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Six Lessons for a New Pandemic Rector

By Clint Wilson

I arrived in my parish five weeks before the pandemic hit Louisville, Ky. Is this what it felt like to start as a firefighter five weeks before 9/11? I am now 20 months into my tenure, and I am more grateful and confirmed in my call to this place than ever before. The joys and hardships of ministry have helped me understand how living into God’s call on your life releases you into a deeper humanity.

During this time, I have learned much. Shepherding my parish through the past 20 months has felt like earning a Ph.D. in leadership. This pandemic season is confounding in its ability to simultaneously reveal and obfuscate, thereby creating cognitive dissonance on many levels. It is like the experience of having fog roll in and out at the same time — making some things less visible, but revealing much of what matters most. Many have made similar observations. As others have noted, during this time our common ministry “metrics” of success have not been visible to parish leaders, and some metrics needed to change altogether (and perhaps should remain altered).

I have made plenty of mistakes and have learned good lessons along the way. While I am certainly no ministry expert, I do feel strongly about sharing the following points, which I trust could be helpful for other clergy who are stepping into new roles. These are simply my personal observations. So take them for nothing more than six related musings of a sophomoric rector seeking to make sense of ministry in these times.

1. Virtual worship is an insurrection of community against its own nature.

In a sacramental tradition, our ministry not only requires but is contingent upon embodied ministry. I am not saying livestreaming or virtual ministry opportunities cannot yield great fruit. The livestream ministry of my parish has been a massive blessing to many, with people tuning in from Colorado, New Mexico, South Carolina, and elsewhere (obviously including our own local context). We have even gained new members through this medium! But this will not be the lifeblood of our ministry long-term.

To be clear, we have invested significant resources into our streaming and are grateful for it. Yet I still believe it is embodied, pastoral presence that will lead to thriving parishes and congregations. Theological traditions where worship consists primarily of songs and a sermon will have fewer roadblocks to thriving within virtual contexts, for the same reason TV preachers have developed massive audiences for decades. But this form of ministry will remain mostly transactional rather than relational (which is not to say people will not feel “connected,” perhaps even deeply so, to a certain online personality or preacher).

But virtual, screen-based ministry will always suffer from what the philosopher Byung-Chul Han calls “the compulsion of production,” where the “aesthetic is colonized by the economic,” which will lead ultimately to rituals of restlessness. Such community “is an atrophied community, perhaps even a kind of commodified and consumerized community. It lacks the symbolic power to bind people together.” Speaking practically, if your embodied dog and your disembodied preacher are both vying for your attention, who do you think will win? (Every time.) It is simply not possible to “dwell” in virtual spaces; they will inevitably create ritual tourists rather than engaged pilgrims.

Could virtual ministry be combined with robust small group structures, among other options? Sure. Can we imagine a scenario in which we can one day plug into a virtually-embodied liturgy the way Neo plugged into the Matrix? Perhaps, but it will never, or should not, replace physically embodied ministry. I have a parishioner who recently returned to my parish tell me, “I thought I should attend here, given that I’m going to be buried here.” You cannot anoint the sick or hold the hand of a dying person over Zoom, nor can you distribute Holy Communion electronically. If our target is to have our people express loyalty (perhaps even fierce loyalty) in their attendance and participation with our churches, then this kind of “connection” is possible through a virtual medium. But if we want to lead people into transformative relationships rooted in the gospel, it will require us and those we lead to follow in the way of our Lord, who says, “This is my body given for you.”

2. Wounds developed in wartime don’t automatically disappear in peacetime.

If you have landed in a place that has gone through difficult transition involving relational wounds, keep in mind that your parishioners and staff will exhibit something akin to PTSD from those experiences. (In more extreme cases, it may even be PTSD, properly speaking.) This is normal. Moreover, some of their woundedness may manifest toward you through suspicion, fear, and perhaps even lashing out. They need you to listen, and to love them. Moreover, you need to name unhealthy behavioral cycles explicitly, but gently, with your staff and parishioners. A priest once told me that “it is easier to take the people out of Egypt than it is to take Egypt out of the people.” If your people have lived under a taskmaster or through difficult times, the survival mechanisms and the behavioral patterns they developed do not just disappear overnight. They may even find themselves wanting to go back to Egypt.

