2020 may be over, but the pandemic is not over yet. With stay-at-home guidelines, isolation, and low-grade anxiety still surrounding almost every decision of daily life, I’m reminded that many people are still far from feeling “okay.”
A church community can oftentimes be a place of support, mutual encouragement, and hope. One thing I’ve been struggling a lot with this past season is figuring out both my place and my “role” within the community. Especially as someone who is working part-time for the church, it can be doubly confusing. Where do my work responsibilities start and end? How do I take care of myself as I take care of others? Is it my job to take care of others first, before myself?
Especially during a time when it feels like we are all suffering, when no one is really “healthy” and giving out of an abundance of energy, time, or resources, I battle two conflicting motivations. One motivation is towards self-preservation: taking care of my own needs, conserving my energy, “doing the bare minimum” to get by. Surely I need to take care of myself first before I can take care of others. Surely the best strategy is to avoid burning out. Surely the most effective “leaders” are ones who are healthy, thriving in their own walk with God, and are in such a state of zen that they can see clearly how best to support others.
But the other motivation is the Christian pull towards sacrificial giving. When everyone is suffering equally, the true test of character is who is most willing to put others before themselves, right? When the going gets tough, the tough get going? Is maybe now the time to adopt a “grit-your-teeth and bear the pain” sort of attitude, for the betterment of others and the whole community? Jesus taught us to serve selflessly, and to empty ourselves for others, but sometimes I wonder where the line is drawn in terms of costing your own physical strength, mental capacity, or emotional and spiritual energy.
I feel like somewhere in here, the “correct” answer is a “lay all of your burdens on Jesus” response. We are all in need of salvation. It’s a false dichotomy to think about saving others or saving yourself first: we are all hopelessly needy, and thus we should be looking at God, and not ourselves or others for sustenance.
But what I want to focus on in this post is perhaps a metaphor more suited for those who are practically minded. What do we do in this kind of a situation?
I was so, so grateful this morning for the many others who stepped in to help with the many responsibilities of running a Sunday worship service over Zoom. I realized, having been on both sides of the service (helping out in-person and behind the scenes, versus participating from my own room at home), is that sometimes, the sacrifices you make really do serve others and help enable them to receive from God. For example, our church has strong convictions about holding a participatory Zoom service rather than a remote livestream. As a result, my pastor’s family has gone into the sanctuary every Sunday since March in order to preach and help facilitate worship, with all of the movements of our liturgy as our congregation is familiar with. But as a result, per safety guidelines, they have not been able to sing out loud during worship for all these past 9 months, a significant cost (I realized how much of a difference singing at home made for me in terms of being able to truly worship). However, their sacrifice has truly enabled many others to continue worshipping and receiving the word throughout the pandemic.
So back to the original question. I think everyone (regardless of formal role) in the congregation is facing a similar conflict: in a time where we are all hurting, but still want to support each other as the church, how do we properly balance knowing when to look to our own needs and when to look to the needs of others? How do we selflessly give of ourselves to others, and yet have the freedom to say “no” in order to take care of ourselves when we need to?
READ: Cathedral of the Tropics and Worshipping Through a Pandemic
So I thought of this analogy: “doing” church is sort of like showing up to someone’s house to help out with a move (a very common expression of our love for one another in my congregation). You show up because you have a common goal: helping this person complete their move. You’re not really obligated to show up, but you want to. When you do show up, you don’t necessarily have to work the whole time, but you’d feel bad if you didn’t work at all (and subsequently partook in the celebratory luncheon afterwards). It can be a joyful task, but as much as you like contributing, you should remain aware of the limitations of your own body, and the constraint in schedule for the rest of your day. There are also many different roles to play at a community move, according to your gifts: box-mover, organizer, cheerleader and relayer, master-of-tetris person packing things into the U-haul, driver, etc. And of course, if it’s a job well done, you all get to leave with sore arms and a cheerful spirit (and maybe a filled stomach).
Being the church during a pandemic feels somewhat similar:
The first step of doing church is to show up. It’s okay to be late, mind you, but you still want to show up. Whether that’s Sunday, it’s a small group, or any kind of gathering (virtual or not): it’s hard to help out at a move unless you mark the time and place in your calendar. The second step, once there, is to contribute what you can. Someone probably has some plan and it’s likely people have already begun shifting to start moving boxes in a line from one location to another. Help out and move a few boxes if you can. When you get tired, opt-out and take a breather. Don’t forget to drink water and stay hydrated—sometimes you’ll be handed a water bottle, other times you need to bring or find your own. Don’t overextend yourself if you’re coming in with a broken arm. Or a weak back. Or maybe you’re pregnant. Or understandably distracted with the small children you brought along. Others will understand if you’re not able to “work” the whole time. They probably don’t want you to. And if you’re the stubborn or “champion” type. . . relax a little. You don’t need to overexert yourself being the hero that moves 20 boxes by yourself when everyone else is distributing the load evenly. You’ll just go home with sorer arms.
And that’s it. That’s as far as this analogy extends, really. I don’t know if there is a step 3. We’re still in the middle of the pandemic, after all, and we’re still figuring out what it means to be a church community together during a crisis such as this. Personally, I feel tired and drained but I also want to keep showing up. I like to see myself as the contributor, but sometimes it’s asking the community to help me with my move. And that’s okay too. Until the moving company arrives (Jesus returning), we can all only keep doing our best. The move will eventually be completed. In the meantime, we just keep giving what we can.