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Pandemic Grief | Identifying Priorities When the World is Crumbling

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Being the church when the world is crumbling requires identifying priorities.

Have you ever thought about what you would grab and save if your house were on fire? Is there anything particularly precious that you have in a fireproof safe?

What about triaging injuries on a screaming child? Is there a tooth that needs to be found on the sidewalk? Can we stop the bleeding before we check for a concussion? Are there any bones that might be broken?

Many individuals or families who like to keep a clean kitchen, reliable routine, limited television, and healthy eating habits find these are difficult in the best of times because of work, sports, homework, and extracurricular activities.

Add to the mix a sick parent, a divorce or loss of a partner, unexpected work responsibilities, providing long-term care for a family member, hospitalization of a child, arrival of a new baby, or years of infertility, and chaos threatens every bit of order: Choices must be made about what can be accomplished and what can be relinquished.

“Business as usual” is not a reasonable goal for any system during a crisis; those who are able to adapt with speed, grace, and resilience are more likely to survive and thrive.

The church must identify priorities in order to adapt amid a crisis, whether that crisis be internal to the church system or in the community.

This COVID-19 pandemic has caused crisis, to some extent, both inside church systems and in the communities in which they are grounded.

Amid these sorts of strife, a church must identify what things must be saved, the order in which injury can be triaged, and what tasks can be accomplished and relinquished.

Identifying priorities can be precarious: In a system where individuals are already feeling anxiety and stress, changes to business as usual can feel disappointing or disorienting.

Pastors may disagree among themselves about the priorities; congregants certainly will have feelings about what must be done. And in churches, in particular, so many people feel they should have a say.

This desire can be a beautiful and healthy attribute of an active congregation, but it can also be the result of over-performing tendencies driven by past trauma, anxiety about the world in general, and sometimes an unwillingness to trust pastoral leadership.

But churches must effectively adapt with speed, grace, and resilience in order to survive and thrive.

Leaders must do the work of sorting through all the wishes and all of the “shoulds” to distill what is necessary and possible.

In most congregations, finding a way to worship, pray, and behold the Scripture will rise to the top.

Speaking justice in the face of injustice is a role churches must never abdicate. Caring for the church community and the community outside of the church are likely goals.

Clear and accessible communication is a must. Continuing to pay bills and salaries seems critical. And already this is a long list that is getting longer.

Discernment is critical. The church cannot be the presence of Jesus in a broken world and simultaneously be all things to all people. This striving is an impossibility that will eventually lead to failure.

When the world is crumbling, such striving will lead to failure even more quickly and absolutely – often because the impossibility of such a task overwhelms those who have been tasked with leading, bringing the entire system to a halt.

But discerned priorities become the scaffolding for decision making. As ideas, suggestions, and dreams arise about what might be accomplished, about how the church might conduct worship or engage in the needs of the community, those making decisions can rely on identified priorities as a guide.

The church cannot be all things to all people. And oh, the gift of freedom in letting go, in relinquishing anxiety about “shoulds,” in naming those things that will be cherished, in accepting that some things will fall away.

The church – the pastors, the lay leaders, and all who identify as part of the congregation – has the privilege of cherishing and of letting go in a spirit of reverence and holy mystery, trusting that the work of the Spirit is bigger and more powerful than any committee, habit, tradition, or bylaw, remembering that God breathes life into dry bones, and hoping in the promise we are being redeemed.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on exploring how we might be the church while the world is crumbling. The previous articles are:

Pandemic Grief | Being the Church When the World is Crumbling

Pandemic Grief | Speaking Comfort When the World is Crumbling

Mary Elizabeth Hanchey

Mary Elizabeth Hanchey is the Parish Associate for Pastoral Care at United Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. A graduate of Duke Divinity School, she lives in Durham with her family. She is the editor of "Though the Darkness Gather Round, Devotions about Infertility, Miscarriage, and Infant Loss."