Monday, March 30, 2020

How to Leave a Pastorate During a Pandemic

If you're like me, you announced to your congregation earlier this year that you would be resigning as their pastor and taking a position elsewhere. For me, that will be a move to a national position with the denomination. Maybe for you, it's another pastorate or some other form of ministry.

The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant measures to keep people safe have probably thrown a wrench into your ability to say goodbye and have a good ending with your folks. And you may need some helpful tips on how to do so now that you've been ordered by your state not to meet in large quantities and basically to stay in your homes except for essential needs.

I sure don't claim to be an expert, but here are some things that have worked for me.

1. Tell yourself the quarantine order will be over sooner than later. Like, definitely before your last day. You'll certainly have that final chance to celebrate your many years of ministry with your people. There's no way this will go on for longer than that. Repeat these delusions...sorry...these completely true facts to yourself as often as needed in order to believe them.

2. Once you realize that you've been lying to yourself and that your end date is getting way too close for an in-person farewell to be a reality, choose your favorite coping mechanism to drown your sorrow. I really like bourbon and chocolate. For various reasons, these may not be right for you. Experiment for as long as you need to find what's best.

3. Be sure to pick up a few books on how to leave well. I recommend Running Through the Thistles by Roy Oswald and Ten Commandments for Pastors Leaving a Congregation by Lawrence Farris. Laugh every time you realize that something they've written doesn't apply to these completely unique and whacked-out circumstances and imagine the scenario where these resources would truly have been helpful. (Spoiler: you'll be laughing a lot. Like at every sentence, basically.)

4. Don't clean out your church office all at once. Take your time so as not to overwhelm yourself with anxiety or grief. There really is no rush until your state issues a stay at home order. When that happens, hurry to the church on your day off to throw the rest of your stuff into your car. The books you were meaning to donate to a thrift store? They belong to your church's library now. That one cabinet you assume you'd have more time to clear out? They're now gifts for your successor. Your sudden lack of time is still a win for others!

5. Allow yourself to be awakened in the middle of the night by guilt about how you're leaving in the middle of a hard and uncertain situation. And because you're also worried about your health and the health of your family, you may have the bonus of having all the anxiety caused by these separate issues mix together. And don't forget the added stress of worrying about how your new workplace is being challenged by all of this in their own way, and wondering how you'll be able to come on board successfully. When you realize it's a few hours later and it's time to get up, accept that your longterm goal to cut back on coffee intake will have to wait.

6. While preparing yet another Sunday of online worship on Facebook Live, run across an article about how worshipping over the internet is superficial and not authentic compared to worshipping in person. Ask Jesus for forgiveness for wanting to reach through the screen to punch the author because IT'S A PANDEMIC PASTOR CHAD, WHAT OTHER OPTION DO YOU EXPECT US TO USE RIGHT NOW?

7. Remember, at the last, that you are still someone called by God to minister to people, however imperfectly. Prayerfully consider how best to be present for your people, and remember that your leaving is adding to their grief and anxiety just as much as it has added to yours.

Make phone calls. Check in on them, just as you have been doing even before the world turned upside down. Preach God's peace into their anxiety as faithfully as you're able. Write them a pastoral letter, sharing your grief at this less-than-ideal ending and entrusting them fully to the leadership that will come after you.

And in an act of defiance and hope, go ahead and switch the sanctuary paraments to Easter white. Maybe this is for them, or maybe it is for you. But it can be some small sign that resurrection still comes, even if it's not exactly on your schedule.

Then take a picture and send it to Pastor Chad. It'll drive him nuts.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Small Sips is Socially Distant

Yep, I'm there. Angelina Chapin writes of the mental health toll that coronavirus and self-isolation is taking on people:
Being isolated exacerbates mental health issues. Instead of reading during a commute or blowing off steam at a bar, people are spending more time in their own heads, especially if they live alone. Those with depression or anxiety tend to have negative thought patterns, which can snowball if they don’t get perspective from others, said Dr. Margot Levin, a New York-based psychologist. If someone is worried about a paycheck, their concerns can easily turn into a full-blown panic about the future without someone around to calm them down.

It’s also easy to become depressed when the usual markers of a successful day, such as going to work and feeling productive, don’t exist anymore, said Kanter. People feel untethered, and can easily slip into fatalistic thinking. A recent study from Chinese psychologists found that one month into the coronavirus outbreak, those who stopped working suffered from the worst health conditions and mental distress.
The article spends quite a bit of time on the negative elements, but does get to some self-care practices by the end. Things like limiting how much daily news about the virus you take in every day, reaching out to others either for your own health or to check in on theirs, and so on.

