By Lindsay Peyton

When will people return to in-person worship? Forecasts have varied widely throughout the past year. Some church members were ready to come back long before churches reopened their doors. Others remain reluctant. For a number of pastors in the Texas Annual Conference, Easter Sunday became a marker, a time to take inventory of how many would be back in the building and then to make a plan for the future.

This week, we spoke to a pastor and a seminary student to learn more:

Lead Pastor Wesley Duncan at FUMC Alvin

Lead Pastor Wesley Duncan at FUMC Alvin explained, “The past nine months have been a roller coaster of expectations of fully reopening our churches after Covid.” Some pastors thought Easter in 2021 would be a time to relaunch. Others bet on last summer. Neither completely panned out.

“Thanksgiving and the New Year were two more spikes, and it seemed like pastors and our church members were fatigued,” Duncan said. “That brings us to Easter 2022, and we want to put our hopes on this finally being the ‘back to normal’ that we have all been hoping for.”

Duncan compared the church in today’s time to the practice of “triage” in the medical field, a reaction to times of catastrophe. He explained that patients are prioritized based on the severity of their condition.

“Those who have the potential to survive and require the most immediate attention are seen first,” he said. “Then those injured but not life threatening are put in holding patterns, and those that are not going to survive, even with intervention, are last.”

Similarly, clergy are now in a position to “triage” in their churches. Duncan asks, “After the dust has settled, who is still standing? Who needs immediate attention to see if they will come back? Is there anything we can do to make sure they feel cared for?”

He also questions “Who has been lost forever? How do we decide on whether someone is a lost cause? Who is wounded but still sticking around? We know they need to be heard, but can they wait just a little longer? And we all know that if it’s not an urgent problem, then will we ever address them?”

Risk to triage approach

Duncan explained that there is an inherent risk to a triage approach. “If we are not careful, we will spend all of our time in triage taking care of those who always seem to need immediate attention, or we will beat ourselves up over the casualties that we have suffered as a community,” he said.

Instead, churches can grow in acceptance that people and congregations have changed. “Some will come in with chest pains continuously about the change we have all endured,” he said. “They are scared. They are fearful. They need to be loved and cared for.”

There will be those who continuously talk about the casualties suffered, Duncan added. At the same time, there are faithful members who continue to attend – and they need care too. “And if you are not careful, those still faithful few will get triaged out of your attention,” the pastor said.

This Easter, his heart went out to those who have stuck with the church and are still there. He described these congregants as, “those that have endured the ups and downs with you. Those who watched online even though it seemed weird.”

The individuals who wore masks when they did not want to, the ones who have been faithful in a time of uncertainty, need encouragement, Duncan continued.  “They need to hear that we appreciate them and care about them,” he said. “They are the faithful remnant God has graced us with to rebuild the Church.”

And that gave him hope on Easter. After all, we are an Easter people.

As Duncan said, God “specializes in taking the faithful remnants, molding them through struggle and trial, encouraging them with the world-changing truth that Jesus is alive, and preparing them to be unleashed into a world that is hurting, broken and in need of a living Savior now more than ever.”

Seminary student Lauren Kruse

Lauren Kruse is in her first year at Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky. Previously, she served as Associate Pastor at Deer Park UMC in the Texas Annual Conference.

She started her work as a licensed local pastor in July 2020, as the pandemic was raging. “Everyone was learning new things together,” she recalled.

At the time, pastors were traversing an ever-changing landscape. As Kruse put it, “What’s going to happen? How is this going to look different going forward?”

Online worship already existed, but suddenly more focus was placed in the arena. “It just kind of exploded the conversation,” Kruse said.

At first, she felt that online was an ideal resource to reach others. After all, being in person was not an option, and this was one way to stay engaged.

Her perspective has since evolved. She still feels that online worship has potential for the immunocompromised and homebound, as well as individuals with transient lifestyles, like travel nurses. However, she is convinced that there must be more offered than simply an online community.

“This is a helpful tool, but it can’t be the biggest tool in the belt,” she said. “It cannot be the only one. Online resources cannot be a replacement for in-person care.”

For instance, Kruse said a homebound person can watch church online but also still needs a church family to stop by, even if they remain safely on the porch. “It needs to be a more nuanced conversation,” she said.

Kruse believes this is a time to consider why members of a congregation are forgotten in the first place. “Are we too busy? That’s a big issue we need to think about,” she said.

She also asked, If the calendar is too full of programs and events, does it take away the focus on truly being together as a family?

Kruse added, “One question we also should really ask is are we putting all the weight on pastors to feel it is their responsibility, instead of the church as a whole?”

She explained that the congregation should take ownership for staying connected, reaching out to the homebound and contacting those who have not been in church in a while. Because of the itinerancy system for pastors, she said, the congregation is empowered itself to maintain their own community.

And, to her, COVID-19 highlighted the need for community. “Some people found ways to draw closer,” she said.

Others have felt isolated and decided not to return to church. “When people leave and numbers change, it hits a panic button,” Kruse said. “And if we are so focused on getting people to come back, we forget about the people who are there.”

Keeping the main thing the main thing is key. “If discipleship is being done, if people are encountering God, growing in faith and being transformed, that’s the attraction,” Kruse said.

She recently read, “Minding the Good Ground: A Theology for Church Renewal” by Jason Vickers. The text gave her much to consider.

She said, “For churches to be healthy and find renewal, it’s going to take a willingness to stop and look at what God is doing in the world around us and ask, how are we as a church aligning with God?”

While in seminary, Kruse explored different churches in various denominations. Sometimes, she drove to a Sunday sermon; other times she went online. Once she simply hiked with her Bible in hand and read in nature.

She explained, “It gave me space and time to think about why I go to church. What is the purpose?”

The answer, she discovered, lay in the need for community, for living life as a church family.

Kruse is convinced that now is a time for deep soul-searching as a church. “We need to be willing to not fill up our schedules as soon as we can and take that time to think about what is meaningful and how to grow in discipleship,” she said. “How are we learning to love one another the way Jesus loves us and set for us as an example?”

She added, “We need to be a tangible physical reminder that God is present with us. God seeks us out and meets us.”