Pausing at the Water’s Edge

By Hilary Allen

reflection of hand reaching into a body of water

Ever since we marked the year anniversary of this pandemic, I’ve been asking: “How much time needs to pass before a documentary can be made?” When I voiced the question aloud to my partner, he shared that Jimmy Kimmel had recently posed a similar question to documentarian Ken Burns (YouTube) who reported his new standard to be 5-7 years. I’m doubtful whether we can wait five years...

I think we need a documentary now. There’s something about that creative medium that helps us see ourselves within an event, a moment in history. There’s a reflective process to watching a story get told that helps us see ourselves in the story, or at least locate ourselves in proximity to it. Whether it takes a documentary form or not, we need to take up the task of reflection. I imagine deep art like the New York Times piece “Emerging From the Coronavirus.” Something significant and life-altering happened to all of us this past year, and there is still more meaning to be made and further learning to be integrated.

Your New England Regional staff are in discernment about what role we might play in supporting or equipping congregations in this reflective work on church in pandemic. One of our programs this past year deeply informs our discernment. As you may remember, we ourselves took on one of our congregations’ favorite techniques of listening circles. Three times this year — in October, January, and March — we sat at the feet of a small group of soulful lay leaders and religious professionals and posed questions on how and what congregations were doing. We listened and have reflected back some of what we heard in many of our blog posts this year (From Powerlessness to Promise, Purpose, Not Perfection, Remembering Our Gifts.)

Here is only a small sampling of some of what we have gleaned from listening to you:

  • Many of you have seen both increases and decreases in Sunday service attendance.
  • Online offerings have allowed for greater accessibility for distant, homebound, or others with limits to in-person participation. Accessibility has stretched in ways previously thought impossible now that we have had the will.
  • Different but still fulfilling forms of connection, intimacy, and productivity have flooded in including breakout groups, varied forms of musical expression, and adjusted committee work.
  • Increased capacity for creativity, innovation, and taking risks to make change. “The ways we’ve always done things” have been completely flipped on their heads.
  • Staff had to reinvent the ways they do their work and much of their labor has gone unseen or unacknowledged. They are also largely overworked and exhausted.
  • RE programming, for those who are showing up, has also suffered from invisibility. But by and large, children and youth have been mostly absent, many wary of more online screen time.
  • Collaborations with other congregations are rich, varied, and accessible to a wider scope of people through online settings than in person.

These gleanings clearly only scratch the surface. We need much, much more looking backwards to uncover more of what we have learned, especially as we feel the pull to move ahead. Before the decisions and plans creep completely back in, there first needs to be, as my colleague Joe declared, “Time for Thinking Like an Ancestor.” Before a more controllable future than global pandemic arrives, let us not skip the rich and fertile potential of reflection.

I want to be especially clear that I am talking about reflection, not assessment. Our questions need not be ones of measurement or evaluation. We are not attempting to gauge how close we got to our mark (did we even have one?!). Instead, what is needed is reflection as if we are looking into water and seeing our own image shown back to us. Not judging or analyzing — but seeing, noticing, witnessing. This kind of reflection is mostly about story:

What was it like for you?

How did we live?

How did we shape our faith?

Notice where you jump to the now what questions. Things like:

  • How might membership, belonging, welcome, and hospitality shift in light of what we have learned this year?
  • How might what we learned about community, covenant and how it is practiced, and faithful risking and change inform where we are going next?
  • How might we continue deepening into accessibility? For those who turned away from church, what will allow for them to turn back?

There will be a time for these questions too, but first, reflection. Reflection first.

I don’t doubt that many of us are maybe a little afraid to reflect so soon on something that is still quite close and tender. These fears may be part of the reason for Ken Burns’ five year standard! Yet, let us remember that company is one of the gifts of community, that we will have each other to look back together with. And plan ahead to make accessibility the therapeutic, trauma-informed resources that you have at your disposal for the people who need extra care and attention.

Sometimes when we are planning workshops or other public programs, we check our designs by utilizing the adult learning question of: how will the people know that they know? This is the question for now as well. We have seen you do and be things you could not even imagine before. How will you know you know? We have heard you describe tremendous learnings and profound experiences. How will you center reflection as a practice in your congregations right now so that we can continue to make meaning of all that has happened?

This recent podcast with Brené Brown interviewing Priya Parker has excellent questions and suggestions for reflective processes and planning.