Text Study for Luke 21:5-19 (Part Four)

“A crisis,” the Stanford economist Paul Romer once said, “is a terrible thing to waste.”  Romer’s oft-quoted quip is a play on the 1980’s advertising motto of the United Negro College Fund – “a mind is terrible thing to waste.” A crisis requires us to think about, talk about, and bring about changes that we would not think about, talk about, or bring about in so-called “normal” times.

In our text, Jesus points to a coming crisis for the Temple, for Jerusalem, and for Israel as a whole. By the time the Lukan author tells the story, that particular crisis has come and gone. But it is likely that the Lukan communities are facing their own crises. Our text serves, then, as teaching, warning, and encouragement for Christian communities facing and responding to their own crises.

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It is a well-worn cliché to refer to the Chinese ideogram that represents the English word, “crisis.” The cliché is that the ideogram is composed of two characters. The one represents the idea of “danger.” The other represents the idea of “opportunity.” This rendering of the character was noted in English as early as 1938 and was adopted by Lewis Mumford in 1944.

The cliché gained its current status as a truism when John F. Kennedy referred to it in campaign speeches.  After that, the cliché has appeared everywhere, especially as a way to encourage organizations to consider constructive change in the face of challenges. In fact, linguists say that the character is not quite so optimistic. It really refers to something more like a precarious inflection point.

That doesn’t rule out the idea of “opportunity.” But it does remind us that a “crisis” can go either way – toward constructive change or toward inaction. The truth of the cliché remains important. It’s not the presence of the crisis itself that matters. What matters is how we respond to it.

A crisis can make constructive responses possible because the system has loosened up a bit. I’ve always appreciated Kurt Lewin’s three step change management model. I’ve taught it to church groups and applied it in my own thinking. There are moments when an organization, especially in the face of severe challenge or disruption, “unfreezes.” That is, the normal structures, procedures, priorities, assumptions, and values of the organization can be called into question.

This unfreezing doesn’t last forever. But it is a time when real change can be made. As the challenge or crisis passes, the organization tends to “refreeze.” If no changes have been made, the organization refreezes into something close to the previous condition. That’s what we mean when we say that we want things to “go back to normal.” If constructive changes have been made, then the organization will refreeze, but in a different configuration. Hopefully the new configuration is better adapted to the changed environment.

The pandemic has challenged Christian congregations to “unfreeze” in order to deal with the challenging and changed environment. In a matter of weeks, congregations shifted from face-to-face worship to online interactions. Church leaders became content producers and managers. The reach of many congregations was multiplied many times over. Religious communities made changes and accomplished tasks that would have been unimaginable in “normal” times. Organizations were fluid, experimental, and innovative.

That was exhausting for those tasked with exploring and executing those changes. The consequences of that exhaustion continue to surface and impact congregations and church leaders. Clergy in particular, and especially in small and medium-sized congregations, are exhausted to the point of burnout. Yet, there is also a surprising amount of vitality and hope coming out of this crisis.

The Hartford Institute for Religion Research has been studying and continues to study how the pandemic has impacted and is impacting congregations. I’d recommend the YouTube talk by Hartford Institute Director, Dr. Scott Thumma. It’s an interim report but offers some interesting insights into both the challenges and the possibilities within and coming out of the Covid crisis.

Thumma argues that we need to see the “Pandemic” as “endemic.” When a disease or condition is endemic, it is an ongoing reality rather than a finite feature of the moment. While the coronavirus will at some point fade into the background at some point in the future, the impacts of the pandemic experience will not go away.

Those who spend time with American religious communities know that these communities have been changed in ways that are not reversible. No matter how much we would like it, there is no “going back to the way things were.” Thumma argues that the pandemic experience has not introduced new elements into the lives of those religious communities. Instead, the pandemic experience has accelerated changes and amplified challenges that we had been, to some degree, ignoring up until March of 2020.

Those changes and challenges include declines in median worship attendance numbers among American congregations. That median moved from 137 in 2000 to 65 in 2020. Notice that this median was measured prior to the pandemic experience. In mainline congregations, that media in 2020 was fifty. Therefore, half of the mainline American congregations in 2020 had fallen below the threshold of being sustainable as solo institutions. Some one hundred and fifty thousand congregations fit this profile.

