Monday, May 8, 2023

How to Thrive in a Plague: Letting Vulnerability Foster Community

By Rev. Molly Baskette (Lead Pastor, First Church Berkeley UCC )

The following article was reprinted with permission from the book “Hybrid Hope: Church of the Future for Churches With a Future.” For additional reflections on how hybrid church will endure beyond the pandemic and how to capitalize on the lessons learned in order to do ministry in new ways, we invite you to purchase a copy of the book on Amazon.

For now we see in a glass, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 

I Corinthians 13:12 

When I arrived at my current church as the new lead pastor back in 2016, someone asked me in an open forum, “How will you bring stability to our congregation?” They were a midsized urban congregation in the Bay Area with muscle memory for being a much larger and more complex church. They were looking for someone who would restore them to their former glory: the heyday of being a big, well-respected anchor church just a block south of a world-renowned university.  

I opened my mouth to answer and what accidentally came out was, “I won’t bring stability. I bring instability.” Despite the nervous laughter that ensued, I found I was relieved after I said it, because it was true. I’d been feeling anxious that our church was a little too stable. If it ain’t visibly broke, you don’t fix it, and that doesn’t leave a lot of room for innovation, experimentation, creativity, and systemic change.  

Life, or God being a showoff, took care of the church’s stability (or at least the appearance of it). Five months after I arrived, a good portion of the church campus burned down when roofing contractors accidentally started a fire. It gutted our entire program building—offices, fellowship hall, kitchen, Sunday school classrooms, and more—and took our sanctuary offline for nine months. Now we were getting somewhere!  

Coming Together

The Presbyterian church across the street invited us to use their sanctuary and fellowship hall in the afternoons for our own worship. That first Sunday, I encouraged everyone who was able to bring a crockpot of homemade soup to share after the service. This might not sound like a radical ask, but our church’s coffee hour fellowship was, at the time, an expensive and lackluster semi-catered affair, and when I asked the 90-year-old matriarch when our church had last asked members to provide the food themselves, she said, “Never in my lifetime.” 

But people need to eat. They especially need to eat during a catastrophe. Homecooked food, which is one way church folks show love, is a magical elixir that jumpstarts the healing process. And when we take the time to eat each other’s “Best-Ever Lentil Soup” or “Gramma’s Secret Recipe Beef Stew” together while we grieve and gossip and knit ourselves back together, we can begin to imagine a life past the current emergency. A Costco cheese plate just won’t cut it in a crisis. 

Nearly six years later, we have reinhabited our sanctuary. Our burned building is about to be demolished, and we have plans for a lovely smaller, energy-efficient, accessible, light-filled community building with indoor/outdoor space and a labyrinth. Every Sunday after worship, a deep bench of soup makers still provide nosh for the entire congregation, including unhoused folks who wander off the street or from where they are sleeping in our cloister. All are fed because we have new muscles for feeding one another.  

The COVID Storm

The COVID-19 global pandemic was like a fire that came out of nowhere, tore through our communities, and displaced us immediately from our physical plants. We had just days to adapt to the current reality and keep adapting, to figure out not only how to do church, but to do church with and for a suddenly terrified, traumatized, and extra-needy people. 

Not to “bright side” one of the most devastating experiences of our lifetimes, but the same dynamic that my own community experienced after our fire applies to many of our churches in the pandemic: we did not let this crisis go to waste. We used it as a lever to pry loose old habits and expectations, to dismantle obsolete systems and structures that were not serving us any longer, and make room for novel, Spirit-led growth and change. 

Kevin Gonzalez/Unsplash

The old had passed away, and there was literally no way to bring it back. We could follow it into death or turn our faces toward new life: learning how to livestream, moving toward electronic communications and giving, helping elders and others bridge the digital divide, and Zooming our leadership meetings while watching babies or helping teens with homework instead of choosing between church leadership and family life. 

It was work. A lot of work, which you already know! Not only was there a learning curve for all of us (Pastors, did you ever think public health officer, director of photography, or audio engineer would be in your job description?), but there were limitless amounts of our own grief and exhaustion to push through, and the grief and exhaustion of our people to navigate. God willing, the work has been worth it. 

When our church first burned down, we immediately established a “Blue Sky” team representing a diversity of our membership. Our charge was to think broadly about how we might use the gift of prime downtown Berkeley real estate for the highest good of the wider community. Because we were (and still are) in a devastating homelessness and housing in-affordability crisis, a question naturally came up: Could we, in rebuilding, add low-income housing? 

