To prepare for a recent two-week trip to Italy, I tried to learn a little Italian. Each day, I spent time with “the Owl” (aka Duolingo). It didn’t help much. When I got to Italy, I realized how little I had absorbed during those daily lessons over three months. My lack of Italian didn’t matter much in Rome, as many people who work in and around tourism have at least some English. During the walking tour of Umbria, though, language was much more of an issue. There, I encountered people who knew no English at all. I was in a different country, where I didn’t know the language and didn’t always understand customs, habits, or traditions. On several occasions, I felt decidedly awkward and bewildered.
I sometimes have the very same feeling in the new church landscape in which I find myself. After over twenty-five years of ordained ministry, the new reality of church life in a mainline church—in serious decline and dealing with the new, and oft changing, requirements of Covid—causes a great deal of disorientation. I am in a different country.
The language barriers are mostly in the technical area. With hybrid worship and a lot of online meetings, I am learning many new things. But, there are plenty of moments when I am simply baffled by concepts and terms, like when I went to purchase a webcam. One of the recommendations offered “full HD, 1080p/30fps.” I have no idea what those numbers mean. Searching for help from “Mr. Google” usually leads to more confusion.
Around church people, language can be still more confusing—and fraught. The words that are spoken are ones that I understand. Yet, it’s often clear enough that the words are only the tip of a large, problematic iceberg. Trying to delve into those thoughts, feelings and issues that comprise the iceberg is a complex and tangled endeavor.
In the midst of a smaller congregation and our new ways of gathering, there is much that looks and feels like traveling in a different country. With the changes we have experienced, we are still trying to figure out what works, for individuals and the group, and how to meet the needs of most of the people who call Old South their spiritual home. Along the way, we regularly encounter new challenges where I must be sensitive, discerning, hopeful and encouraging.
It is not easy. As the one in the “pastor and teacher” role, I yearn for my own pastor and teacher who would easily shepherd me through the twists and turns of church in a time of decline and pandemic. Sadly, I don’t have a crystal ball that will help guide me through the thornier patches, with a clearer sense of where we are going. As I listen to the longings and frustrations of the congregation, I wish that I could join them, fully and completely, in their lamenting. But, I cannot.
I need to keep learning the new language, embracing it and welcoming it. That is part of the call to ministry. The relative comfort of leading a small congregation in the fall of 2019 and early winter of 2020 is no more, nor is it ever going to come back. We are in a new place, with a new language and new challenges—and new opportunities.
Just as in so many generations of the Church, we are faced with realities we would prefer to ignore. Yet the Spirit beckons, gathering us in, offering comfort, but then setting us on our way, even when the path ahead looks and feels unfamiliar to us. It’s a new country. And there’s lots to explore.