Scarcity, abundance, and COVID-19

On the best of days, many churches have long spent too much energy on what they do not have, usually a balanced budget and pews bursting at the end caps. The COVID-19 crisis has ramped up that fear about scarcity. Not only do we not have an offering plate to pass or full sanctuaries, we cannot safely gather in person at all. We do not even have the incarnational comfort of physical proximity.

Ok. All of that is true. All of that is hard. And, it is not the only story. Abundance still exists. You might just have to look a little harder or get more creative to find it. But once you do, you can build on it in ways that will benefit your congregation far beyond the passing of this immediate crisis. Here, then, are some places where you might take stock:

Tech savvy. Who are the people in your church who know how to connect others or disseminate information in a variety of ways by technology? What platforms or equipment might they have access to that your church could use to gather constituents virtually at various times?

Connections to denominational partners. Your denomination (including publishing houses, benefits boards, and more) or middle judicatory has probably sent information out to churches. What resources are on offer? What resources might you ask about, such as mini grants to set up online platforms?

Time. Some of your church members are extra busy right now as they work from home (and possibly try to homeschool their kids simultaneously). Those who are home and cannot/do not telecommute, though, might have availability that they might not otherwise. How might they use that time to serve others, perhaps by calling or texting individuals or hosting virtual gathering?

Individual connections. Who do the people in your church know, whether from school, work, volunteer efforts, professional networks, clubs, or businesses they frequent? How might those connections be leveraged remotely to help those in need, whether within your congregation or beyond?

Individual talents. What are the people in your church good at – whether those are life skills or for pure enjoyment – and that they might teach others to do by phone or video? What can they make and share (with proper precautions) with others, such as poetry or meals or activity kits for kids?

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does provide examples of ways to think more deeply about strengths your church can leverage in a greatly changed context. Getting creative about ways to connect has the added advantage of moving your congregation forward into an increasingly digital world – pandemic or not. And it further trains us to notice where God is at work among us, a habit that is spiritually transformative.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash.

 

 

 

Learned helplessness vs. learned optimism in congregations

In the field of psychology there is a condition known as learned helplessness. The subject is put into a challenging environment – for example, there might be a persistent, sharp sound – with no way to overcome the issue. After experiencing that initial lack of agency, the subject gives up trying to alter the condition or escape. The subject accepts the situation as permanent, and this learned helplessness induces a passivity that becomes a default response in other, unrelated circumstances.

In contrast, another subject is given the means to change the challenging condition, such as by pushing a button that stops the noise. This subject learns that the problem is temporary and that the means are available to address it. This subject bounces back quickly from adversity, because the agency claimed instills a sense of optimism.

While many studies of learned helplessness and optimism have focused primarily on the impact to individuals, I think these phenomena are very applicable to congregations. Take a church that considers itself in decline, for example. This congregation tries everything it can think of to reverse the trends, such as sending postcards to the neighborhood, hosting a community cookout on the church lawn, sprucing up the nursery, and offering a grief support group. At most, a couple of new people start attending on Sundays from these efforts. The church accepts that it is helpless to stop its slide. It gives up trying to reach out to the community, and it dwindles until a discussion about permanently closing the doors becomes imminent.

On the other hand, a church in similar circumstances might claim a sense of optimism by finding agency in its situation. This could involve the congregation naming and ministering out of the gifts that a small church has to offer that a big church cannot. It might mean reframing growth so that it is not about Sunday morning attendance and offering but about numbers of unique individuals involved in leadership in the congregation and community or the length of time it takes a youth group to name all of the ways it saw God at work during the week prior. It could entail using perceived failure as a springboard for ongoing discernment and deeper dependence on the Spirit.

Learned optimism is not fanciful or untethered from reality. It is a secular term for the hope we claim as people of faith, rooted in the partnership that God invites us into. Whereas helplessness and passivity prevent growth, optimism creates the possibility for all kinds of positive change and for relationship development and strengthening.

Where, then, does your congregation need to recognize its God-given agency and begin to act out of hope instead of helplessness?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash.

New resource: gifts gratitude calendar

“I don’t have enough time to do all the things.”

“I don’t have anything worth contributing.”

“Our congregation is so much smaller and grayer than it used to be.”

“We’re gonna have to send these church budget requests back to committees to be pared down, because our projected giving is down 10%.”

Do these sentiments sound familiar? They play in loops in individuals’ heads and reverberate through sanctuaries of all sizes. They are the product of scarcity thinking, of focusing on what we don’t have. The scarcity mindset is rampant in our culture, manifesting in the beliefs that we need to guard what we have and prepare for the worst possible scenario. And unfortunately, while we worship a God who created the universe out of a dark and formless void and follow a Savior who was all about opening up the law and the bounds of community, this thinking has trickled down into our churches. The result is that many of our people are afraid to dream and reach out, instead turning inward and wondering how long our congregations will be able to hold on.

The scarcity scourge is a huge barrier to growing our faith in and love of God. Luckily, the season focused on removing such obstacles to our discipleship is almost upon us, and I want to offer a resource that might help individuals and congregations note the abundance that God has blessed them with in the form of resources, talents, connections, hopes, and ministries. The calendar below gives a gratitude prompt for each day of Lent and the first day of Easter. (A printable PDF is available here.) Feel free to download and/or share it. I hope that those who use this calendar will talk with one another about the unexpected ways they have realized that God is at work in and around them.