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March 2023
Issue No. 313

Ministry in a Post-Pandemic Church

by John L. Kater
   John L. Kater


What happened?

The Covid pandemic affected every church around the world, but the specific effects depended on the particular context. For the HSKH, the pandemic followed immediately on the social upheaval of 2019, so we really need to think about a post-2019, post-pandemic church.

• The pandemic affected every aspect of the Church’s life. Worship was disrupted; so was Christian education – not only Sunday School but preparation for baptism and confirmation, youth ministry and Bible study. Programs of social service which many depended upon were cancelled or curtailed. 

• One important effect of the pandemic on us all was the isolation we experienced. A recent study in the USA found that 30% of all young people are clinically depressed – and I suspect the figure for Hong Kong would be at least as high. Isolation challenged parents who became not only 24/7 caregivers but tutors for their children while maintaining a full work schedule. The elderly were especially touched by isolation: many aged dramatically – physically, mentally and spiritually. Families that are separated by distance, whether within Hong Kong or around the world, lost the contact that enriched their lives. Family events like weddings were postponed for months or years. But perhaps the most tragic effect of pandemic isolation was the pain of dying alone, and grieving families not able to say goodbye to their loved ones or accompany them in their last days.

• Even the nature of work has changed! A huge number of workers were confined to home, and the boundary between work and the rest of life disappeared. Work has now become a 24/7 activity when employers and supervisors had permanent access to their staff. And now many people prefer to work from home, losing the human contact that shared workspace offers. 

• We should not overlook the effect on many people’s spirituality which must be blamed on the isolation of the pandemic. When we are lonely, it is harder to love ourselves, to love God and to love our neighbor. Church no longer was an immediate par of our lives. The focal points of Church life – Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter – disappeared. Many, perhaps most Christians found themselves asking, Where is God in this pandemic? In Hong Kong, there has been a significant shift in population. Many have disappeared from our churches, often to relocate overseas.

• Clergy were not exempt from being personally affected by the pandemic. We are used to knowing how to deal with whatever situation we confront, but nothing in our training or our experience taught us how to do ministry in this new world we found ourselves living in. we are used to being a resource for others, but the pandemic affected us in the same way it touched the people in our churches. In the USA, many clergy have expressed doubt in their vocation. Many have taken early retirement.


How are we to think theologically about this period in our life? I think our tradition offers us a powerful image of what we’ve been through: it’s the wilderness. On their way from slavery in Egypt, the Hebrew people spent years in the wilderness ‘testing and being tested’, unable to see where they were going, feeling lost. But in the wilderness, they learned how to look forward instead of looking back. They learned what they needed to know in order to live in the new world God had planned for them.

Jesus also spent time in the wilderness, wrestling with what he had discovered about himself and his mission, and also learning what were the special temptations he had to watch out for. And when his time in the wilderness was over, his ministry began. 

1. What have we learned from the pandemic?

Time in the wilderness helps us learn lessons we might not otherwise learn. The Hebrews learned how to live together as a people. Jesus learned what it meant to be God’s beloved child; it was after his time in the wilderness that he began his ministry. So we need to ask ourselves, What have we learned from our time in the wilderness? The pandemic has taught me some lessons about ministry. I believe the Church has made two major mistakes which are affecting how we move into the future.

The first mistake we’ve made is making it easy for people to believe that faith is something that goes on in our head or our soul. But in fact, faith is an expression of our whole self, including our bodies. There is a fundamentally physical dimension to expressing or faith: in worship, we sit, se stand. And our faith involves the use of the material world: In baptism, real Water is poured on our heads. In the Eucharist, we eat real bread and we drink real wine. But we haven’t emphasized this enough, so that for many Christians, worship is a spectator sport and a congregation is an audience. That’s why many people think they’ve been to church when they watch a service on Youtube or Zoom. They haven’t! They’ve been watching a service. That’s better than nothing when real worship isn’t an option, but it is not the same thing.

The second mistake I believe the Church is guilty of is over-emphasizing the individual dimension of Christian faith. We’ve made faith into a matter of a private relationship between God and me. But it isn’t! Christian faith is personal but not private. Paul’s letters, especially Romans and I Corinthians, make clear that we become Christian by becoming members of the Body of Christ. And in that Body, every member is important! I believe we desperately need to emphasize the nature of that community and the importance of taking our membership and our participation as a fundamental part of our life with God.

