“Joy That Comes in the Morning”

By Cheryl Cornish ’83 M.Div.

Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. We know them as stages of grief that become part of our story as we struggle with trauma or loss. 

We’ve seen each of these stages on full public display during these pandemic years. 

We are focusing on what we have rather than what we’ve lost. We recently welcomed 20 new members—mostly young people who found us online and were especially open to a message of hope and community during this stressful season.

We’ve watched denial in action by those who have flouted warnings about social distancing, vaccinations, wearing masks. The Ambassador Bridge, linking Canada and the United States, was recently closed for six days by protesters, showing their anger at Covid restrictions. Government officials have found themselves in a politically tense ordeal of bargaining with the public in the effort to balance lockdowns and freedom, and in the struggle to promote competent medical advice against disinformation. And, of course, depression: the United States Census Bureau reported recently that adults were more than three times as likely to be experiencing depression and anxiety now than in the pre-pandemic years.

Conspiracy Theology

Pressures on clergy and their congregations moved to a whole new level. Church members were sick. Many died with pastors and families locked outside the hospital room or ward, unable to offer comfort. Conspiracy theories, politics, and theology merged in the arguments about almost every aspect of church life, ranging from the need for members to distance and mask, to policies on how funerals could be scheduled, to whether church staff could be kept on payroll as the pandemic lingered. 

Attendance dropped. Some members vanished. Communication became an exhausting myriad of texts, phone calls, links and Zoom schedules. Home and church life, always a challenge to clergy to maintain personal boundaries, became inseparable. A November 2021 Barna survey of Protestant pastors found 38 percent saying they’d considered quitting full-time ministry in the past year. Workloads increased with the necessity of more digital contact. Clergy longed nostalgically for a time when working with congregants meant personal conversation rather than social media expertise.

Unexpected Sacred Purposes

Each congregation has its own story to tell of What Life Has Been in the Pandemic, and What Life Might Be After the Pandemic. As it became clear that the pandemic was going to bring not short-term but perhaps long-term changes to our church life, our staff members spoke openly about our resolve to fuel spiritual resilience in the congregation and to keep our hearts open to the blessing that might come, even from these unwanted and unexpected changes in our life together.

Remaining open to new and sacred purposes has been an essential spiritual discipline in fostering this resilience. Three practices have been especially important to us: gratitude, fearless flexibility, and a confident trust that God will open new pathways to ministry. 

Outsiders Welcome

First Congregational Church of Memphis has a history that, in some ways, made it uniquely able to face this kind of crisis—but this history also laid open vulnerabilities. Founded as “Strangers Church” during the Civil War, a haven for Union soldiers, the congregation has a tradition of welcoming outsiders and defying some of the political currents of the surrounding culture. 

The AIDS pandemic was formative in redefining the church’s identity and self-understanding. An informal estimate of this growing congregation in the 1990s showed 25 percent of church membership struggling with HIV and AIDS. The theological narrative of the church required a direct reckoning with death if we were going to provide coherence in a time when so many were struggling, not just with physical illness but with the stigma of disease. It elevated the congregation’s sense of its own significance as a place of shelter and voice of hope in times of crisis. “We must be there for those who have no one else” has become a mainstay of the church’s congregational culture.

This sensitivity to physical vulnerability helped us avoid bickering over the need to wear masks as we gathered during this pandemic. Our large sanctuary made physical distancing a relatively easy arrangement. 

Challenges Aplenty

This is not to say, however, that we’ve been free of challenge! It was a blessing to have added two young staff members prior to the pandemic’s outbreak. They brought awareness and skill to the needed digital transitions that our long-term staff lacked—and had resisted actively. At the same time, they faced special stresses as parents with young children, trying to navigate school attendance and the disruptions in family life brought on by the pandemic. They also were forced to become acquainted with the congregation when it was online only, rather than having the ease of person-to-person contact. 

Church financial pressures, always a concern, were made especially intense because of the congregation’s reliance on income generated by a church-operated hostel within the building and an extensive network of non-profit groups that shared space with the church. The hostel closed and revenue plummeted. Ministry partners who contributed to the church’s operating expenses were not using their office space and were financially stretched themselves. This income dropped as well.

Gospel According to Muley

We have met the financial insecurity by using savings reserves and relying on Covid-era Payback Protection Program loans and Economic Injury Disaster Loan support. Our decision to maintain church staff, even through the financial pressures, has seemed sound. We have been able to offer grief support and counseling, classes on well-being and happiness, Bible study and social outreach online in ways that we could never have explored without this strengthened staff presence. 

We have experienced profound gratitude for long-distance friends who are now able to participate in church programs remotely because we are functioning online. With unpredictable changes in their work schedules, some people are available to participate in church events more than ever before because of the online option.  

We’ve had to re-design a food justice program where a daily hot meal was provided to approximately 100 guests each day. Sitting at a table together became impossible to do safely, but we developed new ways of distributing food that will continue even as we return to this shared meal.  

A community refrigerator outside the building, stocked mainly by members of the neighborhood, has been quite successful. A new food distribution system, where we set up a network of homes from which food could be distributed, rather than all gathering at the church building, enabled folks without access to cars to receive food assistance and enhanced a sense of neighborhood unity and friendship.

We have been deliberate in focusing on what we have rather than what we’ve lost. We experimented with our children’s ministry so that we could expand our reach, rather than limiting it. “Muley”—a talking mule puppet—started a weekly online program of reading books to children in the evening. We noticed that several of our children with autism were especially responsive to Muley, and we became aware that the Yale Child Study Center had documented the positive connection. We are considering new programs for children who live with autism based on this finding, which may never have come to light otherwise.

“You Need to Open”

For several years before the pandemic hit, churches had been challenged to learn how to speak more meaningfully to the many “nones” of the world—those who lack trust or confidence in established communities of faith. Our pandemic experience has been that digital access feels less threatening to many “nones” than actually having to enter a church building to explore what it might have to offer. 

We’ve seen concrete results with this outreach. Our nursery, which previously attracted three or four children, has lately swelled to up to 15 on a Sunday. In the last quarter of 2021, we welcomed 20 new members to the congregation—mostly young people who found us online and were especially open to a message of hope and community during this stressful season.

Soon after the pandemic began and our building was closed down, I was approached by a young woman I didn’t know. She recognized me as the pastor of First Congregational and sounded quite urgent as she asked when we would be re-opening. I had to tell her that I didn’t know. Emphatically she responded: “It HAS to be soon! I’d always thought about coming to worship, but never made the effort. Now I know how much I need it. You need to open. A lot of us need what you have to offer.”

This has been a season of weeping, of loss, of grief. But it also offers the possibility for a renewal in a Christian experience of hope and even joy, of knowing the “joy that comes in the morning” (Psalm 30) if we persist in faith. Amen.

The Rev. Cheryl Cornish ’83 M.Div. has been minister of First Congregational Church UCC in Memphis since 1988, In 2008, she was awarded by YDS for Distinction in Congregational Ministry and has served on the YDS Alumni Board.