I know many people who are already struggling and getting stir crazy. Maybe that includes you. Healthy coping mechanisms are a must during this time.

In more cheery news. No, not really. I referenced this article in a post the other day, but I figured I'd highlight it again: Gideon Lichfield says we're not going back to normal for a very long time:
As usual, however, the true cost will be borne by the poorest and weakest. People with less access to health care, or who live in more disease-prone areas, will now also be more frequently shut out of places and opportunities open to everyone else. Gig workers—from drivers to plumbers to freelance yoga instructors—will see their jobs become even more precarious. Immigrants, refugees, the undocumented, and ex-convicts will face yet another obstacle to gaining a foothold in society.

Moreover, unless there are strict rules on how someone’s risk for disease is assessed, governments or companies could choose any criteria—you’re high-risk if you earn less than $50,000 a year, are in a family of more than six people, and live in certain parts of the country, for example. That creates scope for algorithmic bias and hidden discrimination, as happened last year with an algorithm used by US health insurers that turned out to inadvertently favor white people.

The world has changed many times, and it is changing again. All of us will have to adapt to a new way of living, working, and forging relationships. But as with all change, there will be some who lose more than most, and they will be the ones who have lost far too much already. The best we can hope for is that the depth of this crisis will finally force countries—the US, in particular—to fix the yawning social inequities that make large swaths of their populations so intensely vulnerable.
Many are pointing this out, but the way the United States is so far handling this crisis favors the privileged. It's how NBA players, politicians, and other celebrities have been able to be tested while many parts of the country are still begging for test kits and other supplies. There's been a lot of injustice at work in how this has played out so far, and advocacy for the less fortunate is still a need in this time as much as it ever has been.

To put it a different way. Writing on a similar theme as Lichfield, Jan Edmiston reflects on what is being revealed about us as a country during this time:
A pandemic shows us what’s actually true about us:

1. There is a digital divide in this country that separates the haves from the have-nots in terms of access to information and convenience.
2. Many of us do not trust our government.
3. Many of us do not trust the media.
4. Many people want to help their neighbor (while others hoard essential items.)
5. We can be flexible and creative when we want to be.
6. There is an economic divide in this country that separates the haves from the have-nots in terms of human value.
7. (also known as 6B) A lot of us who self-identify as “pro life” are slow to support programs that help babies and children after they are born. Some of us call ourselves “pro life” and then vote for leaders who perpetuate “pro death” stances. 
It’s times like these when are true nature is revealed. If we say we love God and then vote for policies that serve only the wealthy, we do not love God.
There will be many more pieces written over the next few months similar to this. Our nation is revealing some cruel tendencies, as well as the consequences of decisions the past few years that downplay threats and favor some over others.

Churches are also discovering what they can and can't live without, and how they may alter practices going forward (how many, for instance, are going to insist on keeping an online component after this?).

Some of what we're discovering about ourselves has been productive and some of it will require a reckoning. But all of it will be worthwhile to reflect upon.

Seriously. The shortest New York Times opinion piece ever:

Misc. Elle Dowd on men needing to step back to allow their women colleagues a proper and full voice. Here's why viruses aren't named after places any more (spoiler: it's racism). Hopefully you've heard this already, but social distancing is not a snow day. Jan again on what we've given up for Lent.

(top image source)

Monday, March 23, 2020

Book Review: The Truth About Us by Brant Hansen

"I'm not a good person" is a shockingly countercultural thing to say. We all want to think we're "clean" and the we've avoided whatever "big sins" are on our own personal lists. But we trust ourselves too much. We are inconsistent. We don't even live up to our own stated beliefs. (Just think about all the things you've faulted others for. Have you always lived up to those standards yourself?) - Brant Hansen, The Truth About Us

It has been my experience that the line between admitting that we are in need of forgiveness and repentance and celebrating God's gracious and transformative gifts offered freely to us can be a very fine one on which to balance. I could tell stories about my brief dip into a more evangelical expression of faith that greatly emphasized one's own sinfulness, sometimes in damaging and hurtful ways; many others have similar tales as well. I could also point to those within my own tradition who have critiqued what they have seen as an overemphasis on grace to the point where there is little change that takes place in the life of the individual; nothing that moves one from admitting one's wrong behavior and attitude toward reforming it to be more in line to what Jesus calls us to be in the world.

Move too far toward a focus on sinfulness, and you can do real harm to people. Move too far toward a focus on grace, and you risk forgetting the effect that it is meant to have on people.

