Defining “Essential”

So yesterday I asked what was on people’s minds. I thought I would take a moment and share something that’s been on my mind the past two weeks.

One of the greatest things about times of crises is that we have an opportunity to learn things about ourselves that we might otherwise not learn. There are several things I’ve already learned. And over the course of the next few days, I’ll be sharing some of those learnings. My hope is that it will spur you on to reflect on your learnings too.

My first learning was that there are many in our society who define ministry as “non-essential”.

I learned that lesson most especially during the week of March 8. As the size of public gatherings that were allowed began to shrink (first from 250, then to 100, then to 50), one of the standards that was used to discern whether a facility could remain open was if its services were deemed “essential”.

That week, I was under a lot of pressure to shut down literally every expression of our ministry. First, I was under pressure to shut down the worship service on March 15 (a service that included the baptism of an infant who had family members fly in from Argentina for the life-altering sacrament). Shortly thereafter, there was pressure to close the entire church campus – which meant not allowing any of our 12-Step groups to meet. As a pastor – and participant in the 12-Step movement myself – I knew that would mean those in recovery would lose an important means of support at a time when they needed it most.

My position from the earliest moments was not to be medically irresponsible and encourage folks to defy medical recommendations in order to join large crowds. No, my hope was that those individuals whose need or pain was all-consuming could rest a little easier knowing they had a place to go IF they needed one.

I expected worship services would include no more than 2 or 3 people. That was okay. I once lead a Sunday morning worship service in Denver right after a blizzard where just one person showed! I knew too that 12 Step meetings might have no more than 3 or 4 attendees.

After a week of working hard to keep at least SOME expressions of our ministry open (i.e. I staffed the church office alone most days in case anyone in need dropped by), the decision was finally taken out of our hands when California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a “stay at home” – essentially closing all “non-essential” businesses or services as of midnight on March 20. There were those words again … “non-essential”.

So why does that phrase “non-essential” bother me so when used to describe ministry?

I think it’s hard for us clergypersons to think of our ministries as non-essential because we KNOW we are there for the most important moments of people’s lives on a regular basis. We are there, for instance, when a new life enters the world, and we celebrate the child’s baptism. We are there to help our youth process their fears regarding the future. We are there to bless their new marriages. We are there to provide marital counseling when their relationship hits the rocks. We are there to provide care when the challenges of life seem too great, and not even a pill or a therapist can’t help them find their way to peace. We are there when they lose a parent, a spouse, or loved one. We are there when they receive a life-threatening diagnosis from their doctor. We are there – at their bedsides – when some take their last breath. If those things don’t fit the definition of “essential” services, then I don’t know what is.

That’s why it was so difficult for me this past Saturday to drive away from our church – having just locked its doors to ensure no one could attend Sunday services, and drive past a Bed, Bath & Beyond store that was still open for business – providing “services” that society deemed were more important than those offered at a church!

Deep, deep, deep sad sigh …

So how did I deal with the frustration of living in a world where ministry isn’t deemed “essential”?

I did two things. First, I worked round the clock for the past 10 days to get almost many of our existing ministries brought online. Not only that, I actually added to our ministries. We now have the ability for people to gather online in Zoom meeting rooms 7-days a week. That helped me feel better knowing that expressions of our ministry were still available.

And second, I put all of my 12-Step work into practice, and reminded myself, “Just because society may not consider ministry ‘essential’, that doesn’t mean I don’t have to think that way.” I continue to lead my ministry and my life in such a way that I believe I am every bit as important as an emergency room doctor, a fire person, or a grocery store employee that stocks the shelves with toilet paper. That’s why when I got a call from one of our Community Partner members who was in crisis last night, and was in a spiritual place where talking over the phone or Zoom couldn’t provide what he needed, I offered to meet him in my church office in person (at a distance of 6 feet, of course) for a pastoral care session.

As a gay man who lived through the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1980’s – and saw the Christian church COMPLETELY disappear from the lives of so many when they needed their ministry most! – I held on to a powerful conviction: that when the history of the COVID-19 crisis is written, they will NOT say the church was tucked away behind locked doors. No, so many of us around the globe are working hard to ensure that the Body of Christ will show up and be present when it is needed the most.

And when I think about the tough decisions that have been made by those in ministry – and the ways we have fought against all odds to keep our ministries going – I know the next time I sing “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” – it will take on deeper meaning.

“Though none go with me. Still I will follow.

Though none go with me. Still I will follow.

Though none go with me. Still I will follow.

No turning back. No turning back …”

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately. How about you? What are you thinking about today?

About Pastor Craig

I'm a 52-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, CA. I'm an ordained clergy person in the United Church of Christ. My passions include spirituality, politics, and sports (Go Houston teams, go!). I use my blog to start conversations rather than merely spout my perspectives and opinions. I hope you'll post a question, comment, or observation for me to respond - so we can get the conversation started!
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1 Response to Defining “Essential”

  1. Beverly Marshall Saling says:

    If there’s any silver lining to all of this, it’s that it’s forcing us to rethink what our essential values are. Not just in terms of what is an “essential activity,” but also what parts of those activities are essential.

    I work in tabletop games (meaning board games, card games, pen-and-paper roleplaying games, and other sorts of games that don’t require going online or plugging anything in). My industry is obviously not essential. Yet when people are stuck at home for weeks on end is when folks most need the essence of what we provide: a way to have fun indoors, stimulate the mind, and socially connect with others. We are used to touting the requirement for people to gather physically as a benefit to tabletop games over videogames or online games because of the social connection that facilitates; as you of course experience in your ministry, being present face to face offers a far greater level of connection. But now that gathering physically is dangerous, many of us are rethinking how to achieve our essential purpose without physical interaction. And some of the ideas for ways to take tabletop games virtual are exposing how much more we could have been doing all along for people who are disabled or geographically separated from their friends and loved ones or can’t get babysitting or otherwise struggle to gather physically to play games. We are learning that centering on the most optimal way to deliver our essential value was excluding some people from receiving that value at all.

    So I hope that part of what comes from this is a better and more widespread understanding of what really matters in the things we do and how we can extend that essential value to as many kinds of people as possible in as many circumstances as possible. That way when this is over we will emerge with a greater ability to serve our most essential purpose and less distraction with the trappings of what works best for “normal” people in “normal” circumstances.

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