Inclusivity: A lesson from the pandemic

It’s hard to begin to understand just how much the pandemic has affected our lives. I was called to be the pastor of my current church the weekend before stay-at-home orders were issued in my state. For the first year as their pastor, my congregation and I knew only remote and online ministry together. We’ve been worshipping and gathering in person for only the past four months, and we’re preparing for the fall and for many of our “normal” activities to begin.

I assume there are many pastors and other church leaders who are thinking about the same things and wondering how many of their pre-pandemic activities are really consistent with their mission and values and, therefore, should continue. Another way of putting that is: There are probably many church leaders who are trying to apply some of the lessons they’ve learned from COVID-19 about what is necessary for meaningful ministry. Since I have never experienced anything pre-COVID with this church, knowing what those lessons might be for the congregation is difficult. I’m relying a lot on my church officers and long-time staff members to give me their insights. However, I am realizing one thing on my own. COVID-19 is teaching me a lot about creating an inclusive community.

Since April, we have been meeting in person for worship and for small groups and fellowship. It was clear from the outset of our initial small group gatherings that people felt differently about meeting in person. Some people were comfortable and eager to get back together. Others were more risk-averse for various reasons and wanted to stay home. We needed to find a hybrid solution so that people could continue to meet as a single, unified and inclusive church. Our technology team bought a device that allows everyone in person to show up on a single Zoom window, while everyone participating from home signs into the Zoom meeting like usual. People can see and hear each other without lots of audio feedback from having multiple devices in the same room. It works great.

What I’ve realized is that not only are people participating in small groups remotely because of COVID-19, but people are also participating remotely for other reasons. Some join online because they can’t or don’t feel safe driving at night when the meeting happens. Others join online because their work schedules prevent them from driving the distance to the church building to make the meeting on time or because it works better for their childcare situation. These are people who might have participated in small group meetings before the pandemic, but were excluded because they were unable to get to the church. Technology is helping us to be more inclusive.

This move toward greater inclusivity is great on its own, but it’s helping me to be more aware of ways I may be being exclusive. Without intentional awareness, people tend toward what is easiest or preferable for the majority. As we enter closer into a post-COVID church and more people are comfortable and able to gather in-person, I’ve been vigilant about making sure those who can’t come in-person aren’t excluded. One reason for my vigilance is because, I know how important it was for me to have online meetings with my church during the height of COVID. It was the only thing helping me to get connected to the church that I was desperately trying to get to know. While I have been attending meetings in-person recently, I know many people aren’t there yet. An online small group meeting may be the only thing keeping some people connected to the church right now. I would never want to take that away from them!

My actions are motivated by empathy. It’s very easy to imagine how they feel because I was right where they are not that long ago. Empathy is our capacity to imagine what it’s like to live someone else’s life. It makes sense that we’re able to imagine how other people may be feeling in a given situation when we’ve experienced a similar situation ourselves. Empathy motivates us to help people, which makes sense since brain scientists tell us that when we experience empathy we really do (to a lesser degree) “feel the pain” of those experiencing pain. But what about the people we rarely see or rarely think about? If we never witness their pain because they hardly ever enter our minds, should we expect ourselves to feel motivated to help them? Thankfully, empathy can be learned so that we can practice it intentionally.

The intersection of empathy and inclusivity has been important for me to reflect on because it’s led me to ask myself questions like: Who am I not thinking of when I picture my church in my mind? It has led me to try to be quieter, so that the hum of my own thoughts doesn’t drown out the sound of other people’s lives. It has led me to be more observant about the people in the church and when I walk around my community, so that I am more aware of who I don’t think about much. It has also reinforced the importance of an outward-focused church mission, so that the church is engaging with more than just the people who are already part of our faith community.

As we enter into the fall and churches become more active, let’s aim to be more empathetic and more inclusive.