I had this line and the tricky balance that it brings in mind as I began to read The Truth About Us: The Very Good News about How Very Bad We Are by a longtime favorite of mine, Brant Hansen. Brant is a radio host, sometimes-blogger, advocate, and musician whose offbeat observations about life, faith, and the church can be insightful and hilarious at the same time. This combination has served him well in previous books, and so I was interested in how he would approach an issue that immediately risks alienating people.

This risk is illustrated by the very beginning of the first chapter, where he first quotes Psalm 14:3 ("there is no one who does good, not even one") and then follows that up with this:
Dear Everybody,

We have a serious problem:
Al of us think we're good people.
But Jesus says we're not.

Brant P. Hansen
Those still trying to shed baggage from a bad brush with Christianity may be tempted to put the book down right then, if they hadn't already placed it back on the shelf after reading the subtitle. I don't blame them. But if one strives ahead, one may be able to see that Hansen's intentions are far from wanting to beat people over the head with their own flaws. Instead, his interest is more in trying to get people to consider that maybe we're not as great as we think we are.

The rest of the first chapter, for instance, references a series of polls taken where a majority of respondents rate themselves as smarter, friendlier, more ambitious, but also more humble than the average person. He uses this data to make the case that we tend to rate ourselves as better than others, which can easily move us toward a self-righteousness that in reality can work against the high opinions that we hold about our own thoughts and actions.

As another example, chapter 3 is about pantyhose. No, really. Hansen cites a study where researchers stood outside a department store and asked people which of four pantyhose samples were the best. The secret was that they were all exactly the same, and yet even after respondents chose one and then were let in on the trick, they still would insist that their choice was superior. They refused to change their minds because they wanted to be correct. We are often convinced of our own rightness to such a high degree, Hansen argues, that we won't change it even when presented with an objectively correct counter-argument.

Hansen often cites studies and examples like these through his book, which I found very effective and a gentle way of getting people to see what he's talking about. He also discusses examples from scripture, particularly from Jesus and his interactions with people who thought they were much better than everyone else. One profound example that he uses is when he applies Jesus' act of foot-washing to a real experience that he had in Costa Rica, where he washed the feet of another person in his group. The longer he washed, he said, the more concerned he felt for the recipient. This humble action began to cause real change for him in that moment, making him more considerate toward another.

The longer I read, the more I realized that this book is not about guilting people into feeling bad about themselves. Well, in a way it is that. But more specifically it is a book meant to encourage the reader to consider their own self-righteousness, their own lack of humility, their own self-illusions about themselves, especially in comparison to others.

With a gentle touch that I have long known and appreciated him for, Hansen makes the case that we're not as great as we think we are. And admitting that is the first step in pursuing what we truly could be doing better, both for our own sake and for others. It turned out that this book is less about the line, and more about our tendency to enforce it by our own self-selected criteria.

The Truth About Us releases on April 21st.

(I was sent a free copy of this book to review. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)

Thursday, March 19, 2020


We have been thrust into a time of change that nobody wanted.

Some are still resistant to it, choosing to believe conspiracy theories or defying orders and recommendations to stay away from large groups of people. This will only cause the disruption to last longer, and make the spread of disease worse.

I think there's something within us that resists altering our routines because it means admitting that things aren't normal. We cling to what we know to feel like everything is fine, even though they increasingly aren't, often in obvious ways.

If we change, the new situation wins.

Some think we won't ever be normal again, at least what was considered normal before:
So how can we live in this new world? Part of the answer—hopefully—will be better health-care systems, with pandemic response units that can move quickly to identify and contain outbreaks before they start to spread, and the ability to quickly ramp up production of medical equipment, testing kits, and drugs. Those will be too late to stop Covid-19, but they’ll help with future pandemics.

In the near term, we’ll probably find awkward compromises that allow us to retain some semblance of a social life. Maybe movie theaters will take out half their seats, meetings will be held in larger rooms with spaced-out chairs, and gyms will require you to book workouts ahead of time so they don’t get crowded.

Ultimately, however, I predict that we’ll restore the ability to socialize safely by developing more sophisticated ways to identify who is a disease risk and who isn’t, and discriminating—legally—against those who are.
This disruption of "normal" could lead to some improvements to our communal life. We may try and be able to keep on with some things as before, but we'll need entirely new approaches to other things, and these will be for the better.

And then by the time we have the opportunity to return to what was "normal" before, we will have spent so much time living into something different that it simply won't be like it was. And in some ways, we may not mind.

To change doesn't necessarily mean that we've lost. We do lose things, but not in the sense that we're playing a game and we're on the losing team. It just means that we find a best new way forward.