Early in the pandemic crisis my mind kept wandering back to a poem written by my former minister and mentor, Rev Rudy Nemser. The poem, “Long-Haul People,” reminds me that congregations thrive on a million small acts of attention and commitment over weeks, months and years and it is through those acts that we grow the resilience to weather the kind of crisis we now find ourselves in.
If ever there was a time to demonstrate strength, flexibility and our resilient spirit, this is it. I’m so inspired by how our congregations continue to connect and adapt in ways that most of us never dreamed of. We’ve shifted to virtual worship while overcoming technical challenges to create amazing music, daily check-ins, innovative family gatherings and a myriad of other appropriately distanced activities. We’ve become conversant in zoom and vigilant against “zoombombing.” We’re reaching out, checking on our elders, and dropping off groceries. It’s new, it’s fresh and maybe even a little fun to think of novel ways to do what we’ve always done: build and nurture beloved community.
But are we the long-haul people? Will the novelty wear thin while we lament “how things used to be?” Will our energy flag when we gather to mourn rather than celebrate? Can we accept that we will emerge from this interminable snow day to find that some ways of being have been irrevocably changed? Over the years I’ve followed the conversation and heard the aspirations of congregations who want to “grow.” What does that even mean today? The metrics by which we’ve tested and tweaked our organizational health and assessed our financial stability may no longer give us the data we need to answer the imperative question we must now ask: are we a people of resilience with a mission that is relevant in this strange new world?
What does it mean to be a long-haul people, a people of resilience? It means that we continue to bring families together, find safe spaces for our youth and the vulnerable among us, and share joy and beauty in the bleakest of days. It can mean that we hold our community together and minister to those who need us; but it also means we are willing to let go of things that no longer make sense or no longer serve the community and our mission. When the fear recedes and the way forward becomes clearer, our congregations will have an opportunity to reimagine what church is, who is included (and excluded) in our community, and how we live our principles and values in a world that has shifted under our feet. Long-haul people can do that. They’ve done it before and they’ll do it as many times and for as long as needed because they know somewhere deep in their soul that even though things may look and sound different, the church – their church – will always be here. For the long haul.
Long-Haul People by Rudy Nemser*
You find them in churches
When you’re lucky;
Other places too, thought I mostly
Only know the ecclesiastical varieties.
Upon whose shoulders
(and pocketbooks and casseroles
And daylight/nighttime hours)
A church is built and maintained
After the brass is tarnished and
Cushions need re-stitching.
They pay their pledges full and on time
Even when the music’s modern;
Support each canvass
Though the sermons aren’t always short;
Mow lawns and come to suppers;
Teach Sunday School when
There’s no one else and they’ll miss the service.
Asked what they think of the minister,
Or plans for the kitchen renovation,
Or the choral anthem, or Christmas pageant,
Or color of the bathroom paint,
They’ll reply: individuals and fashions
Arrive and pass.
The church – their church – will be here, steady and hale.
For a long. Long time.
For long-haul people bless a church with a very special blessing.
*Bless the Imperfect: Meditations for Congregational Leaders, Kathleen Montgomery, Editor, Skinner House Books, 2014.