By Eddie Pipkin

As more and more friends and family are vaccinated, and the world desperately lurches towards normal, my calendar is filling up with catch-up dates: gatherings to catch up with folks we haven’t seen in way too long and events to make up for things that we weren’t able to be part of during the pandemic isolation.  My Tuesday morning breakfast Bible study broke bread together in person for the first time in over a year, and a good friend is finally holding the memorial service for his mom who passed away several months ago.  Churches across America (and around the world) are going to be a focal point for this pent-up demand for celebrations uncelebrated, and it’s an opportunity for us to be creative in giving people outlets to drink deeply from the socialization fountain, party with a purpose, and grieve for special occasions unacknowledged.

Now, let me be clear.  I understand fully that we’re not back to normal yet, and social distancing and mask wearing will still be a significant part of our church lives in the months ahead as we all seek to act responsibly and safely.  You’ll be following the guidance from health professionals and your denominational leaders (and those will continue to be fraught decisions).  I have a good clergy friend who has talked about the ironic juxtaposition of the newly vaccinated elders in the congregation advocating for opening everything back up pronto, while the younger unvaccinated folks are the ones expressing caution!

But the headline is that people are eager to get back together and increasingly comfortable doing so.  We should be ready.  We should be enthusiastic as it’s increasingly safe to do be enthusiastic.  Have some fun.  That has been too often in short supply, and there is just something that is unequalled about the energy that comes from a large gathering of energetic people having fun together.  (And I will add that hugs and handshakes are making a dramatic comeback as well, at least in my circles.)

I do have a few ideas for how to launch into this season of the reopening (dare we say, “the resurrection of normal”):

  • Plan a big party/event that features a “Celebration of Everything.” Think of all the things people didn’t get to do in the past year (from Easter egg hunts to Christmas carol sing-alongs to trunk-or-treats) and have one big catch-all gathering to do mini-versions of all those things!  This would be different for different congregations, of course, but the point would be to have a big, fun blowout with a sense of humor that brings the community together.  Imagine the lunacy of an Easter Egg hunt, followed by a 4th-of-July style sack race, followed by some Christmas carol singing.
  • Take a congregational poll asking people what event/activity they missed the most. Then make a big deal out of doing a special version of whatever the winner was.  You can’t make up everything that was missed, and you’re already busy planning events on the future calendar, but picking one thing to host in a non-familiar calendar slot gives a solid indication that we’ve turned a corner on the road to normalcy.  (The whole vibe for these first two ideas makes use of that classic “Christmas in July” energy, scheduling something seasonally atypical.)
  • On a more serious note, host a Post Pandemic Service of Grief and Healing. Design a worship service that gives people an opportunity to come and acknowledge publicly the things they have lost and suffered during this unprecedented period.  In a special ceremony – using liturgies of grief, suffering, loss, forgiveness, and healing – they can name these things out loud, express gratitude for the graces they have discovered during this trial, and say goodbye to this season of unrelenting anxiety as they look positively toward the future.  An opportunity to formally grieve – as a community together – is an essential part of our healing and moving forward.  There are classic experiential elements that could be part of such a service: kids could be asked to draw a picture of what the pandemic looked like to them and bring them to share; creative types could be asked to write poetry to share; people could be asked to write down five post-pandemic goals based on new things they have learned about themselves and their community; people could write down things they have lost on slips of paper and then burn those.  This is the kind of event/service that could be opened up to the community.

As we make this transition from “survival mode” to figuring out the new post-pandemic world, we’ll be continuing to reconceptualize our ministries, as well as our personal journeys.  I found this article from Tracy Brower at Fast Company to be a helpful framework: “Now is the time for reinvention.”

It’s the kind of article that can be a useful jumping off point for a week of personal devotions or a staff meeting or leadership team discussion.  Its subtitle states, “The nearing end of the pandemic may be the perfect opportunity for a personal reset,” and the article starts off like this:

As we turn the corner on the pandemic, some people are daring to hope for a significant wave of energy, renewal and reinvention in society. And admittedly, what better time is there to turns things inside out, and rethink your priorities and concept of the future?

For example, when we take a look at the root of “emergency,” it is the word “emerge,” which means to rise up or out of. Within a moment of crisis, there can be inspiration and improvement.

Some people are already comparing potential positives of upcoming months and years to the Roaring ’20s — with a similar period of innovation, change and expansion. The timing may be right for you to consider reassessing yourself and your direction.

She lists some simple ways to think about it:

  • Lots of new energy. People will be on the loose and eager to get involved.
  • More openness to try things and a renewed sense of optimism.
  • New bonds have been forged (and should be nurtured) and a deeper appreciation of some old bonds has developed as well. Relationships are more important than ever.
  • We have experienced an intense real-time trial in deploying our critical thinking skills, and this should open us up to exploring more options and wielding that critical thinking more courageously as we make decisions going forward.

She also suggests asking these questions as we think about what the pandemic taught and what these lessons mean for moving forward:

  • What has surprised you?

Here’s a quote from this article that I love – it is worthy of group discussion or a sermon reference or a personal afternoon of introspection:

Anytime you’re surprised, it’s a clue that you’ve unlocked an assumption. Surprise tells you that something is not what you had presumed it would be. So give thought to what has surprised you about yourself over the past year. What were you able to handle that you wouldn’t have expected? What bothered you more than you would have thought? What energized you or helped you through?

  • How have you followed your curiosity and been inspired? How can you lean more fully into pursuing that curiosity and inspiration in new directions?
  • Where can things improve – what cracks have been exposed by this emergency? And, conversely, what habits and rituals have established their value and need to stay exactly the same?
  • What were you empowered to let go of in these unusual circumstances? What do you still need to let go of as the new normal approaches?  (And what new habits did you pick up to get through the crisis that it’s time to say goodbye to now?)

The question that continues to fascinate us here at Excellence in Ministry Coaching is what pandemic produced ministry shifts will be a permanent evolution of who we are as a church and what adaptations will be a temporary flash in the pan?  Will there be fundamental changes in how we do what we do, or will we revert to business as usual as soon as we are given the all clear?  There has been much technological innovation during this time (Zoom groups and quality online worship seem here to stay – and that’s a glorious development), but have there been deeper shifts in how we connect with each other and share God’s love with the greater world?

Time will tell.  But if we miss this transition to be thoughtful and intentional, we will miss a generational opportunity to seize the moment.  Don’t miss it.