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For churches, the pandemic has helped wipe the slate clean

COVID-19 has also brought about heightened anxiety and the chance to try new things, California pastor says

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Jessica Vaughan Lower

LOUISVILLE — The pandemic has given church leaders “opportunity at a very strange time,” the Rev. Jessica Vaughan Lower said during her Facebook Live conversation Thursday on leading congregations in 2021. The Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director for Theological Funds Development for the Committee on Theological Education at the Presbyterian Foundation, appeared with Lower as part of the twice-monthly online conversations he hosts with Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders from around the country.

The pandemic “has brought us closer, and opportunity comes with that,” Lower said, referring to the staff, ruling elders, members and friends at the church where she serves, San Marino Community Church in Southern California. “It’s easy to be scared, but what did we hope the church would be doing in 20 years? New troubles come with a clean slate — that mission trip you wanted to take, that partnership you wanted to start, that small group you wanted to lead. People want something that brings them life.

“Do those things,” she suggested, “that bring you life.”

As she completes here doctoral studies, Lower said one thing that’s caught her attention is how anxiety functions in organizations like churches in much the same way it functions in individuals.

“We forget the organization itself produces, retains and magnifies anxiety,” she said. “The way it functions, it can create a feedback loop that causes the anxiety to intensify.”

While anxiety can create positive opportunities including “the necessity of urgency,” it can also “suck the energy out of a room,” she said. Church members and friends might react by stepping away from ministry they’ve been doing and cite reasons including “I’m getting older” or “I’m too busy.” That can create even more urgency, she said.

A favorite phrase on the topic of organizational anxiety, she said, comes from Dr. Scott Cormode, the Hugh De Pree Professor of Leadership Development at Fuller Theological Seminary: “We serve the never-changing gospel in an ever-changing society.”

“It can cause whiplash,” she said.

Ten months into offering prerecorded and livestreamed worship services online, Lower and her colleagues at San Marino Community Church have worked “to create rituals even though we are at a distance,” she said. “We have to take note of the way the pandemic shapes us. We can’t ignore it, but we can’t always preach about it. There is good news, but it’s most noticeable when everything is very, very dark.”

Asked by Hinson-Hasty to deliver a blessing and charge, Lower relied on one of her go-to benedictions, Paul’s advice to Timothy found in 2 Timothy 4:5: “Keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”

View the conversation between the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty and the Rev. Jessica Vaughan Lower here. See past episodes of Hinson-Hasty’s Facebook Live broadcast here.

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