By Eddie Pipkin

Phil and I travel in different circles: I work out of a converted yard tool storage room, a writing recluse, tucked away in my cave of creativity; he travels the country meeting folks face-to-face, feeding off the crowd energy as he leads workshops and training seminars.  During our regular catch-up sessions on Zoom, we’ve been comparing notes on our excursions back into the world of dining, shopping, and “doing regular stuff,” and as I kept celebrating our stuttering steps towards normalcy, Phil would reign me in with a reminder that “not everyplace is Florida” (and isn’t that always true in many and varied ways?).  But as far as the let-up of the lockdown goes, everyplace is rapidly catching up to Florida.  Worship is back.  Ministry is back.  Face-to-face (with caveats) is back.  And it’s a good time to take a deep breath and think about what happens now.

First of all, congratulations to all of you who have worked tirelessly through stressful conditions to shepherd your congregations through an unprecedented year of ministry surprises.  I’m sure that you have been celebrated by your own people, but it’s been stressful.  At every turn there has been uncertainty and plenty of critique.  In an environment in which, during normal circumstances, constant critique is like the ever-present background noise of an air conditioner on a hot day, this has been a season of constant second-guessing and whataboutism.  You have handled it with grace, patience, and creative flexibility.  God bless you.

It’s interesting that the great, grand reopening is arriving on a nexus with the summer season, notoriously acknowledged as a slow time in the church biz (youth and children’s ministry excepted).  How will these two impulses interact?  The celebratory urge for people to be back in worship and other activities in person and together vs. the normal summer pull-back as people travel and embrace summertime slack time mode.  Even more than a normal summer, there is pent-up demand for travel this summer.  A lot of people have been isolated one way and another, and the news reports tell us they are eager to hit the road.  Contrast that urge for travel, fun, and frolicking with friends with newly developed habits of skipping church (or catching it when convenient on YouTube), and it’s hard to predict exactly what is going to happen.

There could be a big increase in worship attendance.  Maybe not.  There could be a quick, but ephemeral surge: a few weeks of “getting the band back together,” followed by several quiet Sundays as people backslide into the new routines they developed for their Sunday mornings during the lockdown.

It is likely that there will be a brief and celebratory increase in attendance and enthusiasm in the next few weeks, followed by a slow stretch, with a true return to normal not arriving until the fall season and the start of the school year, the traditional time when families adopt their regular church routines.  This could actually be beneficial for local churches, giving them a valuable burst of enthusiasm and healing right now when it is desperately needed, but allowing space for staff to get settled back in and decide what pandemic adjustments will stay and which ones will go.  Fall becomes the target for the new and fully revised “normal” ministry.

Some do’s and don’t’s for the here and now:

  • Do embrace this moment fully! While encouraging people to continue to be safe and observe CDC guidance, lean into the celebratory mood and give people ample chances to enjoy reconnecting in person.
  • Don’t assume everyone is going to be happy and content. As soon as some folks walk in the door, they are going to be expecting everything to revert to exactly as it was pre-pandemic, and obviously that is not happening.  In addition to continued safety protocols that mean continuing adjustments to the way things used to be done, you probably also have schedule changes (and other changes) in place that you need to leave intact for at least a few months more as we ease into the new normal.  Reassure those with concerns and communicate clearly why you are maintaining these changes for the time being, as well as the process for further adjustments moving forward.
  • Do use the summertime to try to get some time away yourself if that is your normal routine. You have that travel bug, too.  You also have relatives you haven’t seen in a year.
  • Don’t take the whole summer off. Be careful about scheduling that time away and divvying up time off with other staff and key leadership.  It will be a dangerous time for ministry to shut down completely, as sometimes happens (more or less) with local congregations.  We need to be sensitive to the fact that people who have grown accustomed to skipping out on worship (or checking in remotely) may need some extra attention and extra institutional enthusiasm to get back into the routine of participation.  If we write them off till fall, it may be a mistake.
  • Do involve your congregation directly in figuring out the new normal. Now is a great time to have discussions about what the new post-pandemic normal should look like.  As you are deciding what changes to keep and what to put back on the shelf, make them your partners.  This can lead to some great visioning conversations, and this can be a time when long-delayed institutional shifts can organically occur.
  • Don’t make dramatic changes all at once. Sometimes a person who has survived a near-death experience will jettison the habits of their before-near-death-incident life and change everything all at once.  Resist that urge.  People need a second to catch their breath, to reacclimate to normal, and to reflect on what they’ve been through.

One of the things that is almost certainly true is that die-hard church fans will be back in droves, eager to see one another and resume their worship attendance.  It will be a homecoming like no other, and the energy will be intense.  Embrace that catharsis.  Enjoy the celebration.

But is also almost certainly true that the fence sitters, the disaffected, the disengaged, the young folk who don’t see the local church as part of their spiritual portfolio . . . those people will not be swarming back to our reopened doors.  They are likely more uninspired by what we have to offer than ever, and if we want to engage these groups, we will have to dig deeper in our quest for relevance, authenticity, and relationship building.