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For even the most optimistic of church leaders, 2022 was another heartbreaking year.


By Rev. Grayhame Bowcott

Christmas Eve 2022:

The pews were prepared with candy canes, carol books, Christmas costumes and “Welcome to St. George’s” brochures. Our three services were prepped and ready to go: 5:00 p.m. Children’s Pajama Mass; 7:00 p.m. Carol Sing Eucharist; and our 9:00 p.m. Traditional Candlelight Communion.

Trays of Christmas cookies, cranberry cocktail and eggnog were faithfully waiting for the hundreds of visitors that we expected that night, but in the end, and for the third year in a row, I sat alone in an empty church, talking into a livestream camera and drinking a bottle of eggnog by myself. Who would have thought that after another year of relational disruptions, 2022 would go out with a whimper (compliments of a surprise two-day blizzard)?

For even the most optimistic of church leaders, 2022 was another heartbreaking year.

Heartbreak was found in the uncertainty of whether or not to mask or unmask: ironically, I ended up catching Covid on the day I returned to my first in-person Clericus (clergy) meeting – figures!

Heartbreak found among the hesitancy of trying to restart communal events like congregational social time and coffee hour. Even getting comfortable in returning to regular in-home pastoral visits felt like another anxious hurdle to overcome. 

2022 was a year in which church leaders tried desperately to resume our relational Christian routines only to find that half of the time the rug was being pulled out from under us by things that were beyond our control – right, so now we have to cancel Christmas Eve for the third year in a row!

I share these reflections with you today for two reasons:

1) because it needs to be clearly stated that our lay and clergy leaders have been remarkably resilient with more change in the last three years that most of us have likely faced in leadership roles in our lifetime (this needs to be recognized and appreciated!), and

2) because the relational bonds of our Church, which are the lifeblood of our congregational communities, have been under such immense strain, that the Church needs to be aware of this and be carefully attentive to investing in a form of “relational renovation” for our parishes and congregations.

What do I mean by relational renovation?

Well, in the same way that buildings are assessed and re-evaluated for future health and sustainability following a devasting storm or a physically compromising event, so too do faith communities need to assess and re-evaluate their own needs following periods of disruption and trauma. I don’t know about you, but I would certainly classify the last three years as a time of disruption and trauma!

Recognizing the concerning context of our ministries as we have entered into 2023, that the average return rate of parishioners and guests returning to in-person Sunday worship services is between 50-60% of pre-pandemic levels, I propose that this year’s topmost priority in our congregations and Diocese needs to be a deliberate tending to the relationships that are the foundation of our faith communities: a Season of Relational Renovation!

2023 needs to be a year re-embracing the lost sheep – visiting those who we don’t see in Church on Sunday and making sure they know that they are missed, needed, and still supported by the prayers and pastoral care of the congregation.

This year needs to be a year of kindness and generosity, in the ways that support and uphold each other. We need to create spaces for fellowship, sharing and laughter to be heard once again in our sanctuaries and parish halls.

This year lay and clergy leaders need deeply consider how we communicate the Good News of our Christian faith with non-members and the wider community.

The past three years were immensely difficult, but churches have survived and are continuing to do the transformative ministries that make a difference in our neighbourhoods: from foodbanks to poverty advocacy, programming for seniors and youth, teaching ministries, caring ministries and ministries of presence – God’s churches continue to serve. How might we invite newcomers to join us in these activities? How might we embrace them to explore the meaning and fellowship of being a member of the Church and a follower of Jesus?

In our process of relational renovation we also need to pray for each other. We need to invoke God into the midst of our anxieties around struggling trends of membership, praying that God will enable us to be welcoming of others, more resilient to the changes of our times, and more devoted to the ways that we share our Christian faith with others.  

Having been deprived of so many of our communal aspects of being Church over the last three years, I am longing for this Season of Relational Renovation. I’m looking forward to rekindling distant faith relationships and the excitement of forming new ones. I will be dedicating this column to sharing stories of these attempts throughout this next year, or where we are reinvesting in the people who make our churches possible.

If you have stories of your own congregation’s efforts, I’d love to hear and share them!     

Rev. Dr. Grayhame Bowcott is passionate about fostering congregational relationships and sharing our Anglican vocation with others. He serves as rector of St. George’s, The Parish of The Blue Mountains. 

Illustration: Erik Muller/Unsplash