It is more likely than not they will have extensive and deep-seated patterns of conversing with and supporting one another that leave you out of the loop. Remember, these patterns developed over years as a way of helping one another through tough times, perhaps even in response to a pastor who violated their trust, or hurt them. Continue to press in and name this reality for what it is. Additionally, if your team developed habits of not trusting former leadership, then it will be harder for you to develop trust with them. But if and when you do, it will bring healing and a deep trust that is strong as iron. All of us have been wronged, and we will be wronged again. All of us have wronged others. These wounds lead us to engaging in relationships like they are tactical battles, with the baggage from former relationships dictating how we enter into new ones. Patterns developed in wartime must be healed during peacetime, otherwise, our relationships will always be a warzone.

3. If you don’t want to do it, you probably should.

If you are conflict-averse and are thrust into being “the person” making the call on many decisions that are potentially conflictual, embrace the opportunities to lead in this way. The hard conversation, the difficult decision, the anxiety-inducing parishioner are not going away, and you must stop convincing yourself that it is someone else’s job to address these matters. It is your job, and by God’s grace, you can lead with mercy and strength to the far side of these challenges. Moreover, if you are doing your job and working hard, then you will be very busy, which will only increase the challenge of addressing conflict as it arises. A busy schedule can easily foster conflict avoidance, even if this is unintentional. Thus, act with wisdom, but do not wait too long to act. If you feel uneasy about pulling the trigger on a decision, or making a call, or having “that meeting,” proceed with caution, but proceed! Embrace the hardness, because it is usually the way of faithfulness.

4. If you don’t want to do it, then don’t.

Remember now that you are the leader, and it is important that you step into leading in a way that corresponds to your actual convictions. If you have been in the mindset of deferring to a rector, it is now time to become comfortable with the reality that the buck stops with you. Your staff and your people want to know what you think. Of course, this doesn’t give you permission to lead as an autocrat. Be collaborative and hear your people out in order to build consensus, but you were hired as the rector. As a Christian and a priest, you need to lead in a way that looks out for the interests of others (Phil. 2), to be sure. But if you don’t like the way a meeting is run, change it. Keep in mind the cardinal rule of not changing too much too fast. But unless making a change is a moral transgression, or inflicts some type of pastoral violence, then you’re not obliged to keep it. It might be wise to do so for all kinds of reasons, but it is your decision. Become comfortable with this. You are the rector.

5. If you are renting the house, don’t build a pool.

If you build a pool in a rental home, what happens when the permanent tenants arrive and they do not want a pool? Well, then they have got to fill it in, or dismantle it, which is no easy task. So, if you happen to be an interim priest, think about the kinds of decisions you would want to be able to make as a rector, and don’t make them! Instead, focus on shepherding the people who are there, and make sure they experience a healing and pastoral presence during your tenure. Renters should never build pools. They might need to address structural issues that are pressing, but they shouldn’t re-engineer the endowment structure or the budget, or sell off property, or hire or fire personnel (unless absolutely necessary). On the other hand, give thanks when you follow a good interim rector, for they can save you many headaches. An interim who is willing to partner with you to help you learn the culture is worth their weight in gold.

6. There is more than one way of being an absent leader, father, or friend.

I have no data to back up my intuitions, but it is my sense that in the social vacuum created by the pandemic, people have become more addicted than ever to their electronic devices. Even many of those who prided themselves on remaining untethered to their devices were driven during the pandemic to seek social stimulation through this medium. I am preaching to myself here. Indeed, much of our lives moved online, which also allowed for some fruit and gifts of life and ministry to continue. I am not simply playing the Luddite card, but leaders and parents need to regularly practice taking a personal technology audit, to ensure their imaginations are not hijacked by the mundane and trivial pursuits of social media, online games, or more. Inspirational leadership (and parenting) requires margin to imagine, to linger on a thought, to reflect on life as it is, and how it could be better and more reflective of kingdom values. We need to learn how to waste time on others in the right way, as opposed to just wasting away our lives. In other words, there is more than one way to be an absent father, or leader, or friend, even if you’re bodily present.


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