“Dear congregations,” the message reads, “This sucks.” You can read the entire message, written by Natalie Briscoe, who serves on staff of the UUA Southern Region, at this link: https://www.uua.org/southern/blog/dear-congregations
The world has changed, and continues to change, with the pandemic and everything else that is going on. Reading Natalie’s blog reminds me that we at UUCCH are not alone. Members, staff and clergy of congregations all over the country – all faith communities, not just Unitarian Universalists – are struggling with the challenges of this time.
The ways people participate in church were already changing, and those changes have been pushed along by the pandemic shutdowns. Religious institutions in recent decades have been experiencing a generational shift in how people connect with the structures and processes of organized religion. Membership and attendance in churches, synagogues and mosques were already dropping in many of the established faith traditions, and research predicts that up to 20% of all congregations will close or consolidate within the coming year, as the pandemic exacerbates the decline that was already in progress. Some analysts estimate that once we fully return in person, attendance will be down 20-30% across the board. And I suspect there are some people who, having now discovered the joys of “coming” to Sunday morning services in their pj’s from their couch, are going to require some major motivation to get them back into the sanctuary in person. Or they may simply stay connected virtually, and that will be how it is.
All around us people are noticing that our social behaviors seem to be deteriorating, with an upswing in rudeness and lack of patience. Social media seem to encourage argumentative venting, blaming and shaming in a very public forum. That can make it difficult to hold to the values of beloved community, which are the bedrock of congregational life.
And pandemic: It is unclear what is safe, who it is safe to be around, where it is safe go, and decision makers are hearing that some think they are too restrictive, risking people’s emotional health by continuing isolation, while others think they are too permissive, risking people’s physical health and wellbeing.
And this church is weathering what sometimes feels like the world’s longest construction project — though I will remind us that the Cologne Cathedral spent 632 years under construction, so we are not even close to challenging that record! The length of time spent out of our sacred Sanctuary space is wearing on us all, even as we are finally reaching the point where we can start speculating about possible dates for re-opening.
So what’s a church to do? I think we need to keep doing what we do best – we can continue to create connection within this community in any way we can imagine – we can reach out to share our experiences, to provide support, to be present for the events of our lives.
We can explore with curiosity, opening our hearts and minds to learn what this new time has to teach us, discovering more about each other and what will help us feel nourished and whole in these challenging times.
We can sustain hope with our faith in the behavioral and medical sciences to bring the pandemic under control, and in the creativity and resilience of the human spirit, which still burns bright despite all the darkest episodes in the history of humanity.
We can experiment with courage, trying new things that seem like they might work, and we can admit with grace when an experiment is not getting the results we hoped for. We can know when to hold on, when to let go.
And perhaps most of all, we can value connection over perfection and support each other as we continue with the challenges of learning new technologies, discovering new strategies, creating innovative programs. We can connect, connect, connect. We can gather in safe ways—a walk with friends in the open air, lunch on a patio, wandering the paths of the Arboretum. We can stay connected by zoom, by facetime, phone or text or twitter, nourishing our relationships so that we move through these challenges together.
Because, yes, connection in relationship is what matters most in these times, whether it is with family or friends, church or neighborhood; whether it is across the street or across the continent. Through change and ambiguity, through our losses and our fears, through our achievements and our growth, it is being in connection that matters most. And so I wish for all of us, now and always.