Questions for a New Normal

When I think about the amount of energy, skill, sweat and risk that church leaders have exhibited in the last month, I’m in awe. I'm so grateful for people who gutted it up and figured things out. It’s hard to care for folks who are overwhelmed when you are overwhelmed yourself. I hear people say they are exhausted, and that they’re working as hard or harder than before we began to shelter-in-place.

When you feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to look toward a future as filled with unknowns as our present moment is. But as you begin to find new energy and find yourself more able to think about what you’ve been learning about yourself and your church, it will be essential to have conversations in lots of places about what God is calling the post-pandemic church to be and do. These conversations will require courage and creativity in imagining a church more driven by purpose than by preservation. They will require a wrestling match in which, like our ancestor, Jacob, we may come away both blessed and bruised.

The window for these courageous conversations may be surprisingly brief. When it is finally safe to return to our church buildings, we'll be sorely tempted to rush back to the familiar, not recognizing the parts of congregational life that weren’t healthy. "Finally," we may say, "we can get back to what we know how to do!"

In the midst of the current crisis, the staff of TMF’s Leadership Ministry have had conversations with people who are ‘leaders of leaders.’ We asked two questions: What are you observing? and What are you learning? Our hope was to discover some questions that might help us as we emerge from the crisis. Here are some of the highlights of those conversations:

  • The leaders with whom we've been talking testify that there's widespread support for their leadership precisely because it's so clear what has to get done. What they worry about is what resistance will re-emerge once CHOICE returns. When there are more options for what to do or not to do, it will be harder to move forward.
  • What's clear is that the churches best positioned to emerge strongly from the crisis will be the ones that had the clearest sense of purpose before the crisis started. Some congregations may have to painfully admit that they cannot name the purpose of their church's ministry.
  • The leaders with whom we've spoken, especially those who head non-profits, have become so much more aware that they need other people to help them curate the vision of the organization, i.e., to share the load of dreaming and doing. Therefore, they are seeing their emerging role as EMPOWERERS.
  • The leaders with whom we've spoken have lamented that even though they have turned massive amounts of energy to serving their neighbors, and are making a huge difference, they are still being judged by the church hierarchy by how many people are watching their live stream worship services. The old metrics, they say, discourage the very innovation that they are being sent to do.

These and other reflections from those leaders lead us to a few questions:

  • What will need to be true about us to turn to the core task of discerning our purpose more than to the planning our activities when shelter-in-place is over? The temptation will be to plan lots of activities to prove that we're still in business rather than asking the central question, "God, given what we have been through, what is the difference you are calling us to make?"
  • What will it take to lead our people on the journey through grief and loss rather than around it? We cannot afford to give people simplistic answers or to assume that we know 'what it all means.'
  • How can we continue to stretch and exercise the muscle we've developed to ask the age-old question, "Who is my neighbor?" in courageous ways? How can we elevate the voices of those who struggle all the time so we can walk alongside them, learn from them, and forge a new future with them?
  • What will it take to break out of the captivity of spending such a vast amount of money and energy gathering like-minded people in one place for one hour on Sunday?

Given the wondrous explosion of care and creativity which has happened in recent days, we hope you'll call groups of people together to ask these and other questions.

John Thornburg

Rev. John Thornburg, Leadership Ministry Facilitator

John brings 38 years of ministry experience in the diverse settings of the United States and in West Africa. He calls himself a ‘professional encourager’, and greatly enjoys working with congregations and church leaders.

Before coming to TMF, his work in the nationally renowned East Dallas Cooperative Parish brought growth, vitality, and missional focus to a church that had been in decline for years. He founded a unique extensional ministry to strengthen congregational singing and traveled to hundreds of churches for twelve years before coming to TMF. John became TMF's Senior Area Representative for the North Texas Conference in 2013, then he became Vice President of Area Staff, and now he is thrilled to join the Leadership Ministry team.