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20200522_195130

First Times Call for Humility

Deborah Stollery

This is the final blog in the 6 blog series devoted to figuring out how to wrap your head around all that is changing in ecclesial realms as a result of Covid19.  From reading the signs of the times to assessing and matching leadership to the needs of your people, from pastoring the present while pondering the “what-if’s” of the future, these are literally unprecedented times for most pastors and their staffs.  Everyone is doing this for the first time, and so, ecclesial leaders have to own that in this instance, they are walking right alongside their people…making the road by walking together.  That takes humility.

“There’s a first time for everything.”  And our first time is the novel coronavirus, dubbed Covid19.  I think it’s fair to say that most of you reading this have not experienced a global pandemic first-hand, until now.  Perhaps some of you ministered during the AIDS pandemic, during the swine flu or during Ebola or SARS.  But I don’t think I am over-stating the idea that most of us alive when those outbreaks were happening were not personally, immediately impacted.  Not so with Covid19.  So for most of us, this is a first-time experience personally and professionally.

Here’s the thing about first times:  they are first times.  That means there are no experts, no personal or corporate experiences from which to draw, no pathways already trodden, no maps and no timelines.  That means everyone is learning as we go…everyone.  That includes those entrusted to lead.

The challenge for many ecclesial leaders is that it’s been a long time since they were a first-timer.  And for many priests and lay ecclesial ministers, even when they were a first-timer in their roles, they already had education, title and conferred authority so others trusted them even if they were new to the role.  None of that is the case in this situation.  Education, title and conferred authority does not set ecclesial leaders apart in today’s situation.  With Covid19, we are first-timers in learning, in experiencing emotions that arise when health is threatened, in figuring out when to be still and patient and when to move, in learning what it takes to pastor an entire flock whose hopes and dreams have become sorrows, griefs and losses. 

So what is an ecclesial leader to do?  Own it.  Have the courage of humility…the courage to say “I have no idea.”  That will mean coming out from behind education, experience, title and authority to join the people in becoming ongoing learners.  It means bringing what you do know to the table and acknowledging that it is not enough upon which to make literally potentially life-threatening decisions.  It means expressing your own doubts, questions, fears and ponderings as you sit with others who share in leadership, to learn and grow together.  It means befriending an approach that begins with “What do you think?”  It means becoming less sure and more curious.  It means allowing others with more knowledge to take the lead.  It means becoming comfortable with retracting statements, changing course, apologizing and expressing the honest frustrations of these times.  It means being humble.

What is an ecclesial leader to do?  Bow down before those whose expertise must lead the way.  Bow down before the unknown.  Sit still with your flock in the uncertainty, the grief, the darkness and the hope.  It means welcoming new thought leaders, new knowledge streams and adjusting what has always been in favor of what has to be now.  It means tilling the ground in preparation for what the future may hold.  Ecclesial leaders hold the certainty of God-with-us in the uncertainty of pandemic times.  And they let go of authoritarian, hierarchical, patriarchal approaches that flow from ordination and commissioning in favor of walking along with their flock in shared learning. 

What might an ecclesial leader do?  Exercise humility.  Bow, bend, learn, question, doubt, experiment, adjust.  Be vulnerable enough to share your own experiences of Covid19, to weep and mourn over all the losses, and to stand in solidarity with all those whose suffering cannot be expressed in words.  Be open to the messy work of God.  Be humble enough to say, “Not my will, but thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

And then lead…as a humble servant of the Lord and of those precious people entrusted to your care.

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