The idea immediately became contentious in the general congregation. Some in their grief and disorientation became worried about being further displaced if housing ate up part of our parking lot. Others were aghast that their co-members would think about putting parking before people. Lines were drawn, and, sensing that the issue might split the congregation, we did what lots of churches do in conflict: stopped talking about it.  

A Changed World

We tabled the discussion for about two years. By then, the world had changed in significant ways. The homelessness problem was even worse following the onset of the pandemic. Our small city was beginning to shift its previously negative attitude toward dense downtown development, and our congregational meetings had moved online. Our church had also changed: we had done a lot of internal emotional work to surface and heal ancient wounds and find new, healthier ways of communicating our differences. And, looking to secure our longer-term financial future, we discovered we could earn income from a new housing development if we leased the land out. In a well-run Zoom congregational meeting (with a judicious use of the mute function), we talked through the pros and cons. A couple weeks later, with near unanimity, we voted to move forward with building affordable housing.  

None of this happened by accident. There were three distinct sets of tools we used in helping the congregation countenance systemic change this large. The first was training and coaching in family systems from the Lombard Mennonite Peace Institute. More than 30 of our core members went to a one-day training, and key staff and leaders went to a five-day training. The second was learning about and actively practicing compassionate communication (also called “nonviolent communication”). And the third was John Kotter’s eight-step process for leading change, which starts with creating a sense of urgency (which the pandemic did for all of our churches!), and flows with the way group dynamics actually work to affect meaningful and lasting institutional change. 

While the process to become a people who can align around big goals and uncomfortable shifts was at times very painful, one of the greatest gifts of doing this internal work is that it brought us much closer as a community. Being a midsize church in a high-churn area, most longtime members had close friends in the congregation, but it was hard for newcomers to find their way to real rootedness. There was a loneliness and isolation endemic to our community even before the pandemic; as Thoreau said, “We are for the most part lonelier when we go abroad among men [sic] than when we stay in chambers.” 

A New Vision

But the tasks we set for ourselves forced a collision of egos that yielded more vulnerable personal sharing and unlikely bonds. As part of our work to heal our divides and clarify where we felt God was leading us, we held a churchwide visioning process with 150 of our members. At the end of the process, we had produced a crisply articulated five-year-vision that included the phrase “to grow in intimacy as the weird and wonderful body of Christ.” 

That phrase became contentious while we were still wordsmithing it. Our parish nurse, who had founded a robust mental health ministry in our church to destigmatize mental illness, worried that “weird” was pejorative and would turn away people that she had worked hard to include. A young trans member of our church told her that using “weird” in reference to our congregation, especially paired with the word “wonderful,” made room for zer and other typically marginalized people to be fully claimed and loved as their whole selves. The two agreed to keep “weird” in the vision, and they became friends. 

How does this relate to our churches post-pandemic (if we will ever, really, be post-pandemic)? In short, a rupture in our routines, rituals, and ways of being together can lead to estrangement, but it can also lead to greater intimacy depending on how we manage change, conflict, and communication. 

An Opportunity

Just six months after the phrase “to grow in intimacy as the weird and wonderful body of Christ” entered our common lexicon, COVID descended. Here was an opportunity to see if we could keep growing in intimacy despite the public health mandates to socially distance and maybe even have new methods for forging community. COVID gave us an imperative to expand into doing more digital spiritual formation and worship, something also articulated in our congregation’s vision and something we had known for a few years we needed to do to be more relevant in a changing world. 

Here are a few things we did to live out our own vision of becoming closer as a congregation while expanding our ways of worshipping: 

  • Daily Digital Divine: At the beginning of the pandemic, we posted one short “spiritual practice” video a day to the email list and our social media. All were made by church members, not necessarily staff, and were as complex as kid-made Lego videos and Zoom skits or as simple as a basic yoga move or a reminder to drink a glass of water. They allowed a wide variety of people in our church, including introverts and creatives, to be “seen” in a way they had not been previously. 
  • Sunday morning worship: Now all online, it morphed into a true “work of the people” with a variety of premade videos that turned worship into a kind of sacred “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” 
  • Virtual retreats, workshops, and special services, including:  
  1. Online half-day retreats for Lent and Advent using poetry, journaling, candle lighting, and more; emotional and tactile worship services for Blue Christmas, Ash Wednesday, and Prophetic Lamentation; and a 12-hour online prayer vigil on Election Day 
  2. Moving our regular weekly yoga class, Taizé worship, and meditation online 
  3. A series of summer small groups that were entirely online, which allowed people to connect socially while isolated 
  4. Piloting a three-part “Last Wishes” workshop that walked people through creating an advance health care directive, basic will, and funeral/memorial service plan, an opportunity to face their mortality, in community with others. 
  • Neighborhood groups with “captains”: We segmented our far-flung congregation by zip code/neighborhood and created a sense of “small church within the larger church” by putting people into geographically based social groups who prayed for each other, shopped for each other, cooked for each other, looked out for each other. Each neighborhood had a “captain” whose porch could serve as a drop-off point for everything from emergency toilet paper to consecrated candles and Palm Sunday palms. Captains sent a weekly email checking in with their people, a practice that persists in some of our neighborhoods whose people have become more close-knit, and now can more easily fold in newcomers. 
  • Lawn Church and Porch Church: As COVID gave us more permission to gather in small groups outside, members opened their porches to small gatherings of 10-15 people for outdoor Sunday afternoon incarnational worship. 

