I have been thinking a lot about how the pandemic has unfolded through a number of different stages. Like Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief, we similarly may have experienced Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. Perhaps not in that order, and sometimes, all at once. All through these stages, I have found it healthy to work together as a community to find where there is consensus.
I remember an energizer activity I participated in with other adults at a retreat many years ago, where someone would start by saying “Let’s ___”, with the trust that it would be something we could all participate in. We would say in response, “Yes, let’s!” and then do it. “Let’s take a deep breath!” “Yes, let’s!” (innnnn…oooouuutt) “Let’s stretch our hands real high!” “Yes, let’s!” (streeeettch) “Let’s shout for joy” “Yes, lets!” (“WOOOOOOO.”) The trick is that it had to be something we all felt safe doing. And if it wasn’t, all someone had to do was say no, and we had to start again.
I was wondering what kinds of things we, as a presbytery, can say “YES, LET’S!” about, regarding the pandemic, and which things we cannot. For example, as someone immunocompromised, if I were asked to remove my mask, or do a group hug, I would have to say “no, let’s not.” But there have to be SOME things we can say “yes, let’s”, right?
Last week, our staff at Giddings-Lovejoy Presbytery worked to name together some common ground consensus that we wanted to try to name as we help each other move into this next phase of the pandemic. We also explored together some of our experiences of the pandemic conversation shared by our pastors at the All Pastors monthly Zoom gathering.
Is it possible to name any areas of consensus? How might we, as a presbytery, respond to each of the following? Let’s try this and see how they fit.
1. Let’s acknowledge that the pandemic response across our congregations looks quite different from place to place. Communities are responding differently because communities have been impacted differently. Some may feel first the partisan divide that has broken friendships; others may think first of a beloved family member. Each of us are carrying different experiences, and any conversation about (re)gathering should honor all the different things we carry with us into our spaces. Let’s acknowledge that. (“Yes, let’s”?)
2. Let’s be a mask-welcoming community! I learned recently the subtle but meaningful difference between being “mask-optional” and “mask-welcoming.” One strikes me as passive and dispassionate, while the other feels more proactive and rooted in hospitality. No one should be shamed for wearing a mask to protect themselves and exercise love for neighbor by protecting others. No one should be demanded to remove their mask. Each person has a right to hold a space of safety for themselves and practice care for others. Let’s bless that.
3. Let’s be able to articulate what we are doing and why. This means being clear on what policies you have (and must follow), what guidance you need (which depends on your context), and what theology shapes your choices (which can be really powerful). A friend of mine once said, “if you have a policy, you must follow it, and are accountable if you do not.” Policies tend to be one size-fits-all, and are usually meant to protect everyone equally. Many congregations have had pandemic policies, which, by nature of a policy, are not intended to be flexible. So what happens, as circumstances change, when a policy may need to adapt to changing circumstances? You can adopt the policy, sure, but you can also provide guidelines, stemmed from listening to what is needed most in your context. But what guides the guidelines? Here is where I have appreciated the way we can turn to our theology. What does it mean now to show care to the vulnerable? To love our neighbor? To show hospitality? A room of 99 people who don’t need to wear masks but do anyway for the 1 person in their midst who does is a powerful expression of love and solidarity! Maybe your community needs a policy. Perhaps you dropped everything at once but have no guidelines. Whatever we do, let’s be as clear as we can what we are doing, how we are doing it, and what God would say about it.
4. Let’s be open to changing our minds and being flexible! We’ve learned the hard way that circumstances can change very quickly. We have experienced a number of pandemic surges that have shifted the status of the conversation, and we have also responded to new understandings of virus informed by the science. Let’s give ourselves permission to absorb new information and be agile enough to change as we need to.
5. Let’s continue to offer the hybrid option to participate where we can! While we have learned to appreciate the value of our embodied presence, we have also learned that schedule changes, long-distance travel, driving time, and a whole lot of other factors may limit our ability to be physically present with each other. Some kinds of meetings lend themselves better in hybrid or virtual meetings than others, such as meetings that don’t rely as much on drawing creative energy from each other or require check-in spaces. If we have the ability to do it, let’s consider providing a hybrid option as an act of hospitality, a way to express “come as you are, and come as you can!”
6. Let’s respect the restrictions of our host site(s). If you are a part of an event, please take note of and respect the precautions that our host sites have in place. Those precautions were likely put in place after a long time of prayer, debate, research, expressing opinions, hurting feelings, mending hurt feelings, and even financial investment in order to be responsible, gracious, hospitable hosts. The policies of our hosts might extend to masks, gathering, vacating, and eating. Let’s respect our hosts, yes?
7. Let’s honor the voice of the moderator. The moderator of a gathering has the authority to ensure that we are following the agreed upon norms and covenants of the gathering, and usually has some authority to check in with the group to make sure that everyone feels safe and comfortable. I was in a workshop where a participant asked the leader to remove their mask. The moderator stopped to verbally assess the room on whether we all felt we could adjust to revisit the terms. The room did not agree, and the leader said in that case, I will honor the terms we agreed on. I love that moderator. Let’s honor the voice of the moderator.
8. Let’s give permission, that if certain groups want to gather in person, they can. This is one, honestly, I might not have been able to say “Yes, let’s” more than a few months ago (I, admittedly, at one point had become really good at frowning under my mask when people were meeting in person well before we knew it was safe!). At this time though, it appears that all of our municipalities have lessened gathering restrictions, even if we are not completely in the clear. While we are monitoring a new variant with concern, I notice it is from a place of being vigilant based on what we have learned about being ready. Because of improved availability to the vaccine and its boosters, our two years of practice with social distancing, hand washing, and cough-etiquette, it would seem we have become as accustomed to showing community care to each other. Even if we ourselves may not quite be there yet for ourselves, perhaps we are at a time where we may offer permission to others. I’m not sure I could have been able to say that at earlier points of the pandemic. Shall we say it now?
9. Let us not forget the logistics of calendar management! Ok. Down to the nitty gritty. Do you remember how much went into planning in person meetings? There are several logistics over the last two years we might have forgotten. In a Zoom meeting, all you really have to do is get a link out and have your email up and running. Let’s make sure we don’t forget that rooms need to be reserved; calendars need to be coordinated. Time must be set aside for setting up and cleaning up. Parking needs to be considered. Travel time is a thing again. Clean socks are also a thing. And the coffee. I have learned when there are expectations for coffee, few things are more dangerous than an uncaffeinated Presbyterian. Shall we make space for the logistics again?
10. Let’s remember to show care for ourselves. We are human too. Let’s not forget to take care of ourselves even as we tend to the people we serve.
As you look down this list, how do you respond to someone in our circle saying “Let’s __” to each of these? Is this a “Yes, let’s!”?
Are we there yet?
It’s okay if not.
Because if not, let’s keep trying something different until we all can.