When I arrived at my present pastoral assignment 3½ years ago, one of my first endeavors was a series of small group meetings with members of the congregation. We called it a “Listening Tour” and over the course of two weeks, my wife and I met in over a dozen homes in gatherings of ten to twenty people, engaging with close to half of our church’s active constituency.
I asked each group the same five questions while my wife took careful notes. My goal was to get a sense of the pulse of the congregation, where they saw themselves and where they wanted to go, and unearth any potential sacred cows or landmines that might be in the way.
In one of the gatherings, an older woman, a woman who was well-known in the church for her faithful participation, as well as her deeply-held opinions, had a surprising response to one of my questions. My question was “What needs to change?” During the conversation around this question, she looked straight at me and said as matter-of-factly as anyone could, “John, you can change anything you want. Just wait until after I’m dead.”
Everyone in the room had a nice laugh. And I resisted the temptation to ask the obvious follow up question about a projected timeline for her demise. The truth was that her words represented the unexpressed thoughts of many of the people who attended our Listening Tour sessions. She just happened to be the most direct.
It is now over three years later and my friend is still very much alive and kicking. But something is different. In a year where everything has changed, including countless changes in and around our church, her tone and disposition has changed as well. She still has her strong opinions, but when she comes to worship, taking her usual seat while wearing her mask, she offers a genuine and pleasant “Good morning, John.” And when she leaves and we are waving our good-byes from across the church lawn, there are kind eyes and a smile and a heart-felt “thank you.”
Had it not been for Covid-19, she probably would have resisted every last one of the changes and adaptations we have been forced to make this year. She would have told me and anyone else who would listen how we were ruining the church with our new ideas and unorthodox approaches. It only took a pandemic for her to recognize that while we might have made more cosmetic and pragmatic changes this year than ordinarily would be desired, we are fundamentally the same. We have maintained our core identity and stayed true to who we are, even while adapting our approach, method, and appearance.
The church has continued to be a steady presence for her and many others. While the church’s activities calendar has been more bare than in anyone’s memory, the church is alive in the ways that really count. And that is powerful. D’Sousa and Renner write in “Not Doing,” “just being there seems so minimal, so small a gesture, that we underestimate its power, at the right time, to change others.” In our day-to-day lives, this is about the impact of just showing up. In this case, it is also true about the church offering a faithful and visible witness to the enduring and abiding presence of God, even when we take a more minimalistic approach.
Someday on the other side of all this, my older friend may well again find things to fuss about. In the meantime, as long as our focus is on proclaiming good news and offering words of comfort, hope, mercy, and grace, will we have accomplished the only thing that ultimately matters.
 Steven D’Souza and Diana Renner, “Not Doing: The Art of Effortless Action,” (New York: LID Publishing, 2018,) 189.