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An invitation to reconnect

Reconnect with this experience

COVID-19 has presented new leadership challenges and opportunities. The Rev. Nathan Kirkpatrick talks about today’s ministry landscape and how leaders can reconnect with their calling.


Senior Content Editor

Lent 2021 offers a special invitation to the clergy of The Michigan Conference. The Office of Clergy Excellence is sponsoring a leadership development experience facilitated by Sarah Hescheles and the Rev. Nathan Kirkpatrick. Hescheles is a Courage and Renewal Facilitator who is passionate about nurturing individual wholeness and weaving compassionate communities. Kirkpatrick is the managing director for Alban at Duke Divinity School. As Seasons Change: Cultivating the Courage to Lead, a virtual three-day experience, will take place March 15-17, 2021. Follow-up conversations are scheduled for April 12 and 19.

MIconnect contacted Nathan Kirkpatrick for a dialogue about seasons and leadership. When asked why clergy should sign up for As Seasons Change, Kirkpatrick said, “Because leadership is hard. Leading in a time of change is so taxing. We all need spaces where we can reconnect that outer work and inner lives. We need spaces where we can breathe deeply and talk freely and remember why we said yes to this calling in the first place.” He then added, “We are not aiming for is tips and tricks for how you make it work. If that’s what you are looking for, this is not the workshop for you.”

Cultivating the Courage to Lead will not center on effective programs and useful tools, as important as those are. “This is a space,” Kirkpatrick notes, “where people can reconnect with meaning, purpose, value, and vision.” Lent is a time for tending to the spirit, and the Office of Clergy Excellence is encouraging people to do just that. Its director, the Rev. Dr. Jennifer Browne, describes the experience this way. “We offer participants an opportunity to slow down, intentionally explore your leadership, and expand your awareness for what you need to cultivate as you love boldly, serve passionately, and lead with increasing courage as a clergy person in this season of change.”


“Congregations aren’t broken, and leaders don’t need to be fixed.”


Alban at Duke is an able partner in this experience. Some remember Alban Institute. In 2014, their board reorganized, granting “its assets to several established partners, including Duke Divinity School.” The Alban mission continues through Duke. Kirkpatrick talks about that mission. “Alban began helping congregations meet practical challenges they were facing. That starts with assuming wisdom is in the congregation already.” Today, as at its founding, Alban’s approach is “harvesting the deep knowing a community of faith already has. We listen to the wisdom in the pews,” Kirkpatrick explains. “Congregations aren’t broken, and leaders don’t need to be fixed,” he adds. “We need space and time to know our own wisdom and to listen to the wisdom of the people of God who are entrusted with our care.” That purpose is achieved through a weekly email, publication of books, and “events like this one.”  

Alban has spent years watching trends in the life of congregations. Their scope is ecumenical, with mainline Protestantism their primary focus and core audience. Kirkpatrick lists six key areas that were on their radar screen before 2020.

  1. How we gather
  2. Where we gather
  3. Who leads
  4. Who supports congregations
  5. How leaders keeping mind and heart alive
  6. Funding ministry

He points out that in several of these areas, “we knew things were changing” before COVID-19. “We saw buildings being sold, space being rented, and building-share arrangements being created. More congregations were lay-led either because of clergy shortage or the inability to afford full-time or part-time clergy. We knew economic models for doing ministry were shifting, and that pledge and plate were not the only way congregations balanced their budgets. And we knew these changes were exacting a tremendous toll on leaders.”

When the pandemic arrived a year ago, “every one of these leadership changes shifted,” according to Kirkpatrick. “We at Alban watched congregations and clergy navigate an environment none were prepared for. Even churches already having significant online presence were suddenly in a position to reevaluate all they were doing.”

Kirkpatrick names a distinct challenge of this time. “How can we support and sustain community when we can’t be in the same building. That raises all sorts of questions about the role of congregations in American life.” He adds, “I am less intrigued by online worship and more intrigued by what we are learning about Zoom coffee hour and facetime live Bible studies.”

