By Heidi J. Kim
One of the many lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic was that faith communities could function and thrive despite social distancing. We could be the Church, even when we could not do church in traditional ways. I saw clergy friends grappling with new technologies as they continued to offer worship and pastoral care to their congregations. I saw Bible study move to Zoom as a way to keep people connected. As someone with colleagues all over the world, I could listen to online sermons from friends in other time zones, and I saw creative ways of offering worship from all kinds of parishes.
Online church lowered the bar for participation in worship for many people. Unchurched friends attended Easter services for the first time in decades out of curiosity and a longing for connection in a time of separation. Some congregations saw increases in participation once services went online. I enjoyed it, yet worship quickly became an engagement without commitment, a form of consumption rather than a foundational element of my personal formation. I relished the opportunity to worship when and how I wanted to, without having to turn my camera on, sit still, or even get out of my pajamas. I will admit that for me as a lay person, online church allowed a kind of inertia to colonize my spiritual life; someone else was responsible for providing a meaningful experience for me.
Now that most of our faith communities are back to in-person worship, we are experiencing the fallout of some pandemic-inspired changes. Lay people have expressed frustration or disappointment that their opportunities for leadership and service look different now. The roles that they had before the pandemic may have diminished or even been eliminated. Community partnerships may have atrophied so much that new engagement is difficult.
At the same time, clergy have expressed their exhaustion after holding so much responsibility for so long. Many priest friends have shared their excitement at having parishioners come back, only to find that folks are reluctant to volunteer or even actively participate in Sunday worship services. Both lay and clergy friends lament the reality that our post-pandemic church life bears little resemblance to our nostalgia for the way it was.
I empathize with the frustration. I wonder if many of us are still grappling with post-pandemic trauma, given all we had to release and all we had to pick up and carry. I also wonder if those long months of separation have heightened an assumption in our church that the role of the clergy is to provide worship and the role of the laity is to receive it.
Lay leaders grieved the loss of their roles as ushers and greeters, acolytes, Sunday school teachers, and choristers. As we began to realize that online church was a viable and meaningful offering, some folks argued that we did not need all the accoutrements of worship as usual. It fed into an existing assumption about worship: the important stuff was what the ordained folks did. Lay participation was a nice add-on, but not strictly necessary. As I became more disconnected from the liturgy, it became easier to forgo Sunday worship altogether. I use myself as an extreme example because I love the church, need Sunday worship, and was stunned at the progression of my complacency.
At the same time, I heard multiple clergy saying that they were utterly exhausted from managing all the same pre-pandemic parish administration and pastoral care responsibilities while learning new skills like sound systems, lighting, and how to broadcast live services on Facebook or YouTube. People were frightened, losing their economic livelihoods, sick, and dying. Clergy were expected to be present for everyone else’s acute grief and loss, while heroically ignoring their own. Congregations expected the same level of attentive pastoral care while complaining about the echo in the Zoom room. Many clergy colleagues described an uptick in “nasty grams” from previously kind and delightful colleagues and parishioners.
The pandemic cultivated an overreliance on clergy and an underutilization of the laity to sustain worship as usual while keeping everyone safe. As we learned to offer socially distanced church, what evolved was miraculous and life-giving. We discerned what was essential and what we could release. Yet we also slipped into familiar and hierarchical roles for the sake of expediency. It became easier to justify putting our clergy on a pedestal while demanding that they have no life outside of parish life. It also became easier to see the laity as a needy population to be managed or appeased, or even ignored. I want to be clear that I am not speaking of all parishes and all places. Yet I also want to be clear that the patterns that developed reflected the clericalism that was already present in our church culture. What happened was not new or even unexpected, but perhaps presents us with a unique opportunity to be the Church in a different way.
I confess that I am in a deep and intentional phase of my vocational discernment, because the pandemic laid bare the assumptions I was making about my journey of discipleship. I realized that Sunday worship was a crutch that at times made up the entirety of my formation and discernment of God’s will for my life. When the tasks of in-person Sunday worship went away, I had to confront that my internalized clericalism made me reliant on clergy colleagues to shape my spiritual journey. It has made me curious about what vocational discernment for lay people might become as we engage one another again in the post-pandemic church.
Discernment for the diaconate or priesthood takes place in dialogue with community and has an expectation of a robust and foundational theological education. While that discernment can vary across time and place, there is a process. Lay people often engage with Education for Ministry and emerge with a deep understanding of their discipleship and vocational call. Yet that requires a years-long commitment and is not necessarily the right fit for every baptized Christian.
Other than Education for Ministry, what are the readily accessible resources for a robust vocational discernment for lay people? Have we become too reliant on top-down models of Christian formation that primarily take place through Sunday worship? How might we deepen the ministry of all the baptized in a way that is life-giving for all orders of ministry? I admit that I have more questions than answers, but I believe the time is ripe for reimagining how we form disciples so that all the members of the body of Christ can find healing, redemption, and spiritual thriving with and because of one another.
Heidi J. Kim formerly served the Episcopal Church as staff officer for racial reconciliation. She has a consultancy practice working with parishes and dioceses throughout the church, and lives in Minneapolis.