The Decline, the Pandemic, and Social and Political Storms
By Michael J. Gehring
As one who has researched, reflected upon and written about the decline in congregations and church bodies, I was drawn to this direct, honest account of a pastor’s experience in recent years. Gehring is an Elder in the United Methodist Church and the lead pastor of Main Street United Methodist church in Kernersville, North Carolina. This is a large congregation, with multiple worship services, several clergy on staff, and numerous programs. Gehring even describes a significant building campaign at the beginning of his memoir. However, this book is the journal of a pastor in a most disrupted and troubling time.
Gehring begins on Sunday, March 1, 2020, at the last Eucharist in-person at his parish. The memoir ends in Holy Week of 2021, a year later, when in-person worship was again possible. The sudden shutdown of church services and much more in March of 2020 inaugurated a year like no other in our experience. Online church services kept the people of God worshipping and in connection with each other. There were serious debates about whether online worshippers could validly receive Holy Communion in their homes at an online service. Some congregations took the government-ordered shutdown of public gatherings as an assault on their religious and political freedom. They gathered nonetheless. Many contracted COVID-19. Some died. For a year, the local church of the parish stumbled along, with not only services but classes, church council meetings, and more all conducted online. The screen full of window images of individuals attending a liturgy or meeting resembled an icon screen, a real assembly of the saints, the holy ones in a congregation.
But Pastor Gehring does not stop with the pandemic and its effects on his parish, his family, and himself. To be sure, he devotes much of his memoir to his reactions and reflections on the isolation of the pandemic. He notes the disruption of just about every routine we all took for granted, from church services to dining out, visits with family and friends, even shopping for necessities—not to mention the fear of contracting COVID, the concerns for social distancing, wearing masks, and later, getting vaccinated. All these sensible responses often were angrily rejected by some of our neighbors. We lived through all of this, however, in an already deeply divided country, torn asunder by the former president and all kinds of attacks on ethnic and language groups, immigrants, teachers, and eventually even medical researchers and practitioners trying to fight COVID.
Of course, it is not accurate to identify the pandemic and all the measures and reactions associated with it as the primary force in disrupting our personal lives and the lives of our communities of faith. Gehring very aptly uses Barbara Brown Taylor’s powerful memoir, Leaving Church, as a voice about personal ambition and disappointment set in pastoral ministry and the life of a parish. We also hear from several other sagacious voices, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer in particular. Gehring comes to see that what was dividing his own church body, the UMC, had been doing so long before COVID. And the other divisions that seemed heightened in the pandemic were already in progress long before it, even before the administration of the former president. A particular moment of division and distress came on the day of Epiphany, 2021: January 6, with its scenes of hate and destruction in all their horror.
This book is a perceptive and personal account of what has happened in the country and in the church as well as in our families and circles of friends in the past two years. Gehring does not try to say what a pastor, a spouse, a parent, or a friend might be expected to say. Rather, we get to hear his frustration, his discouragement but even more so, his commitment to Christ and his hope. Having myself used the Paschal Mystery as a lens for viewing what is happening to the church in our time, I was reassured to hear this echoed in Gehring’s memoir. The study guide by Joe A. Hamby, included at the conclusion, makes this a very fine text for a study group or course. My gratitude to Pastor Gehring for his account of a momentous time in life and ministry.
Gehring, Michael J. Losing Church: The Decline, the Pandemic, and Social and Political Storms. Eugene OR: Resource Publications, 2022. xi + 155 pages. $20.00. ISBN 9781666734591.
REVIEWER: Michael Plekon
Michael Plekon is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Religion,
The City University of New York, Baruch College,
and has been a priest in the Western and Eastern Churches.
Community as Church, Church as Community (Cascade, 2021) is his most recent book.