Know Your Why: Rebooting Congregations in a Post-Pandemic Reality

By Natalie Briscoe

On March 13th, 2020, I was hosting a large Friday the 13th themed party at my home. I had just returned from teaching a Southern Region Leadership Experience in Virginia, and I was elated to have dozens of loved ones near me, celebrating family birthdays, eating together, laughing out loud, and hugging. I am fortunate to have so many close friends, family, and friends who are family in my life, and I had no idea that when they walked out of my house that evening, they would not return.

Austin, Texas, where I live, received our shelter-in-place orders at midnight on March 14th, 2020. The realization slowly set in that my children would not be returning to school, I would not be returning to traveling for work, and our lives would not be returning to anything that resembled normal.

I am writing this blog post on March 14th, 2021, one full year into pandemic isolation. We have gone through phases of homeschooling: following the school’s plan, abandoning that plan because we couldn’t keep up with the schedule, trying online school and abandoning that, attempting to create our own lesson plans and abandoning those in favor of reading our favorite books, journaling, practicing math facts, and doing occasional fun classes online, usually about the varied ways animals fart or poop. We have learned so much about ourselves and our loved ones as we reach out, tell stories, write letters, and try to connect without breathing the same air. We are all really, really good at Zoom.

And yet, we know it is not the same. It’s not even adequate. We hunger for each other; we long to be together. I often think back on that last night in my home. I can smell the blown-out birthday candles. I can hear the waves of belly-laughter. I can feel the comfort of being wrapped up in a precious hug. I miss it. I miss us.

I miss being in the congregations with you as well. I miss that feeling when ideas start to fly around at a strategic planning session, when the new vision takes hold. I miss the excitement of watching the hands go up in favor of calling your new minister. I miss sitting with the boards as you make difficult yet life-giving decisions rooted in a theology of love and justice. I miss singing and worshipping and teaching and serving alongside you.

So I understand when you call me, and you want to know about reopening. I know you miss it, too. And while we are so very close to being there, we are just not there yet. We must continue to worship in our homes, separately together, until we know it is truly safe for everyone.

I know that isn’t what you want to hear. I wish I had better news. But here is what we do know:

Reopening our Congregations is a process, not an event. There are so many things to consider, and there is much to be done. This process isn’t done with us yet, and we must take the time to learn all the lessons we can and move faithfully into the process of inviting our congregations back into covenant, back into community, and back into service in thoughtful, meaningful ways. We are all eager to be together again, and the process will take time so that we can do so safely.

We must include becoming more trauma-informed, recovenanting, and supporting the mental health of our staff, lay-leaders, and congregations in our process. First, becoming a trauma-informed congregation will become paramount to helping our communities gather again safely. We have just been through a collective trauma event which will have a long-lasting effect on many of us after this phase of life is over. We must help our congregations recognize when trauma responses occur, such as when a member of the congregation reacts to a seemingly small issue with great emotion, and then how we, as a congregation, shift our culture to responding with empathy rather than punitive anger. In addition, we have been in isolation for a year now, and we do not know how much longer it will continue. We are frankly out of practice at being together. We need to remember how to be in community all over again, and you can expect that conflicts may arise more readily during the first year of regathering.

This growing awareness of both the trauma in our congregations as well as the possibility of increased conflicts leads us to the opportunity to re-covenant with each other. We are a different congregation than the one who left before because we are all different individuals now. It is the perfect time to incorporate our increasing awareness of how we have been transformed - both for good or ill - and make new promises to one another about how we will be together.

Finally, during this time of great change and stress, your staff and leadership were forced to pivot into a new way of being and hold a new kind of space for the congregation. They were called to a kind of leadership that was unexpected and sudden. They have done extraordinary things with very little time or resources. They have learned new skills, been creative, and done massive amounts of emotional work at a time when anxiety and pain were so high that all of these actions seemed impossible. At the same time as caring for the congregation, these leaders have cared for their families, their children, their parents, and their own mental, physical, and emotional health. It is important to recognize that going back is even more labor required from your leadership at a time when they may be nearing their capacity.

Keeping the congregation going during the pandemic has been like pushing a car up a hill for your leadership. You may have been able to do it with the resources that you had, but it is unsustainable. You must take time to rest and prepare for the emotional labor of reopening before it is too late and we lose these leaders forever.

You should be able to answer four key questions before you reopen. As a congregation, first you need to discern what you learned through this past year. What is at the center of your congregation? What challenges did you overcome? What do you understand about yourselves now that you may not have understood before? I encourage you not to simply name these learnings, but to write them down.

Record this wisdom for future generations. Allow these transformations, trials, and triumphs to become part of your congregation’s narrative history. Second, from this information, you must discern what needs to change. Did you discover something important that wasn’t being given enough time, attention, or other resources? Did you find a new path to connection that you want to keep? How will your congregation be transformed by your learnings? Third, what needs to return to the way it was? Did you find that there are spaces, methods, and ways of being that are essential to who you are as a congregation? What did you truly miss the most? What does your heart hunger for? And finally, what are your needs during this transition back to reopening? This process will not be without its own set of challenges, and your partners on the Southern Region Staff and your sibling congregations in the UUA are ready to support you.

Which brings us to: You have support. Your Southern Region staff welcomes being partners in this discernment process with you. Feel free to call us at any time, and we will be happy to have conversations with your board, staff, and other leadership about how we might find answers to these questions and a path forward for your particular congregation.

In addition, much of the programming from the Southern Region will be geared toward re-opening in the next year, including the Presidents’ Gatherings, the Toolbox Webinars, and any supplemental webinars that may arise out of your needs over the course of the next church year. Our Leadership Experience will be expanded to a nine-month track in support of your congregation’s faith development, and we will be holding a Regional Assembly in October of 2021 where we will offer opportunities to learn from one another and offer each other support. The UUA’s COVID Response Team continues to update the Safer Congregations portion of the UUA’s website with the latest information, and many national offerings also exist that will assist you in this transition. Check our regional newsletter and our regional calendar for more information on the variety of offerings from all departments at the UUA.

The date when it is safe to reopen will pass before we make the decision to reopen. In other words, you will not hear a date in the future. You will hear that it has been safe for such an amount of time that we can determine that it will continue to be so. There is just no way to predict when it will be safest in the future, and the information changes too rapidly for us to be responsible with those recommendations.

And finally, when that time comes, just because you can reopen doesn’t mean you should. It’s not a deadline. It’s an option. Allow your congregation to take the time to truly prepare. You don’t have to do anything at any time. Some congregations will not go back to meeting in person at all, ever. These many long months have been difficult for all of us; don’t rush to a decision just to escape them. Make your decisions based on what needs to happen next.

There is good, important, life-saving work that we can be doing now in order to reopen in the future, and we cannot gather together just yet. I know you want to. I wish we could. And on the day when we are all truly ready, we will lift our voices in a profound chorus of relief, joy, and jubilation. Until that day, friends, hang in there. You are not alone.