Moving church almost entirely into the digital realm fostered a new level of intimacy by giving us “backstage passes.” We would see people’s toddlers running amok, cat butts, dirty dishes, and artwork in the background. People showed up bleary, in sweats, just as they were: unmasked. In worship and in meetings, people shared more readily and openly the details of their lives and feelings; even the introverts could finally get a word in edgewise in the great democratizing way of the chat box. 

Therapists coaching parents in how to talk to their close-mouthed teens encourage them to bring up uncomfortable topics while riding in the car, when they are sitting parallel and not making direct eye contact. I wonder if Zoom has the same effect—distance and indirectness permitting a higher degree of sharing and intimacy. In the Zoom coffee hour, people began meeting each other at a whole new level. We could see that Jerry’s beard was growing long and unkempt six months after the death of his wife and vowed to reach out to him more often, or that Mabel looked exhausted as her husband Joe slipped further into cognitive decline, signaling that it was probably time for him to have in-home care. Men who would never have willingly shown emotion in public cried in this safer space. One man openly admitted how lonely he was in a coffee hour breakout room, and Jerry, the one who had lost his wife, said tenderly to him, “We have your back. Tell us what you need. Want to come sit in my driveway with me?” Soon after, several men organized an online men’s retreat, the first such offering in two decades. Twenty men came. 

Behind all those whose faces we could see were dozens of other lurkers who didn’t sign the welcome form or drop comments in the chat, but they knew us. When the world began opening up again, and we moved back to in-person worship, they began to make their way out of the shadows and into the light. 

Which posed a new challenge: how could we keep the hard-won intimacy of virtual church now that we were moving into hybrid mode? Would we all have a vulnerability hangover from what we shared in the “darkness” of Zoom community? How could we not keep ourselves from defaulting back into a shiny full-sun California front stage way of encountering each other? Or, again, perhaps the rupture that revealed so much had done that work for us? Perhaps there was no going back. As soldiers who have shared a foxhole, or teens traveling on a mission trip, perhaps the bond was secure and durable. 

Virtual Church

I Corinthians says, “Now we see in a glass, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Virtual church allowed us to see each other both through a glass, dimly, and face to face. It allowed us to know one another, and ourselves, more fully. It gave us the courage to take a step toward being truly seen, what most of us really crave and also fear. 

We’re still living into the “what’s next” of hybrid, late-pandemic church as I write this. It is a time of separating the wheat and the weeds in a nod to the parable Jesus told in Matthew’s Gospel. What will we keep, and what will we cast away, especially if we have limited time, energy, and resources? 

The urge toward “normalcy” will be a strong feature of post-pandemic life and might be a way of denying or dissociating from the collective trauma we have suffered. But it would be folly to lose out on all we gained in this creative time. What can church leaders do to encourage our congregations to hold on to this spirit of inventiveness, flexibility, and continued accommodation, new ways of being church? Here are a few suggestions:  

