery’s December meeting participated in the online gathering. Folks suggested they could be used as jewelry, tools to remove SIM cards from smartphones, and lock pickers.

This playful opening to a plenary session reflected the interactive approach that Dana brought to the presbytery to help it explore the theme of “Empower Servant Leadership.” This theme is the fourth mark of the Vital Congregations Initiative, a church transformation process of the Presbyterian Mission Agency rooted in “intentional spiritual practices and relational connections.” The presbytery is engaged in the first of a two-year process “that seeks to help assess, discern and live into transformative actions that increase vitality,” according to the Vital Congregations manual.

A new reality

The plenary session, titled “Where’d Everybody Go? Empowering Servant Leadership in a Post-COVID World,” acknowledged the new reality that congregations and councils occupy — where people participate as readily in church life from their offices and living rooms as they do from fellowship halls and sanctuaries.

Citing an essay from The Praxis Journal, Dana said that wise folks knew that the pandemic would not be a blizzard, or even a harsh winter, but a “little ice age” that would fundamentally alter the church. “COVID is moving from being a pandemic to an endemic, but in the meantime, cultural shifts have accelerated. What does this mean for the priesthood of all believers and the community of faith?”

The Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana


Dana invited participants to consider one from a list of reflection questions related to the mark of empowering servant leadership, such as,

  • How does your church identify, equip, train and support its leaders?
  • Who is the leadership in your church? Is leadership a shared power? Do the same people lead everything?
  • What does your church do if the wrong people are leading?

Finding a sustainable place

She then shared insights from the Rev. Dr. Jan Edmiston, general presbyter of the  Presbytery of Charlotte, and Carey Nieuwhof, church leadership expert, emphasizing the shifting loyalties not only of church attendees but also of staff. “The important thing is to concentrate on who remains, not to chase after those who left,” Dana counseled. Lamenting the loss helps shift the focus from what was to what is — and more importantly, to what can be and what will be.

In this new reality, home has emerged as a new hub. Leaders who are waiting for people to come to them will realize it’s smarter to go to the people instead. What does that mean for your context?

Dana answered this question by advising that churches and leaders need to be agile. Such agility results from making small, incremental changes instead of large ones. Making a series of small changes leads to a sustainable pace — a “non-negotiable” in today’s circumstances. Churches and leaders also maintain a sustainable pace when they master the art of saying “no,” schedule rest, and cease what does not work. Through this process of incremental change, extending grace to each other is key.

Yes, and …

Drawing on her 2018 book “God, Improv, and the Art of Living,” Dana focused the plenary on the cardinal rule of improv: saying “yes, and …” This does not deny the importance of saying “no.” Rather, saying “yes, and …” redirects the impulse, builds on it, or interprets it in a fresh fashion.

When the world seems to be crumbling, receiving and acknowledging that reality is critical. The improviser remains awake, does not focus on self, and does something fruitful. “Think of one person, one ministry, one session that you can help moving forward…just one ‘and’ is all that is needed,” Dana instructed.

She also sprinkled wisdom from improvisational thinkers such as Patricia Madson and the Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells in the plenary before inviting participants to reflect on how they can embrace where they are now — not where they were two years ago, or where they would like to be. This spiritual practice of presence, in Madson’s terms, eschews the critical assessment of a given situation (which only sees what is wrong with it) and the scientific assessment (which removes any opinion or passion). Instead, the improviser’s method is to see the gift in the situation.

Design Thinking

Dana closed the presentation with a brief introduction to Design Thinking and its implications for empowering servant leadership. She engaged the participants in an exercise called “experience mapping,” using the example of what a young family has to do to get themselves and their children to Sunday worship. The exercise proved instructive for leaders to recognize that empathy, storytelling, and time together are vital elements of the DT process, which is also known as “human-centered design.”

This was a sneak preview of the next day’s workshop, called “Designing Your Ministry,” which dove deeper into a design thinking process.

The Rev. Jody Mask

The Rev. Jody Mask serves as associate pastor of Markham Woods Presbyterian Church in Lake Mary, Florida. He earned his Master of Divinity at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in the distance learning program. He has also served as an administrative assistant for Central Florida Presbytery, where he presently chairs the nominating committee and co-hosts the “Central Florida Presbycast” podcast. He loves his wife, Ellen, distance running and nature nerding.

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