It’s not that those small congregations are destined to disappear. However, the model for ministry that sustained those congregations for the last two centuries will not work. Those congregations and leaders who have embraced the crisis as a chance to change, will likely continue to serve their communities. Those congregations and leaders who plan to go back to “business as usual” will not.

Thumma enumerates the likely challenges that are endemic as congregations and leaders face the future here in America. In most places, face-to-face attendance numbers will not return to pre-pandemic levels. Virtual participation in congregational life is no longer regarded as optional by many people. The needs for physical space for congregations is changing. Alternative uses for the space should be explored. New patterns for both professional and volunteer ministry are needed.

In the face of these demands, leaders and volunteers will be challenged with exhaustion and burnout. And a number of congregations will face the realities of closure in the next five to ten years.

On the other hand, the pandemic has unfrozen many congregations. New ways of doing things have been adopted. And congregations have realized not only that they must change but that they can change. New models and methods are in place and being used. Congregations have been forced back to first principles in order set priorities and form practices. Partnerships with other congregations and other organizations have been forged and are bearing fruit.

Thumma reported on the importance of optimism for congregational flourishing. While attitudes generally cannot change the physical and fiscal realities of the moment, attitudes can certainly change how we respond to those realities. His talk reminded me of the power and importance of Appreciative Inquiry as a tool and process for organizational change. And it’s a set of practices that I’m bringing to the congregation with which I’m journeying for now.

Appreciative Inquiry reminds us that everything we do as leaders is intervention, especially in times of change. The intention to look at ourselves is intervention. Choosing to look at our reality will begin to change that reality. Inquiry is intervention. Asking questions about our reality will begin to change that reality. Interaction is intervention. Choosing to talk about our reality together will begin to change that reality. And imagination is intervention. Positive propositions about our future will change that future.

What does this have to do with our text? A crisis is a terrible thing to waste. As we face a crisis, we can learn from those who’ve gone before us. God is faithful. The resurrection of Jesus is the triumphant sign of that faithfulness, even in the face of death. There’s more going on than meets the eye, and we can trust the Holy Spirit to be at work.

As a result, we can live with patient endurance. That’s more than just hunkering down and holding on. That’s acting as if the future is already here, and that future is what God intends. It is not our task to predict the future. That’s for others (who will likely get it wrong). Instead, our task as Jesus followers is to discern where God is leading, now and in the time to come.

Resources and References

Christian, David. Future Stories. Little, Brown Spark: 2022.

After the Disaster — Appreciative Inquiry and the Path to the Future

I am writing a little guidebook on Appreciative Inquiry and the Church during and after the Disaster of the Covid-19 Pandemic. This has been a challenging time for congregations and similar organizations. We have been unable to meet and worship face to face. We have been unable to teach and administer in ways we’re used to. We have been unable to visit the sick and homebound, to comfort the grieving, and host funerals in the ways we know are good for people. We have been unable to mark and celebrate the life transitions of birth, baptism, first communion, confirmation, graduations, weddings, and anniversaries in the ways we want. Our lives in congregations have been thoroughly disrupted.

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In the midst of the disruption, we have experienced tremendous organizational and personal resilience and even growth. In our culture, we are somewhat familiar with the idea and experience of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). We have that experience through returning military personnel, survivors of relationship-based abuse, the traumas of white supremacy, male supremacy, heterosexual supremacy, and the maldistribution of wealth and resources in the population. We see the effects of PTSD in individuals and across generations.

Post-traumatic stress has been and is being studied in great depth and detail. We know much more than we did, and we have some modestly effective ways to deal with some of the symptoms of PTSD. In particular, the use of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has been a boon to a number of sufferers of such distress.

On the other hand, many people who come through similar situations demonstrate great resilience and even significant growth as a result of the experience. We should be quick to say there is no fault or blame for those who struggle. PTSD is not a result of personal choice or moral failing. That antique perspective, which is still out and about in the culture, is mistaken, wrong, and destructive. In spite of the trauma, however, more than a few people come through the experience better, stronger, and more able to deal with the realities of daily life.

Until recently, few people were studying how that happens. These days the study of Post-traumatic growth is a real discipline in the world of positive psychology and positive organizational development. As we come out of the Disaster of the Covid-19 Pandemic, we can make choices about where we focus our attention and energy. That is especially true of churches.