  • Let memory lapses work in your favor. People have literally forgotten how they’ve “always done it” at church, whatever “it” is. Use this forgetfulness to the advantage of the whole organization and let a new spirit of experimentation and iteration prevail! Was your Sunday school model worn out and serving neither children nor adults? Start a “Prayground” space for multiple ages. Were the deacons or your hospitality ministry under-functioning or being too controlling of turf? This is an opportunity to have a core conversation about what our committees are really for, what really aligns with the church’s mission and values, and how teams can step to that mission. Talk together about what a “growth mindset” is and how your leadership teams can embody it.  
  • Get both smaller and bigger in leadership structures. Consider suspending your bylaws for a year or two and having very small, nimble committees of direction-setters and decision-makers (two or three responsible people each) and larger “auxiliaries” of do-ers for each committee (five to 15 people each, and people can be on more than one “auxiliary.”) Consider that many people don’t get a lot out of committee meetings but would love to show up and just do something.  
  • Embrace spontaneity and a just-in-time mentality. It is harder than ever to get people to sign up for things ahead of time. Dunning people to take responsibility works in the short-term but doesn’t make for a joyful volunteer culture. Leaders are exhausted. People are worried that they will be sick or not up to the task on the day of, so they may opt out if the only way to opt in is to commit ahead of time. Find a way, particularly for your main worship event, to give people a job when they walk in the door. Have a white board with the list of roles for that day at the church entrance and simple instructions printed out for usher, slide flipper, offering collection, Sunday school leader, etc. Not only will they feel more engaged if they have a job to do; they won’t get trapped in roles and will be functionally cross-trained. Ask people outright in the moment if they don’t volunteer when they walk in. They will thank you later for involving them. 
  • Meet the real need with the right solution. When anxiety is high, people look back to the last time that felt stable and get nostalgic, then try to change the organization back to that imagined past. In church, in particular, people may get anxious on behalf of another person or group: “The families will leave if we do away with Sunday school as we know it!” or “The introverts will bail if we stop doing Zoom coffee hour in addition to in-person!” Anxiety is not love. Anxiety is not support. Anxiety makes for a temporary bond, but not a durable or life-giving one. Encourage conversations that identify actual needs and the real ways people’s lives (and brains and bodies) work: what people are actually showing up for and committing to, and what your org has the real capacity to accomplish. This is a time for hard choices. You can’t do it all. But healthy conversations will offer real clues to what to invest in. Then share the load of leadership. Give people the capacity to self-organize and meet old needs in new ways that make sense for how people’s lives really work, and what their felt needs really are rather than trying to re-create obsolete structures. For example, instead of trying to staff multiple Sunday school classrooms for spiritual formation of the church children, send the parents on a daylong retreat to embrace their role as their children’s primary spiritual teachers, then set them free to keep supporting each other in that holy endeavor.  
  • Go deeper; go leaderless. Have fewer weekly recurring programs that take a lot of staff time and resources and more intermittent, time- and emotionally-intensive gatherings like affinity retreats, all-church camping trips, pilgrimages, mission trips/work camps. These gatherings will help people go deeper together in ways that bond (Google “Form, Storm, Norm”). Set the expectation explicitly that these smaller communities within the larger church will need to rely on each other to keep momentum, not staff. Staff is there to matchmake, not manage.  
  • Use Zoom judiciously for broad leadership. Virtual leadership meetings make it possible for a much wider range of leaders to participate: working parents who need to get dinner on the table and kids to bed, elderly folks who don’t drive at night and disabled folks who don’t drive at all; college students with busy schedules. Keeping committee meetings online for the most part—with occasional in-person feasts for table fellowship, limbic resonance, and deeper bonding—will allow for broader, more diverse leadership (and less of a stranglehold on leadership by the same few people).  
  • Have more feasts in general! People need to eat. Delicious food gives them a reason to come to events in person. Make your hospitality budget as big as possible so you’re not just leaning on the good cooks in church, but can occasionally order towers of pizzas, have a nice catered brunch, or throw an ice cream social for breakfast! Life is short; eat dessert first.  
  • Continue practicing vulnerability. For two years, we mostly saw each other through a screen, dimly. Emerging from behind our computers and into each other’s physical presence forces a choice: to keep being vulnerable or to put the masks back up. There are a lot of ways to prompt real sharing and deeper intimacy. For example, have a sharing prompt that is on-theme for the sermon during the passing of the peace and encourage everyone to talk to someone they don’t know well. Make an explicit call to look out for newbies and invite them to coffee hour and keep them company there. Put up a “sermon digestion” table and chairs at coffee hour with questions for deeper reflection. Consider instituting a practice of personal testimony for Advent or Lent. (For a blueprint, check out my book “Standing Naked Before God.”) Try crazy new things in worship designed to stretch people emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Remind them how uncomfortable they were trying so many new things during the pandemic and how much they grew and learned!  
  • Be face to face. Virtual ministry is a great gift for those who can’t be together in person, but there’s no replacing what happens when we are incarnate together. We are here to know one another more fully and to allow ourselves to be fully seen and known. 


Our thanks to Rev. Molly Baskette (Lead Pastor, First Church Berkeley UCC ) for allowing this reprint of her chapter How to Thrive in a Plague: Letting Vulnerability Foster Community from Hybrid Hope (available for purchase on Amazon). Baskette serves as lead pastor of First Church Berkeley UCC.