“But now thus says the Lord…Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Isaiah 43:1 (NRSV)
I am a wordsmith. If you think about it from a purely professional standpoint, in my role as Senior Minister, you employ me to use words. Admittedly some of you probably grow weary of those words from time to time. From raising money to reporting congregational announcements and communicating crucial decisions, I talk a lot. But what I love is to use words to preach! To craft liturgy and sermons that help express how we feel corporately and how I see God at work in those moments. A good wordsmith can also take difficult moments and make them sound downright pleasant. 2020 has been a year of immense practice for me. So, as we say goodbye to 2020, here are some unvarnished thoughts:
2020 has been a difficult year and I am not sad to see it go. I believe there is danger in wishing your life away, but I have been done with 2020 for a while now. From not worshiping together, to every aspect of our communal life turned upside down, I am ready for some “normal,” whatever “normal” means anymore.
The Executive Committee and Church Council, in concert with me, made difficult decisions to keep us safe. While unanimous, the decision to remain shuttered since March 17 has been painful. We long to see one another and worship together. Some churches in our community are open and some remain closed. However, as I have said to those who question that difference, “I do not pastor other churches, I pastor this one.” With a median age of 74, and average worship attendance ranging from 750-1,200 people this time of year, we did not see a safe way to gather people in one room for worship with no direct outside ventilation. We have not gathered outdoors due to not really having a lawn on which we can do so or parking space that allows for that type of gathering. Although we are looking into some alternative outdoor spaces for 2021. Instead, we have focused time, energy, and resources on how to help you experience worship best from safe places. We have been physically distanced, but not spiritually separated.
We are ready to open as soon as it is safe to do so. When will that be? I cannot say with certainty. The Executive Committee and the Church Council voted unanimously to follow the Harvard Global Health Initiative as our guide. Once we have achieved two consecutive weeks of “green,” we will be back in person for worship! I also know that tears filled my eyes as I watched the first Americans receive vaccinations. I am encouraged by the thought that, with our median age, our congregation stands to have many people vaccinated early in the process and I am hopeful about what that means for us. Additionally, we engaged a Re-Opening Task Force that has examined every conceivable angle of what returning to worship will look like so that we are safe and prepared. We have upgraded every toilet, sink, and paper towel dispenser on our campus to touchless models, again, to help keep each of us safe.
Our staff has worked tirelessly with odd hours and ever-changing expectations; yet remained faithful professionals. Lest we think that just because they are seen less, they work less. Remember the number of additional tasks that have been created since the pandemic began. For instance, at the start of March, we sent one e-blast a week. We now send eight, every week. Despite having Zoom capabilities for meetings and classes before the pandemic began, I do not really remember worrying much about scheduling them. Now, the church has 5+ Zoom accounts that are in constant use. The staff are juggling passwords and links to meetings and working to ensure that everyone else has what they need, too. And as a side note, no one on staff has taken their full allotted vacation time this year.
Your generosity leaves me astounded. When the pandemic began, I asked the staff, boards, and committees to freeze any unnecessary spending until we had a better sense of what lay ahead. Additionally, we obtained a $250,000 line of credit to ensure consistent cash flow in case that became a problem. The spending freeze did not last long, and we have not used the line of credit because you have given so generously. For instance, a couple who are not members, but frequent attendees, emailed me out of the blue to let me know about a sizeable gift that was coming “just to make sure the church is okay.” We have continued to reach beyond our walls, impacting our community when they need us most. I rarely worry about resources around our church, but amid everything else to think about, you have never made that an issue – thank you!
We did not miss a beat, even though we miss being together. 2020 was nothing like I planned or expected, but we did not shy away from evolving and looking to the future. Change is rarely easy, but when it is thrust on us as 2020 did, it was never going to be easy. I cannot begin to express the number of times that I have dreamed of us being in worship together or continuing annual traditions like our Thanksgiving dinner or Advent Music Sunday.
All of this to say: (1) Hold tight, we will be together again soon, (2) There has been growth amidst the struggle of this past year, and (3) God is with us. The first message of Christmas was “Do Not Be Afraid.” Our God walks with us into a new year knowing our doubts and fears, frustrations, and disappointments. But God also clings to our hopes and dreams of what a new year can bring.
As for words, these are more than enough for now. I think I have a bottle of champagne around here somewhere to chill before midnight. We have much to celebrate and much to anticipate. Happy New Year!
For those working to keep us safe this New Year’s Eve
Loving God, I anticipate the promise that a New Year with you brings. Amen.