It is always easier to describe a broken situation and to suggest a cause for the flaws we see in the world than it is to offer truly helpful prescriptions for the ills we observe.

Alana Newhouse, in her article “Everything is Broken” does a good job of describing symptoms and suggesting a cause. Her description and the cause she suggests resonate with my experience of institutional life.

I have been in ordained ministry for nearly forty-one years. Thirty-four of those forty-one years of ordained ministry have been served within the same community. Remaining in ministry in the same community for over three decades is not unheard of, but certainly uncommon.

The thing that is really startling about my time in ministry with the same community is that, although we remain a strong, perhaps even vibrant, community of faith, I would estimate that no more than one third of current members were part of the parish before I arrived. This means that, for various reasons, two thirds of the congregation has moved on in the last four decades. Certainly there has been attrition by natural causes – death and relocation – but the majority of the shifting of saints we have experienced has been due to people moving to a different faith community within the same geographical area or stopping attending church at all.

Much of what Newhouse sees in our current context points to mobility (“boundarylessness” and “speed”) as the preferred solution to any discomfort. The illusion that we should be able to live without friction, means that, when the going gets tough, those experiencing discomfort just get going. There is no compelling need to stick it out with a group of people with whom one experiences disagreement. When I feel hurt, unheard, marginalized in any way, or not fully appreciated, I can just go to a new community in which for a while I feel more validated.

The speed with which people move from one community to another is likely to be accelerated by COVID. We have discovered that “community” does not need to be determined by geography. “Belonging” no longer depends on physical proximity. The explosion of on-line expressions of spirituality in the midst of “lock down” has created a situation in which there is no need to stay in relationship with the conflicted reality of actual flesh and blood human beings.

If the community I am in loses some of its dazzle, I can easily find a more gratifying group to join online. If life with the people around me no longer feels like a good fit, I can quickly trade them in for another group who will welcome me with open arms. With the click of an icon, I can jump in with people who may be scattered around the world but with whom I share a perception of common interest. If any challenge arises in this new “community”, I can abandon these people without the messy awkwardness of perhaps encountering them at the grocery store.

This is the situation we have faced in the church for the past four decades; it is likely to become more pronounced as we move forward from COVID.

So, what is to be done?

What helpful pointers might Newhouse have to help us move forward in the inevitably increasingly fragmented institutional life we are likely to face in the future.

I will try to address the Newhouse prescription tomorrow.