Power and authority in the church has become radically decentralized during the pandemic, as lay people are offering each other pastoral care and clergy are generating their own preaching and ministry guides and resources, rather than relying on their denomination’s conferences or dioceses. That’s the discovery of a team from the Texas Methodist Foundation, including Lisa Greenwood, who have done extensive interviews in their state.
And that decentralization is a good thing, Greenwood says, and it should remain as part of the new normal once people can gather together again.
The change to decentralized power is significant and, Greenwood hopes, will be fundamental and long lasting, a real system shift. “Decentralization taps into an energy that’s already exists as we move from old power models to new powers. We’ve been talking about the need for that, how it’s better, for years, but now we are seeing it in play.”
Will some church leaders who liked the old, centralized power and hierarchical models feel threatened by the people taking charge of ministry in small trusted circles?
“If we can understand these muscles exist in the church but have atrophied, we can see them as valuable and Biblical and nurture them and not feel threatened.” She acknowledges that she is concerned that the “gravitational pull” of of the old ways will make some want to reassert centralized power once the pandemic has run its course. “We are doing things that would have been silenced before, and now we have a few months to get this conversation down the road without resistance (from old patterns of power). There is a freedom in this situation. We’ve been stripped of our methodology, and there is almost no resistance to try anything now.”
Acknowledging the liminal moment, rather than labelling advice to clergy and laity as steps toward a goal they composed a practice for the pandemic Greenwood has outlined four muscles that need to be exercised now, with decentralized power, the real game changer, coming in at number four. “This time when so much typical activity and methodology has been stripped away, we talked to a lot of people and looked for the discernment God is asking us to make,” said Greenwood, vice president for leadership ministry at the Texas Methodist Foundation.
The foundation came up with the four muscles that need to be activated now. “We were finding people getting to their core essence, and we think that discerning your core essence comes first now,” Greenwood said.
The second muscle is grieving well. “There are lots of ways we are talking about the vulnerability muscle, dealing with and facing sadness and loss. This will be the greatest loss of life we will know in our lifetime. We have lost the way things were and there has been a loss of innocence,” Greenwood said.
Muscle number three to consciously exercise in this between time that’s laced with sadness and loss is “the neighboring piece, walking alongside each other,” Greenwood said. It acknowledges the ways people have become more connected to their neighbors, going to the store for older neighbors who shouldn’t be getting out. “This is about both the neediness and the resourcefulness of our neighbors, the mutual aid societies that have sprung up,” Greenwood said.
Closely related to neighboring is the real game changer: decentralized power. “We are paying attention to a lot of congregational leaders and we heard from them that they are working harder than before, and there is a lot of deepening going on, but pastoral care is happening between each (congregant) rather than with the pastor or priest. “The members are calling each other, they are sharing peer to peer, lay people to each other.” At the same time, clergy are reaching out to each other, actively sharing articles, resources, tips for online worship, videos, creating and sharing online resource banks. “Colleagues are immediately resourcing each other. These are things the conference or diocese typically does, but now they are doing it themselves.”
“I am most concerned that when we are able to get back into our buildings, there will be a gravitational pull to go back to the way things were. The courageous thing we can do now is lay the groundwork, (for the decentralized power model), show that we are reaching more people on Facebook live than we ever did in our church buildings.”
Some congregations that typically had 30-40 people on Sunday now have 80-90 tuning in. One Episcopal cathedral that can hold 600 recently had 1,500. What’s going on? Is something new and potentially worth continuing happening?
“There are a lot of theories about that,” Greenwood said. “There is no Sunday soccer practice for the kids. But I think the research says that there is a rising turn toward spirituality; people want to connect with something deeper. It may also be less threatening to go online rather than walk into a sanctuary, to go into the anxiety of coffee hour.”
Face-to-face worship services will come back. “People are hungry for human interaction, but it’s not ever going to be the same,” Greenwood said. “We thought of connecting online as impersonal but now there’s a flattening of the globe. We are in this little ice age, but we can realize now the church gets so caught up in its delivery system, that has become increasingly irrelevant to more people. We’ve struggled to let it go and now we don’t have that control.”
“My deep hope is that we will loosen our grip on our delivery system, on our worship spaces, our buildings. We are reaching people now who want nothing to do with our buildings. Our church buildings have become our idols, our Sunday worship. Things we had a firm grip on. Being without those things has helped us loosen up. We have to see that (virtual services are) working without the buildings, often for more people. We want to help the congregation learn that we don’t need to automatically go back to the building to be a church again. The leaders need to paint that picture.”
Perhaps linked to the neighboring muscle, Greenwood has heard from activist pastors, both white and people of color, that their congregations now have “an appetite and a desperation to move beyond just gathering face to face but to be a voice for change” in response to the economy shuttering, and in Texas, the overall economic impact of oil prices dropping through the floor.
“People who work in grocery stores or are still working in construction, the people in the pew are saying this (unjust economy) has to change.” Activist pastors are noticing that their efforts are finally taking root throughout the congregation in ways they never did before. Concern about unequal access to health care for lower income people is also moving people toward action in new ways.
“With the neighboring piece we see that we are all in this together; it’s not up to some government or denomination to do it for us,” Greenwood says. And that realization is causing the people in the pew to become more active for justice as some of them are among the hardest hit; the “essential workers” that are treated as if they are expendable. As they experience the new, harsher economic reality, she is hearing preachers speaking up and being more bold as they and their people face the pandemic. “It’s not a time that platitudes work. You have to tell the truth and people want to hear it and take action more than before.”