Go Small, Stay Home: Missional Leadership in a Limiting World

The Coronavirus pandemic has placed severe limitations on our leadership in the context of the church gathered. The Rev. Sandra Richter reflects on the questions, What does missional leadership look like when you have to stay home? What do you do when you can’t get things done?

by Sandra Richter

Mission and missional leadership are active terms involving movement, connection, momentum. We are commissioned to go out, to make disciples, to spread the Good News throughout the world. 

But what happens when movement, connection, and momentum are halted? When by executive order you are mandated to stay, to shelter, to distance? Is the mission of God put on hold by a worldwide pandemic? And with it, our missional leadership stifled?

Or are we invited instead to rediscover the mission of God and our role in it?

It’s Eastertide and like most of you, I’m recovering from the strangest Holy Week I have ever experienced, and certainly ever led. I’ve served as our Holy Week Coordinator for years now and love the opportunity we have as a church to share the Gospel with the world not just with words, but experiences like palm processions and washing feet, touching the wood of the cross, and ringing Alleluia bells. Praying and trusting that as people move with Jesus toward the cross, their hearts would move toward faith as well. But this year, three weeks before Holy Week, the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic hit and everything screeched to a halt. 

I’m recovering from the strangest Holy Week I have ever experienced.

Paralyzed, I asked the Lord: How are we to lead people to the cross when we can’t even be in the same room together?

For me, this question extends beyond Holy Week as my husband and I are in the process of planting a church. Just before the pandemic hit, I had discerned some momentum in our launch team and was all set to issue an invitation to take the next steps toward deepening our work together. After the stay-at-home order went into effect, I looked at my husband and said, “What now?” Do we just give up? Do we put things on hold? My gut was saying move ahead, but how did that make any sense? 

I realize now that underneath my question I was grappling not only with a change of plans, but also my sense of control. As the leader of our church plant, I thought I knew what came next. I thought that was my role. My husband’s response, then, surprised me. “What do you mean, what now?” he said. “Our call hasn’t changed, just our perception of it.” His words reminded me that when we said yes to starting this church, we didn’t know what that would mean, even if we thought we did. Now we’re just more in touch with our lack of control than we were before.

Our call hasn't changed, just our perception of it.

I find that both unnerving and strangely comforting. The mission hasn’t changed, but I may need to let go of the illusion that I know where this mission is heading. Missional leadership may not mean being the one with the map, but rather holding on to the One we follow.

I’m reminded of Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, in which he tells them about his thorn in the flesh, the limitation that he begged the Lord to remove over and over again. Although we cannot know what the thorn was, we can easily imagine what those prayers sounded like. I’ve prayed a few of them myself of late: Lord, how am I supposed to do the work you called me to with this kind of limitation? Lord, if only this crisis would be resolved, we could get back to what’s important. Or maybe even, Lord, I give up. I can’t do this. 

Apparently, though, the thorn wasn’t the limitation Paul thought it was. So the Lord said: “My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).”

The thorn wasn’t the limitation Paul thought it was.

I wonder if we could just sit with that for a while—My grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in weakness.

Perhaps what we see as limitation, God sees as the opportunity for his power to be made known.

That doesn’t mean that our work isn’t frustrating or difficult, or that we should feel any better about pastoring in these crazy times. But it does mean that our frustration and difficulties are not a barrier to God’s work, but rather fertile soil in which he can create new and unexpected life.

The mission of God has always worked this way. Even at the very beginning, God created the world out of nothing. In the words of The Message, “Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness.” Sounds a lot like how I feel when I look into the void of what ministry in this time means. But this inky blackness and bottomless emptiness were no barriers to the Spirit of the Living God. God had only to speak, “Light,” and light appeared. And from that, all living things spilled forth from the abundance of God’s creativity. 

I wonder what new life God is ready to produce in our lives and ministry?

What new life is God ready to produce in our lives and ministry?

Like many of you, our Holy Week was tinged with grief over the many things we could not do together. At the same time, there were sweet moments I could not have predicted: volunteers spending hours delivering palm branches and bells, my daughter offering me the reserved sacrament at home. The Spirit’s creativity superseded what I thought would be insurmountable limitations, inspiring faith, hope and love in surprising and delightful ways. I have to believe that even if our world never goes back to the way it once was, the Spirit will continue to do just that.

Throughout the past few weeks these verses from Isaiah 55 keep coming to mind: 

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth. It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.”

In this COVID-19 world when all missional endeavors seem like an empty void, when all we can see are limitations and barriers to our work, we need to hear this promise more than ever. The mission has not changed, and the God of the mission will lead us to accomplish what he has set out to do. May we have the grace to let go, to look up, and to follow him every step of the way. 

The Rev. Sandra Richter is Pastor of Adult Formation at Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois, overseeing community-building, education, and worship-service teams. Sandy has been married to Ian since 2007 and they have three children: Kiah, Elle and Ezra. Sandra and Ian are in the process of planting a church.