Stepping into the Future, Without Fear

By Jessica Anschutz ’07 M.Div.

“I can’t wait for things to return to normal.” I’ve heard this said countless times since the pandemic upended our ministries and our lives in March 2020. I do not fault anyone for their hopes of living life without masks, social distancing, and other Covid-related restrictions. I, too, long to return to large in-person gatherings, fellowship hours, communion by intinction, potlucks, and more. 

Sometimes clarity and peace come after a short walk, other times only after days of walks communing with God, but still it comes.

But I also recognize that in many cases what was “normal” fell short of living up to God’s expectations of us as Christ’s church. As winter transitions to spring, signs of resurrection and hope are all around us, if only we take the time to witness the wonders of God’s creation, hold on to that resurrection hope, and step into the future—without fear.

Trusting in God means planting new seeds and starting new ministries, but there is also pruning to be done. The shape of our ministries now may not be the same as in March 2020, nor should it be.  I fervently hope and pray that we will work toward something better than what was “normal.” 

We’ve already proven we can do this: the pandemic pushed us into new ways of thinking and being the church. It forced us to expand our vision of ministry to virtual platforms and hybrid options as we welcomed new people and also connected with those who are shut-in, homebound, sick, or out of town. What a blessing it was for people to be able to join us for worship for the first time in years from their own homes—even 1,600 miles away, in some cases. As in-person worship has resumed, people continue to join our congregation—some virtually. This looks like a glimpse into the future: church leaders must unavoidably continue to think creatively about cultivating relationships on many fronts.

Love of Neighbor, Regardless

Congregations easily get stuck in silos, especially when congregations face decline, which makes them more and more inwardly focused. One of the ways the United Methodist churches in the New York Annual Conference are working together to meet needs creatively is through the formation of cooperative parishes. A number of congregations geographically close to one another are grouped together and charged with working together. Cooperative parishes encourage congregations to see beyond their walls, to meet people where they are, and to work together to help their neighbors. We can do more together than we can apart. Imagine what we can do when we “encourage one another and build up each other” (1 Thessalonians 5:11, NRSV). The United Methodist churches in Orange County, NY, are not only working together on a house build (our eighth Methodist Habitat house) but are collaborating with congregations to support Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh’s upcoming “Unity Build.”

Hard work awaits congregations as we endeavor to connect in new ways with people.

The future requires us to expand our definition of neighbor—and a love our neighbors regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, language, religion, politics, education level, social status, ability, marital or family status, or age. Jesus repeatedly sought to draw those on the margins into the center of God’s redeeming love. We are called to do the same. In the early days of the pandemic, it was heartwarming to see congregations speak to needs of the neighborhood or town. Food pantries began delivering food to persons who were sick or in quarantine, neighbors not previously known to the church. As we move into the future, I hope we do not lose sight of the care and compassion that drove us during a crisis.

Living into Our Baptismal Vows

Loving our neighbor includes doing the necessary work to become anti-racist, a commitment to address the systemic injustices of racism that divide us—acknowledging that in many cases what was “normal” for the church was not loving or just. It is my fervent hope that we will strive to live into the vows made at our baptisms to “renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evils powers of this world, and repent of your sin” and to “accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves,” as the UMC baptismal covenant service declares. Book studies, Bible studies, and anti-racism trainings are important, but it is past time to take action.

The mandate for these actions is clear. Yet churches so often fail—letting fear get the last word. I have my own fears to face. But I strive to act in faith rather than out of fear. I try to heed the words of the psalmist—“when I am afraid, I put my trust in you” (Psalm 53:6, NRSV)—and avoid the temptation to place faith and trust in the principalities and powers of this world. I find it is so much easier to face my fears, when I put my trust in God rather than other people, judicatories, or even myself. 

“This Far By Faith”

When faced with a difficult decision, I silence notifications on my devices, go for a walk (preferably outside) to clear my spirit, and pray for God’s guidance. Once I have a sense of clarity about what is God’s will, rather than my own, I gather input from others and seek affirmations of the Spirit. Sometimes clarity and peace come after a short walk, other times only after days of walks communing with God, but still it comes. God has never let me down, but God has surprised me more than once!

As we face the future, my prayer is that congregations will let go of unfruitful practices and beliefs, and plant new seeds that build relationships with people. Keys to this work will include compassion, collaboration, a commitment to being anti-racist, and, as the hymn declares, a deep and abiding trust in God who has brought us this far by faith. 

Jessica Anschutz ’07 M.Div. is a United Methodist Elder and soon to be full-time Assistant Director at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. She is a member of the YDS Alumni Board.