Illustration by Joe Webb
When we look to pre-March 2020, the global pandemic was neither part of our experience nor our lexicon. Terms like PPE, N95, coronavirus, super-spreader, and flattening the curve probably never crossed our lips. But now, with vaccines in our arms and the crisis beginning to recede, we can look forward to a return to normal.
But was it a crisis? Are we returning to normal?
In Middle English, the term crisis referred to a poignant moment when a medical situation could go back to normal or become considerably worse. Implicit in this understanding is change within a limited timeline. A crisis commences because normalcy has disappeared. Crises move us out of the status quo; they also cultivate a craving to return to it.
On March 11, 2020, the day the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic, many of us in the West went from ordinary life into crisis mode. Life as we knew it – medically, relationally, occupationally, spiritually, scientifically, economically – took an abrupt turn. New skills and different methods were needed. By late spring, we were exhausted by this new reality and longed for a return to normal, maybe by the summer, possibly by the fall, hopefully by Thanksgiving. None of those milestones were reached; none altered the poignancy of the times.
Crises reflect change within a limited time frame and require decisive mobilization of proficiencies and resources. They demand of leaders the courage and capacity to pivot and stay on mission despite disruption, and to seek to re-establish what once was.
But today this is no longer a crisis. It is an interim time. New skills are needed.
Illustration by Joe Webb
When the experience of normal stops, when the status quo is disrupted and we are in a new and unfamiliar place, we might call that a crisis or an interim time. Interim times share some characteristics of crises, but the differences begin to show when you examine their distinct trajectories. Crises invite a focus on what was and a move back to normal; interim times call for a focus on what will be in the new post-crisis reality.
Binary distinctions are often not very helpful, but is it fair to say that two groups – the “when we are getting back to normal?” group and the “what is the future going to look like post-COVID?” group – express themselves in this cultural moment in very different ways? Members of the former group have a conviction that COVID has been unsettling and cannot wait to engage in all the old pursuits. Nostalgia for what was dominates and yesterday is getting in the way of today.
The latter group recognizes that we are well past a crisis moment. We are into a new way of being, with the old fading from view and glimpses of a new horizon coming into perspective. Reflecting on what might be is paramount, as today gives way to tomorrow.
The skills required to engage the post-interim trajectory are markedly different from those needed to extract us from a crisis and return to normalcy.
Idolatry may be one of the most formidable obstacles in a post-interim season.
Ten Central Questions
Many people are reflecting on what will follow this interim time, and I have tried to bring simple order to these reflections by noting 10 challenges that will shape the way we move forward – with an accompanying question. Individually, communally, and culturally we are, and will be, impacted by these themes.
Accessibility: Do I have to be in person?
Change: Can I cope?
Creativity: Can I innovate?
Economy: Can I afford things?
Institutions: Can I trust them?
Psychological: Am I OK?
Medical: Can I stay healthy?
Relational: How do I connect?
Travel: Can I do it easily?
Workplace: Where will I be?
Some questions, such as “am I OK?” were lurking before the pandemic, but they have intensified in the crisis. Other questions – such as, “Can I stay healthy?” and “Where will I work?” – have taken on new meaning. And after a year of social distancing and Zoom culture, the moment has moved to the forefront fundamental issues about accessibility, change, creativity, and relationship. For those who work in institutions, we wonder whether people will trust us, travel to be with us, and have enough money to afford what we are offering.
The Spheres of Engagement
Theological education is like a three-legged stool – quality, accessibility, and affordability. When things are going well, it is easy to presume that our quality is stellar and ignore accessibility and affordability.
When times are more challenging, we realize that the stool needs our attention.
An unforeseen global pandemic provides each theological school with an opportunity to take a fresh look and examine its viability. If the board, president, faculty, and administrative staff were to expend time and energy in the pursuit of three spheres of engagement and the naming of three obstacles for adaption, the stool would be more stable.
Pursue Attentiveness. Working in a theological school is demanding and rigorous, employing many constituents’ expertise to focus on a particular missional goal. Sadly, there is often minimal time to work on the school at large. That endeavor gets pushed out of the regular rhythms and can be confined to informal hallway conversations. The post-interim time requires prayerful attentiveness. What would it be like for your institution to have corporate attentiveness where the questions raised in this particular moment are framed in the light of your institutional mission and practice?
Facilitate Dialogue. COVID has exposed socio-cultural, ethnic, economic, and racial divides. While present before 2020, we now know more about the injustices that are prevalent in North America. Access and affordability are not just concepts to be discussed in our enrollment management departments. They are reflected in voices that ask whether privilege is the only ticket to gain access and whether access is premised on how much you pay for that ticket. What would it be like for your institution to bring in multiple voices to a conversation that would unpack what accessibility and affordability mean for you at this moment in history?
Embrace Tradition. All the ATS accredited schools embrace a theological tradition rooted in history. The genesis of the tradition was usually nimble, experimental, and visionary. It was not at all traditional, but it initiated a tradition. Women and men in the biblical narrative stepped out with hope and faith, embracing an unknown future because they trusted in God. Our biblical and theological resources are much richer than we realize in explaining culture and adaptive change, complementing what the social sciences offer. What would it be like for your institution to use the tradition, not as a barrier to change but as a window through which the Holy Spirit’s fresh wind could blow?
Addressing these three spheres of engagement will require that we name and address obstacles that could limit our ability to respond wisely at this moment.
Fear. In my 40-plus years in theological education, I have rarely heard a board member, president, or faculty member say “I am afraid.” Fear often hides behind the fig leaves of apocalyptic language, the entrenchment of ideas, and distorted “if we do this, then that will happen” thinking. Lurking behind these styles and strategies, people are afraid that their lives will be changed, their old methods will be challenged, and their future will be less secure. With the gentlest care, fig leaves need to be dropped, shame named, and the fear articulated honestly. Fear is a significatn impediment to the navigation of a post-interim world.
Exceptionalism. Even though there are over 270 graduate-level ATS accredited institutions in North America, most of us still harbor the belief that our particular school is unique. With the “no one is quite like us” attitude, we can be disinterested in trends across the sector and immune to their influence on us. The same holds true for cultural trends. While calling it a global pandemic, we can hide behind our uniqueness and miss the dictionary definition of global. All of us are special in the post-interim period. None of us are exceptional.
Idols. Early in the biblical text, we are reminded that one of the greatest threats to a jealous God is idolatry. When we replace God with forms, methods, structures, ideas, and constructs, we slowly slip into the worship of the means and the negation of the ends. Church history has provided us with a visual antidote to such a mindset: icons. While idols move us away from God and His purposes, icons move us toward Him. When our institutions and our preferred way of doing our work consume us, we run the risk that our enterprise is more of an idol than an icon. Idolatry may be one of the most formidable obstacles in a post-interim season.
Our forefather Abraham shows us how to move out of the past, through the present, and into the future. It requires faith, with no guarantee of clarity.
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. (Hebrews 11:8).
Rod J.K. Wilsonserved as president of Regent College from 2000-15. The author of the award-winning books Counseling and Community and How Do I Help a Hurting Friend?, he is currently Teaching Pastor at Capilano Christian Community as well as Senior Advisor with A Rocha Canada, and a consultant to various organizations.