God is at work in us

How churches can adapt ministry to COVID-19

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I cannot count the number of times in the last two weeks I or someone close to me has said, “I can’t remember anything like this in my lifetime.” It seems like we are living in an unprecedented time with extraordinary circumstances, many of which are out of our control. If modern people like anything, its control. And the loss of control seems terribly frightening.

In their book, Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky describe two kinds of leadership: technical and adaptive. In technical leadership, experts apply known solutions to situations we’ve experienced with predictable outcomes. In adaptive situations, the context has changed, the way is unknown and the people who need to change need to do the work; experts can’t do it for them.

In recent months, the church has been confronted with an adaptive situation: COVID-19. Over the course of the weeks leading up to our current situation, life seemed normal, unchanged. But seemingly suddenly, we’ve been confronted with significant disruption and change that is requiring pastors and congregations to rethink how we do our work and how we live our witness.

The old adage “people hate change” is wrong. One of the things that Heifetz and Linsky identify is that it is not change that people hate, it’s loss. The disruptions we face that require us to adapt often require us to give up something important to us: identity, belief, values, etc. These losses shake us to our core and cause us to question all we’ve known to be true. It’s what happened to Job, to David, to an exiled Israel, to the prophets (see Habakkuk among others). And these become times of clarifying and reorientation.

Right now, churches all across the U.S. are wrestling with questions like, “Should we meet for worship?” “How do we care for the elderly?” “What about food distribution to the needy?” “How do we come alongside members who are having surgery, or sick, or dying?” “How can we be the church if we don’t meet together?”

This is an adaptive moment. We’ve never been here before. And as a result, these questions are causing congregations and their leaders to face significant loss. In this moment I offer the following suggestions:

There is not a patent answer for these questions as local situations and contexts will dictate how churches should respond. That said, if the response is driven by fear (“We’re all going to die!”) or by pride (“You can’t stop us from meeting!”) it is an unfaithful response.

Adaptive situations require the people to do the work, not the experts. Pastors, you may have come to believe that you are responsible to drive change. If you do, it will never be meaningful. Real change (“transformation” to use the language of Romans 12:2) has to be internalized. And it can only be internalized if people are changed from the inside out.

Ask good questions. Questions are a great tool right now to allow the Spirit to work in your congregation. And don’t assume you have the answers; this is God’s work and God may surprise you.

Adaptive contexts require experimentation and sometimes those experiments don’t go as we hope. Keep experimenting. It’s how learning works and is a tool to living in humility and hopefulness.

Pastors, trust that the Spirit of God is at work in the congregation. The church is not a democracy nor an autocracy. It is a “pneumacracy” ruled by the Holy Spirit. Allow for our theological understanding of the priesthood of all believers to be realized by leading the church to seek God’s leading, not their own or your own leading. This is why we pray, so that we might hear God and do God’s will.

Let love guide you well. Heifetz and Linsky point out that love is the source of faithful leadership. This matches our understanding of Jesus’ teaching. In the midst of uncertainty and upheaval, the most important question we can all ask is: “How can I love well, or how can we, as a church, love well?” Likewise, let us lead our congregations to love our communities. Solidarity with our communities and seeking the well-being of our neighbors is certainly a Christian value we can explore and expand in this difficult season.

Remember that our ability to love is centered in God’s love for us manifest in Christ Jesus. It becomes much easier to love others when we see that love as a response to God’s love for ourselves.

Adaptive contexts require us to accept loss. But as we lose identities shaped in self-reliance and self-orientation, as we lose values of being powerful and in control, as we sacrifice the belief that we have life’s formula figured out, we are allowed the opportunity to be reformed by God’s work in us.

This reformation of identity should lead back to our realization that we are God’s beloved. God has not abandoned us nor forsaken us, despite how it may feel to some. This might be the very thing the world most needs to see in us and learn from us at this changing time.

Quentin P. Kinnison, is chair of the Biblical & Religious Studies Division and associate professor of Christian Ministry at Fresno Pacific University, and author of Transforming Pastoral Leadership.



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