One other lesson I have learned is what a valuable tool for ministry technology can be, as long as we don’t use it for shortcuts to replace authentic ministry in community. It can be a wonderful instrument for Christian education – if we are careful about the quality. 21st century people are used to high quality technology and the Church can’t get away with poor quality production and content. That means skilled technicians and equipment. The parish priest of the church I serve in the USA decided that most church livestreaming is very poor and she discovered that the equipment to do a good job was far more expensive than the church could afford. Perhaps it would be wiser for dioceses, cathedrals and those with both human and financial resources to provide high quality material for those churches who lack resources.

Technology can also be a valuable tool for pastoral ministry. When I had Covid last month, I never saw my doctor face to face, but I met with him on Zoom. There is no reason why clergy can’t use the same vehicle for keeping in touch with parishioners and even offering pastoral care.

2. Ministry in a Post-Pandemic Church

For effective ministry in a post-pandemic church, we need to begin by facing one very important reality: We can’t go back to 2018! The Hebrew people didn’t go back to Egypt. Jesus didn’t go back to being a small-town carpenter. They looked forward, not back. Being in the wilderness makes going back impossible.

I believe one of our most urgent needs is to begin emphasizing the we practice our faith in community, and we do it person to person. Worship is something we do together and it engages our whole self, not just our minds.

I also hope we take this opportunity to recognize the potential that opens up for focusing on the ministry of all baptized people. If we take St. Paul seriously, we believe that every Christian has been given gifts for ministry. In the Prayer Book of the Episcopal Church, the Catechism states that there are four orders of ministry in the Church: laity, bishops, priests and deacons. ALL Christians have a ministry; some of us – clergy – also have a specialized ministry in the community of the Church. If we take this seriously, the post-pandemic time can be a time of re-birth. I know the clergy are tired but this might be an opportunity for new life in the Church, when new creativity can be set free. Clergy don’t have to do it all! Preparing for baptism and confirmation should be times when people are taught that they are being given ministry by God. We need to stop treating tae people who participate in the Church’s life as “volunteers” helping the clergy, and recognize them as people with ministries of their own. I believe that as the Church lives into the recognition that all Christians are ministers, there is the potential to energize the Church in exciting new ways.

Perhaps it is even time to look at the larger picture of how the Church goes about its ministry. Right now Ming Hua has 16 degree students but 64 laypeople in its diploma programme. Only one student is preparing for ordination in the traditional way. I wonder if this is a time to consider options for ministry that other churches in the Anglican Communion have found useful? One is the restoration of the ministry of deacons to its traditional form as a separate order, rather than a kind of apprenticeship for new priests? What would happen if a parish church had a deacon whose responsibility was helping the congregation pay attention to its ministry and care of it community? Another option is encouraging non-stipendiary priests who continue in their profession while also assisting in a congregation. 

These are avenues of ministry that have roots deep in the Church and many churches in the Anglican Communion have found them to strengthen their ministry. They may or may not be helpful in the context of the HKSKH but they might be options to consider.

We believe what Jesus told us, that the Holy Spirit will lead us into the future if we will only choose to follow.

I want to end with some thoughts from the Revd Susan Fortunato, who is the rector of my church in the USA and to whom I am indebted for helping me think about the pandemic experience as our wilderness. This is what she said: 

“The wilderness is a sacred place in scripture. Moses led the Hebrew people through the wilderness. The prophet Isaiah tells us that God will make ay in the wilderness. John the Baptist preached in the wilderness. When Jesus was baptized, he spent 40 days in the wilderness being Satan…. 

“I will be honest with you and say that until the pandemic, I had only thought of the Wilderness as a place individuals were called to travel. But this past few years have taught me that sometimes a whole community and a whole world are forced to be in the wilderness.

“We are the lucky ones because we are traveling through that uncertainty together and as people who believe or at least have a hunch – that God is with us in this wilderness time….

“God’s stories, our hero stories, our most ancient and true mythologies – always contain a wilderness. A time of leaving the old ways and searching for the new. Without that understanding the wilderness is a terrifying time. A time of madness and violence. So yes, we are lucky because we have each other and because we have our faith and our scripture, a narrative that can guide us.”

<The above article was published in "Echo" Issue No. 313. Please click here>


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