Hope for Wilderness Times

I will lead the blind

by a road they do not know,

by paths they have not known

I will guide them.

I will turn the darkness before them into light,

the rough places into level ground.

These are the things I will do,

and I will not forsake them.

– Isaiah 42”16

One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.

– Andre´Gide, French novelist

We are living in a troublesome time, a time we did not choose and do not welcome. So much has changed, gotten lost, or ended. The way things were only two months ago, seem like a distant memory. The shoreline where we once stood has disappeared into the fog and it’s neither clear where we are heading nor how long it will take to get there. We only know that our old lives have ended, and someday we hope to have a new beginning.

The people of God experienced a similar time. The Pharaoh and the plagues drove the Israelites into the wilderness for forty years before they crossed the Jordon into the Promised Land. It was is a time of transition for them. This is also true for us. We are in the wilderness. This is a liminal time—a time in-between, on the edge, at a threshold. Like a wilderness, this time hold danger but also promise and opportunity.

While we face the dangers associated with the virus and accompanying economic hardships, we also confront the dangers associated with wilderness travel, with living in this in-between time. These can be as hazardous to the health and wellbeing of our congregations as the virus itself. Here are some common dangers congregation are facing.

  • Tired of coping, these times fray our nerves; anxiety goes up and motivation drops. We are not at our best. We tend towards harboring resentments and stress.

  • The old fault lines in our relationships, our families, places of work, congregations and community open up. Weaknesses which had been compensated for in the past reemerge. Problems we thought were worked out or would be worked out in time show up again. Trust becomes more fragile and precious.

  • As time passes, the danger of polarization and conflict increases while it gets more difficult to talk with each other. Some are ready to rush forward with an unfamiliar thing and others want to return everything to the way it was. Consensus becomes more difficult to achieve and working as a team becomes more challenging.

  • We are more vulnerable to competition, attacks from outside groups or forces. People are simply worn out, more disorganized, and susceptible to outside pressures and threats.

Danger isn’t the complete picture. Obscured by these dark dangers is a significant opportunity. The opportunity is for a fresh beginning, for creative, positive change. When things are going smoothly, there is little motivation for change. People don’t ask challenging questions and don’t want to rock the boat. But during this in-between time, our congregations are asking many questions and energized and ripe for creative change. Hidden in this crisis is the opportunity for a new beginning. One pastor said this will be like a reset. There is an opportunity to consider our ministry and life together. Three areas come to mind.

  • Congregational identity, purpose, and mission—our losses and the crisis bring into focus what is most important in our life together. This has the potential to redefine who we are and the direction our ministry takes.

  • Leadership changes—new leaders will show up, established leaders may do new things or step back, roles and responsibilities can be clarified.

  • Relationships with neighboring churches, the community, and denomination—the question of how we are the Church together grows in importance along with the opportunity for a renewal of these relationships.

How do we survive the many dangers on this journey and faithfully lead to a new beginning? Through it all, we are given the courage and faith to go forward knowing God’s promise to us. God will guide us and will never forsake us.

On a practical note, I commend to you four resources which focus on leading people through these dangerous times. Please use the comment section to offer your thoughts and resources.

  • The Bible: Moses’ leadership of the people of God during their wilderness wanderings provides a model for leaders.

  • The book “Managing Transitions—Making the Most of Change” by William Bridges. He draws on his experience in the corporate world and Moses for help to make it through what he calls the ‘neutral zone.’

  • Roger S. Nicholson’s highly regarded book on interim ministry— “Temporary Shepherds—A Congregational Handbook for Interim Ministry.” Nicholson has gathered together some of the best thinkers and practitioners representing several denominations to consider how to accompany congregations through change and transition. The collection of writings speaks to all pastors ministering through these challenging times.

  • Craig Satterlee’s book “When God Speaks through Change–Preaching in Times of Congregational Transition.” On the cover of this book Alice Mann writes, “Satterlee’s book belongs in the core library of preachers who want to help congregations experience God’s presence, grace, power, and direction in the midst of transition.”

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