When We Return

By John Thornburg

Welcoming to church with covid badge

Note: Originally posted on Facebook. Shared with permission.

It's time for Level Two courage and creativity. Level One was all the energy and learning that accompanied being thrown into the COVID-19 context for ministry. I'm so grateful for people who gutted it up and figured things out.

Level Two courage and creativity won't be about how to do worship online or how to fine-tune online giving. It will be about asking "What are we learning about ourselves and about our ministry? What is God doing in our midst? To what is God calling us after shelter-in-place?"

The window for courageous conversations around these questions may be surprisingly brief. When it is finally safe to return to our church buildings, we'll be sorely tempted to rush back to the familiar. "Finally," we may say, "we can get back to what we know how to do!" This is absolutely understandable given the emotional stress of wondering whether we are the next one to show symptoms or have a loved one be hospitalized, and the vocational stress of having to make decisions so quickly.

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John Thornburg

Some thoughts about the conversations lay and clergy leaders should consider in the coming weeks:

  • The leaders with whom we've (TMF colleagues) been talking testify that there's widespread support for their leadership precisely because it's so clear what has to get done. What they worry about is what resistance will re-emerge once CHOICE returns. When there are more options for what to do or not to do, it will be harder to move forward.
  • What's clear is that the churches best positioned to emerge strong from shelter-in-place will be the ones that had the clearest sense of purpose before shelter in place. Some congregations may have to painfully admit that they cannot name the purpose of their church's ministry.
  • The leaders with whom we've spoken, especially those who head non-profits, have become so much more aware that they need other people to help them curate the vision of the organization, i.e., to share the load of dreaming and doing. One even said, "I need people more than I need money," referring to this whole matter of having people to help carry the load. Therefore, they are seeing their emerging role as EMPOWERERS.
  • The leaders with whom we've spoken have lamented that even though they have turned massive amounts of energy to serving their neighbors, and are making a huge difference, they are still being judged by the church hierarchy by how many people are watching their livestream. The old metrics are a strait jacket for those attempting to blaze new ministry trails.

This leads me to a few questions:

  • What will need to be true about us to turn to discernment as much or more as we return to planning when shelter in place is over? The temptation will be to plan lots of activities to prove that we're still in business rather than asking the central question, "God, given what we have been through, what is the difference you are calling us to make?"
  • What will it take to lead our people on the journey through grief and loss rather than around it? We cannot afford to give people simplistic answers or to assume that we know "what it all means."
  • How can we continue to stretch and exercise the muscle we've developed to ask with new sensitivity the age-old question, "Who is my neighbor?" We must find ways to elevate the voices of those who struggle all the time so we can walk alongside them, learn from them and forge a new future with them. It is possible this crisis will bring us closer to understanding the difference between 'ministry for' and 'ministry with.' Thanks to Bishop Gregory Palmer for this insight.
  • What will it take to break out of the captivity of spending such a vast amount of money and energy gathering like-minded people in one place for one hour on Sunday? Thanks to Rev. Ben Trammell of University UMC, San Antonio, for that insight.

The window for having conversation around questions like these is brief. Given the wondrous explosion of care and creativity which has happened in recent days, I hope you'll call groups of people together to ask these and other questions.

Rev. John Thornburg brings 38 years of ministry experience in diverse settings both in the United States and in West Africa. He calls himself a "professional encourager" and loves to work with congregations in the Holy Conversations strategic planning process, as well as representing all of the traditional financial and leadership services of TMF.

His work in the nationally renowned East Dallas Cooperative Parish brought growth, vitality and missional focus to a church which had declined for years. He founded a unique extensional ministry to strengthen congregational singing and traveled to hundreds of churches in the 12 years prior to coming to TMF as Senior Area Representative for the North Texas Conference and then as Vice President of Area Staff. Rev. Carol Montgomery assumed the role of Senior Area Representative for the North Texas Conference in July 2017 to allow John to focus on managing area staff activities for all six conferences TMF serves throughout Texas and New Mexico. John earned a B.A. in Ancient Greek Language and Literature from DePauw University, and an M.Div. from Perkins School of Theology.