Further, despite the shifts brought on by the coronavirus, Kirkpatrick asserts connection is all the more crucial right now. “In addition to COVID, we have congregations confronting questions about racial justice and an election. These were already divisive things and new we can’t be together.” Kirkpatrick raises a significant question, “How do you sustain community across disagreement when it is really easy for someone to simply leave? How do we continue to knit community together?”


“One great gift of congregations going online is that geography no longer is a barrier.”


And, yet, he sees opportunities. “One great gift of congregations going online is that geography no longer is a barrier.” Kirkpatrick’s “little congregation in Chapel Hill, NC” has a woman joining them every week from Norway. “Would my congregation ever be in a position to have a global presence?” he ponders. “This further reach is connecting faith communities with places they have never been before.”

Kirkpatrick says that the second area of opportunity “keeps me up at night,” citing the possibility of years-long trauma response ministry facing congregations today. “We have been collectively traumatized by the pandemic experience,” he states. “To think about losing the equivalent of a 9/11 attack every day presents congregations with a tremendous opportunity for partnership. We are about wholeness and wellness and a deeper level of salvation.” Kirkpatrick hopes that churches form partnerships with mental health organizations and the medical community to “respond to needs we haven’t seen except in places where there has been a disaster. We are now in a position to do this.”

He believes congregations also have the opportunity to help contextualize what the nation has been going through. “We have rituals that society desperately needs for marking losses, the grief, and the isolation. Congregations have language about that and can share it.”

Returning to his congregation’s new friend in Norway, Kirkpatrick addresses the crucial challenge of this moment. “I worry about the quest to return to what was,” he says. “One of the gifts leaders have now is to reevaluate what was and let some things go to hold on to some of the things we have picked up and adopted in this season. My congregation of 100 people now includes this woman in Norway. I don’t want to lose Molly in Norway when we go back to in-person.”

While it is difficult to think of a pandemic in a positive light, Kirkpatrick offers this insight. “There is the change we choose and the change that chooses us. COVID change has chosen us and has invited us to do new things.” Change normally meets resistance. COVID, however, according to Kirkpatrick, “lowered our collective resistance. That does not mean people were not upset. Many still wanted to meet in person. But collectively, we were on this new ground and could move in new directions together.”


“COVID change has chosen us and has invited us to do new things.”


He salutes the pastor of another small congregation in eastern North Carolina; for them, “the digital divide was real.” The pastor copies her sermon each week and drives from house to house to put it in members’ mailboxes. “They figured it out. I am intrigued and am in awe of the pastoral creativity and Christian imagination that has surfaced in communities of faith in this season,” Kirkpatrick says with enthusiasm. He continues, “What I don’t want to salute is that day when most can be back together in person, and we return only to that creativity and calling.”

Summoning the courage to embrace all of those trends is what the As Seasons Change experience is about. Leaders weary with all that has happened in recent months will engage in a process that reconnects to their own sense of calling, meaning, and purpose. “This is part of the reason initiatives of the Office of Clergy Excellence matter so much,” Kirkpatrick says. “We need to let ourselves grieve what we need to grieve. We have carried the grief of our communities across this year.” He shares a reminder that patience, as well as courage, are needed. “Leaders underestimate the amount of time change takes. This is long slow work. Change at a pastoral speed. I love that image. We can’t move so rapidly that we leave people behind.”

Regardless of the pace of the pandemic, Kirkpatrick provides reassurance. “This is not work that needs to be done tomorrow. This is now the work we will do for the rest of our ministries. We must give ourselves a longer horizon and take deep breaths to renew and reconnect ourselves. This is the work of the next two decades.”

It is uncertain when COVID’s effects will diminish. What is certain is that new leadership challenges are ahead. Kirkpatrick hopes that congregations take the time to celebrate their faithfulness and successes of recent months. “I hope we can spend a little bit of time rejoicing in how we did live our mission and what this has told us about what we are called to be,” he reflects. ‘Churches have learned how to be a community in difficult times. How we keep flexing those muscles matters.”

What can leaders hold onto right now? “We are called for a moment like this,” says the Rev. Nathan Kirkpatrick. “This is the heart of pastoral ministry. Letting our hearts be broke with the world and offering the healing of the gospel. Let this be a time for clergy and laity to clarify their mission as they embrace their baptism and rethink what those words mean.”


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