I can’t help but think about Mary, the mother of our Lord, as I write. Today you will hear her story from Luke and wonder with her about the meaning of the words she heard. I would invite to think as well about how she came to flourish in spite of the utter disruption of her life and world. There may be some insights for us at this time in the church.

Let’s focus on the things we had to learn and learn quickly to get through this time. Many of us have learned a whole suite of skills related to the use of media in online settings. We have discovered a variety of platforms and packages, techniques and equipment, to make the best use of those settings. We have secured the equipment, set up the environments, trained the people, and created the audiences this reality requires.

What will we keep and grow from this learning?

We had to learn how to relate to one another and communicate with one another in different ways. Much of that was online. However, many people rediscovered the power of letter and note writing. Even introverts like me learned how to initiate conversations with people even if we didn’t have specific business to do with them.

We learned once again just how important it is to be in and connected to a faith community. We learned once again that there are no solo Christians. And we learned a lot about mute buttons and background activities. In fact, a whole new genre of comedy has arisen, based on the amazing things that happen in spite of our best online efforts!

What will we keep and grow from this learning?

We had to make significant changes in our congregational life quickly. I want to repeat that. we made significant changes quickly. We demonstrated that such change is not impeded by the capacity to change. Instead, what is needed is a demonstrated necessity for change and a willingness to make the change.

More than that, we have experienced the value of an experimental culture, where we tried things without knowing how they would turn out. If things didn’t work one way, we had to try another way, until we found a workable solution. We also learned that “good enough” is often good enough, and “perfect” is a luxury of the privileged.

What will we keep and grow from this learning?

We learned once again that “The Church” is more than our individual congregations. It has been a joy to be part of a number of worshipping communities over the last several months. That doesn’t motivate me to abandon ship and join another community. It does remind me that other folks are out there, part of the great cloud of witnesses.

And it does all me to see a variety of solutions to a common set of problems. We have seen the wisdom of the crowd applied to the situation of the church, and many of those solutions have been nothing short of ingenious.

This time has made it possible for me to reconnect with pastoral colleagues and to see them in action in their ministry settings. I am often skeptical and cynical about the institutional Church and the future of the ELCA.

That jaundiced view, however, is tempered every week by the amazing work of congregational leaders in our churches. I think that many of our pastors and other leaders are preaching some of the best messages of their lives under tough conditions. I feel privileged to be able to some of them in weekly. They are exercising some of the best leadership skills of their ministries. We will see the fruits of this work in the months and years to come.

What will we keep and grow from this learning?

We learned that our people are generous with their time, talents, and treasures, even when we can’t gather face to face. The amount of serving that has happened under duress is remarkable and beautiful. The ways that people have found to organize themselves in study groups, serving groups, support groups, and fun groups, has been wonderful to observe.

The variety of platforms for congregational giving is astonishing, and people have adapted to the variety. About three-quarters of the congregations I know have experienced stable or increased financial giving during this crisis.

What will we keep and grow from this learning?

I have no idea what the answer to that question is for any particular congregation or denomination. But I do know that now is the time to ask that question with focus and intention. It will be some months yet (but no more, please God) before we can return to something approximating “normal.” So we have time now to reflect on this question and start to make some plans. We have the opportunity to go forward rather than merely trying to recapture a “normal” which shall never come again.

The question is an appreciative one. It focuses on how we can build on and build out from what we have experienced. I think that Appreciative Inquiry is well-suited as a technique and worldview for such a time as this in the Church. That’s why I’m putting this little book together now.

If you’re interested in discussing the question and ways to discern answers in your setting, please feel free to let me know. I’d like to be a useful resource for congregations and congregational leaders who want to proactively ask and answer that question.

What will we keep and grow from this learning? Thanks to all of you are who part of this astonishing “natural experiment.” Nothing is too wonderful for God.

Unmasking Truth — Recent Podcasts

Friends, as the weather closes in the gardening, yard work, and time in the wood shop decrease. So, I find myself with more time on the treadmill walking away the calories. I’m not one who likes to spend that time unoccupied, so I fill it with my favorite podcasts. Today I want to briefly highlight two of them.

