May 2021 blog Rebuilding after lockdown: Rest, recovery and reflection

Rebuilding after lockdown: Rest, recovery and reflection                                          May 2021

A blog from the Tragedies and Congregations team                                  
by Revd Dr. Carla A. Grosch-Miller

Nearly three-quarters of adults in the UK have had at least one vaccine jab and soon half will have had both. Lockdown restrictions eased significantly this month, and many of us ventured out into a wider social world. Many churches have resumed public worship in their buildings. Whilst there remains uncertainty about whether full freedoms will be restored on 21 June, there is a definite sense that we may be nearing the end of the worst of it – whilst being aware that things can change quickly. We are not out of the woods yet, and we know we will be living with Covid in one form or another for a long time, perhaps as we live with flu. But it may no longer have as much power to completely upend national, communal and personal life. There is turn towards hope and a cautious spring in our steps as we amble towards summer.

Are we now in a position to rebuild and recover, maybe even re-imagine the church, using the new skills we gained as we adapted to life under lockdown?

Maybe, maybe not. The answer will be different for different congregations, depending on people’s experiences and resources. What I want to highlight in this blog is the importance of rest, recovery and reflection as we begin to contemplate what church will be and look like in months and years to come.

Our team, which has been leading Trauma-informed ministry sessions to people in ministry around the UK for more than a year, has been struck in recent months by how exhausted those women and men are. It is not surprising. Our bodies have been under threat, causing higher than normal levels of stress hormones to wreak havoc on our brains and other major organs. Add to that the necessity to innovate and learn new skills, spend hours on Zoom, and be a lightning rod for the anxiety of parishioners and it is no surprise that they are worn out. Under normal circumstances, the demands and complexity of ministry are rarely understood. Under these circumstances, few will be aware of just how much stress clergy have been carrying.

This exhaustion is a physiological reality; we ignore it at our peril. What is most needed now for many in ministry is a period of rest, holiday or light duties. People’s recovery from the strains of the last 15 months will be impeded significantly without it.

Alongside rest is the opportunity to reflect. Steaming ahead without reflecting impoverishes the work of rebuilding and reimagining church. What’s been good about the pandemic? What have we learned about being human and about being church? Where might a renewed vision be emerging?

Susan Beaumont in How to Lead When You Don’t Know Where You’re Going: Leadership in a Liminal Season (2019) speaks about the importance of a listening, attending presence to discern the movement of the Spirit. One cannot be that kind of presence when depleted.

The pandemic has affected the people in our congregations in diverse ways. Some of experienced great loss; some have enjoyed respite from onerous tasks. All have been deprived of life-giving contact with others. Some will want to get back to normal ASAP; others may feel and indeed be unsafe and are unwilling to pick up where we left off in mid-March 2020. The minister will be a lightning rod for diverse hopes and fears. They will be pulled in opposite directions.

A study of the rebuilding of Jerusalem might be helpful. The Persian king Cyrus the Great declared that Judahites in exile in Babylon were free to return home to rebuild in the year 538 BCE. The first group to return set about trying to rebuild the Temple. The attempt faltered. It wasn’t until the year 520, sparked by the prophet Haggai, that the foundation stones for the new Temple were laid. Even then the people’s responses were mixed:

When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel: and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord. 
   ‘For he is good, for his steadfast love endures for ever towards Israel.’
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away. 
Ezra 3:10-13 (NRSV)

In short, the work of rebuilding is no walk in the park. Complex emotions will be sparked; loss will continue to be grieved. Not everyone will shout for joy at the changes that will happen. We need our church leadership teams to be rested (as much as possible) and resourced. It is not unusual after a collective trauma for a minister to experience physical or mental ill health or vocational trauma. Decent care now may mitigate that.

Beaumont speaks about the challenges of this time,  (14) Issues of Faith: Church leadership in uncertain times p2 – YouTube, underscoring the need to slow down and ask questions that really matter. Simply getting back to normal, in the long run, is not possible. I hope we can support our church leadership to attend to first things first: rest, recovery and reflection … building a foundation that will support the church we hope to rebuild and reimagine.