Along with the leadership team and my colleagues at the Pension Boards, as well as many others in the wider church and throughout our world, I have been reflecting deeply about the questions presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Certainly, the pandemic has had a devastating impact on those struck by the disease, their families, caregivers, and communities, and our sincerest prayers go out to all of them. But as a ministry of the United Church of Christ that serves some 20,000 clergy and lay church workers and the many congregations and UCC-related organizations participating in our health, annuity, and other benefit plans, we are especially challenged with the questions posed by this crisis specifically to the church and what it may become on the other side of the darkness.
Many of our congregations, already challenged by economic pressures due to decline, changing demographics, new technology, and the high costs of old buildings – including insurance and deferred maintenance – are faced with the new pressures of virtual gatherings, reduced contributions and doing pastoral care while socially distancing. As if this were not difficult enough, government red tape and long lines for service even to seek the meager relief now available are extremely taxing on small staff congregations and part-time clergy already stretched to their limits.
What can we learn from this experience as a church, as a financial ministry of the United Church of Christ, and as individuals concerned about the health and wellness of our leaders, parishioners, congregations, and institutions?
I am tempted to quote scripture, to sermonize on Job or Gethsemane or Revelation. Or to cite the history of faith, which has survived famine, flood, plague, and war and emerged hopeful in the face of despair. But all of that seems like mere words full of sound and fury signifying not too much that is helpful. And so, I listen. I follow Henri Nouwen’s call to the wounded healer; Reinhold Niebuhr’s advice to accept while hopefully changing what I can; to be a calm and caring presence engaged with the needs of others as one without solutions, but open to the reality we now must all share.
I now believe that, as a financial ministry, we have learned the value of preparing. One can never prepare enough for a shock so wide and deep. But preparation meant all the difference for us as we listened to our staff and worked to equip each other with the tools to continue our service anytime and anywhere, virtually and creatively. The world of business (and now, interestingly enough, climate change) calls this “scenario planning.” We also learned to become a community of work and intersection by checking up with each other, taking care to communicate clearly, honestly, and supportively in ways we hadn’t thought of before. I called a colleague to check in and got a busy signal and discovered a moment later that he was calling me. When we connected, we both asked, “How are you?” at the same time and laughed. It was a conversation unlike most we’d had before the Zoom age, one that we were not only heartened by now, but also marked by for the future.
Unfortunately, not everyone had the time or resources to prepare as the Pension Boards had. Many ministries had structured themselves in ways that were not agile or easy to adapt to when apart from their constituencies. That is, after all, the very nature of the church: to be gathered together. And when you can’t, things can fall apart. So, when we consider how we will change for the future, we know things will never be the same. The lessons we are learning are about living as a church and as institutions as if we are apart, and we must be more prepared and intentional and vigorous in finding ways to connect, even when we are together. We can realize a new identity in Paul’s message, “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Virtually nothing.
I have learned that empathy may be the only gift we can offer when we have no fix that solves the problem, but that newfound energy, drive, and ingenuity will strive on to find a way when no viable path seems open. The scientists, health professionals, first responders, farm workers, and all the other heroes of this crisis have taught us that. They haven’t given up. So the least we can do is strap on the gloves and get busy doing the same in our little neck of the world – to answer the calls, cut the checks, offer aid and assistance, manage the retirement funds, listen to our members and churches and their appeals for help, and otherwise live up to our mission to provide services at the intersection of Faith and Finance and take on whatever may come next.
The Rev. Rick Walters is Director of Corporate Social Responsibility and Associate General Counsel for the Pension Boards.