The current release of the “TED Radio Hour” features conversations about truth in our time under the title of “Warped Reality.” Discussions focus on “deep fakes” as a profound symptom of the truth crisis in our digital technology, on the nature of free speech in the internet age, and the continuing power of systemic bias in the algorithmic world of social media and digital hiring and law enforcement — what the speaker refers to as the “weapons of maths destruction.”

The podcast can be accessed here: https://www.npr.org/2020/10/29/929115189/warped-reality.

We ELCA Lutherans are just coming down from our annual Reformation reading of John 8 — “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” What does it mean for a congregation to be a community committed to “truth”? Beyond the obvious theological and faith commitments involved in such a a discipline, shall we now be communities who take the time to teach our members new skills for discerning factual accuracy in the media we consume?

I think this may be one of the agenda items, for example, when we help people come to terms with the 8th commandment on bearing false witness against the neighbor. I know this is part of the conversation in many confirmation programs these days. This is certainly an invitation to audit our own congregational social media presence for assumed “algorithms” in how we present ourselves online in terms of skin tone, gender dynamics, orientation assumptions, etc.

It’s definitely worth the listen. I most appreciated the work of the “Algorithm Justice League,” and I will look for that work to continue. It’s near the end of the pod, so wait for it.

I also heard the recent “Fresh Air with Terry Gross” episode entitled “The Enduring Impact Of COVID-19.” Dave Davies interviews Nicholas Christakis,  a doctor and a sociologist who has studied the science of infectious diseases and how plagues of the past have altered societies. Christakis is the Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science at Yale University, where he directs the Human Nature Lab. The conversation revolves around his new book, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way We Live.

I think I’ll get a copy of the book and perhaps review it in the near future. For now, I was struck by his prediction of the near-term impact of COVID-19. He suggests that, vaccine or not, we will deal with the immediate effects of the virus into 2022. We will, he believes, deal with the social and economic collateral damage in its most obvious forms through 2024.

This is, of course, very distressing news. The Christian congregations with which I have connections are struggling mightily to determine a strategy to get from now to the end of 2020. There is intense pressure on many pastors and other rostered leaders (sometimes to the point of bullying and even threats of termination) to return to “business as usual” in terms of in-person, maskless activities.

I’m not sure there’s the will or the energy to consider a strategy to get through 2022 with masks, social distancing and group gathering restrictions still in place. Nor do I hear any conversation about ways to mitigate the longer term effects and losses that are sure to be part of this path to the future.

My spouse works for a global banking organization. They have no plans to return to in-person work in any significant way until they are well into 2021. Many in her organization will never return to in-person work. In that organization there is no question about putting worker safety second to doing business. Nor is there any pressure related to employment or compensation to do anything other than be safe. I wish that would be the case for all Christian congregations.

I’m grateful for that wise and caring perspective from a large, international business. What will that mean, however, for the various venders, for example, who made part of their living on the commuting habits of these workers? It is in many ways the end of the world as we know it.

At the moment, her company is doing well financially. They anticipate that at some point, however, the corona-piper will need to be paid. They have built into their strategic model sequestered funds for if and when that downturn in revenue happens. The congregations I know are wrestling with how to make it to next month financially. They have no luxury to strategize about next year or five years from now (with a few notable exceptions). I wonder how many congregations will simply no longer be “in business” five years from now.

The podcast can be accessed here: https://www.npr.org/2020/10/26/927796954/the-enduring-impact-of-covid-19. It is also worth the time.

The two podcasts are, of course, connected (although not intentionally). Our relationship to truth is to a large degree determining how we deal with the pandemic and how we might strategize for the future. If we cannot come to terms with reality, we cannot develop effective strategies to move forward. A commitment to truth is critical to making effective plans. Denial always leads to disaster.

What strategies should Christian denominations, judicatories, and congregations adopt now based on the assumptions that truth is under fire and that the virus will be with us from another 18 to 24 months in force? I have no idea, but I do wonder if “the people in charge” are seeking answers to this question.

Christakis’ book can be found at https://www.amazon.com/Apollos-Arrow-Profound-Enduring-Coronavirus/dp/0316628212/ref=tmm_hrd_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1604072640&sr=.

Image credit:

“Treadmill” by www.metaphoricalplatypus.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0