Reimagining Church

Thriving Congregations Initiative: New Models for the 21st Century

“It was a seriously lonely time”

David Potter

In our second session, the St. PJs working group gathered to discuss ‘change.’

Each of us—those in the working group, in the congregation, and throughout our society—has experienced a tremendous degree of change. In a peculiar way, the pandemic has provided us with a common experience. “It was a seriously lonely time,” as one member put it, “and a worrying time.”

Not everyone has had the same experience, and not everyone has been equally impacted by the changes experienced. But perhaps this common foundation provides an entry into understanding the particulars of others. How might the change experienced as a result of the pandemic provide shared language and help us to truly see one another?

In shaking our social foundations, the pandemic has dismantled many illusions; we can no longer pretend our community is impermeable to conditions outside of our control. And indeed, we have been constantly changing, whether we acknowledged it or not. This reality is one consistent through the history of the Christian church.

So, what will be our relationship to change? And how ought the St. PJs community navigate change together?

As each member told personal stories of seasons or moments of significant transition, we created a vivid image of what change feels like—and what it evokes in each of us.

From our own experiences, the working group identified that change involves the following (among certainly many other qualities): fear, hope, bravery, chaos, powerlessness, loss, sorrow, aloneness, forgiveness of self, passion, discovery, possibilities, risk, questioning, beginnings, uncertainty, and new life.

That each of these characteristics have no doubt been experienced and held by the St. PJs congregation in this time was just one of the insights from the discussion. All that each working group member has experienced in difficult, painful, and hope-filled seasons of change is also collectively held in our community as a result of experiencing this time of common and extreme social disruption.

Change evokes a visceral response; it is terror—and it can also hold “new life.”

Personal stories led to considering the changes experienced at St. PJs, and what was discovered in them. Below are some of the key insights from Session 2:

1. Connection is vital: Sunday services held on Zoom were critical to congregational life. Creative use of technology also expanded access to St. PJs ministry.

2. Visceral experience is important: While virtual gatherings provided a means for greater access, the quality of experience and relationship is diminished. Using Zoom for all gatherings lends a feeling of worship services losing connection, feeling distanced, and blurs the distinction between liturgy and what feels like a business meeting. Losing tactile engagement in and through things like bread and wine, conversation over a cup of coffee, and laying on of hands in prayer made evident the importance of materials in congregational life and worship.

3. Community cultivates resilience: In spite of many difficulties, St. PJs has remained stable. New members joined the congregation during virtual pandemic services, opportunities to engage the broader diaspora of the community were presented, and members remain invested in the life of the congregation. St. PJ’s existing ministry has cultivated a vitality of relationship that nurtured the resilience critical for navigating unexpected change and distance.