Flourishing in the Fallow
Kathleen Steeves PhD is Sessional Faculty, Social Psychology, McMaster University
The makeshift office space I have been using for the past month since COVID-19 regulations became more stringent in the Greater Toronto Area has a second-floor window overlooking my neighbour’s garden. All through the day, an older couple comes and goes, tending carefully to what looks right now to be only large empty plots of soil – some hedged in grey brick and covered in plastic, others open and bare. Shifting messy piles of plywood, brick and buckets, peeling back plastic to check for signs of growth, bodies hunched hunting for hope yet hiding underground.
Is there still flourishing before tangible signs of change? In some ways, COVID-19 has caused our church buildings to look as barren as unplanted spring garden beds. What were once visible hubs of community and activity are mostly empty for now across the country – piles of plywood, bricks, plastic, earth and glass. It is a uniquely common experience faced by the church across all boundaries that usually divide, and while each community of faith is uncovering creative ways to continue to do ministry, all, perhaps, feel the loss and uncertainty – are we doing enough?
Before now, perhaps emptiness has rarely been linked to flourishing – and how do we measure that these days anyway? Even our familiar strategies for gauging and encouraging flourishing have been truncated. But as a spring farmer or gardener knows, a period of fallowing always has future flourishing in mind. Fallowing occurs, in the agricultural world, when a plot of land is intentionally left unplanted for a period of time to allow for rest and regeneration. This allows nutrients in the soil to be replenished after being consumed by plants, and beneficial microorganisms and other useful substances to propagate the soil to improve the quality of future harvests. In other words, there is actually a lot happening beneath the surface of the seemingly “empty” earthen plots.
Fallowing is activity that paves the way for flourishing.
While, across the country, our physical church buildings may seem as empty as fallow ground, that does not mean that activity is not taking place. I wonder if, for some, being invited into a season of fallowing means entering into the activity of rest. What if this could be seen as a season to step-back, reevaluate and replenish? What might need to be replenished in this season to prepare for future growth? How do we rest well in a culture in which output, advancement and “doing” are often so intimately tied to our worth?
For others, perhaps this is a season of learning in preparation for the ways society and its institutions, including churches, will change after the pandemic. As a sociologist, I would suggest that COVID-19 has all the characteristics of being a global “turning point” (Strauss 1959) – a moment in time where we realize things have changed and they are no longer as they once were. Like Strauss (1959), I can see how this milestone will necessitate new “stances” and “alignments” (93), both individually and collectively as we move into a new reality. So, what if, in the waiting, we could also be learning? Learning to use technology, like zoom, to facilitate greater access to meetings. Learning how to record services that can be re-watched or watched at a different time. We may not yet know what that new reality will look like once social distancing ends, but could this fallow season be a time to learn new skills for reaching out to people through different mediums, in preparation for what might be coming next?
A local pastor recently suggested to me that he sees churches taking two approaches right now to COVID-19: some are mainly focused on survival and getting through the pandemic with giving, buildings and congregations still in-tact (which is a valid concern to be sure). Others, however, feel the pressures of survival, but also strive to live in anticipation of what God is doing and will do – looking forward to the future and resting well in the present.
For the empty fields and garden beds of spring, we know that the time of winter rest will be over soon, as gardeners like my neighbours prepare the soil for planting. I know that churches and other communities will plant and see the more tangible markers of flourishing again soon too. But perhaps for now, we can be encouraged to remember that this season of change will not be wasted – fallowing can be activity that paves the way for future flourishing.
Strauss, Anselm. 1959. Mirrors and Masks: the Search for Identity. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
Bridging Divided Worlds
Jackson W. Carroll
Although written almost two decades ago, Jackson Carroll and Wade Clark Roof’s book Bridging Divided Worlds, provides some excellent and timeless insights into how congregations approach and introduce change. Change and innovation are being forced upon us by virtue of the present global pandemic. The authors provide some very helpful lenses through which to consider the challenges and impact of navigating various generational cultures within congregations or parishes. The reader is presented with an appropriate and manageable mix of anecdotal and statistic material to make research data accessible and interesting at the same time. An excellent read.
- Dr. Bill McAlpine, Retired Professor Emeritus, Ambrose University
Taylor & Francis COVID-19 Resources
Find other relevant COVID-19 research articles, book chapters and information that can be freely accessed here.
Faith Communities and COVID-19
Tips and resources for members and congregations during the COVID-19 pandemic from the United Church of Canada.
COVID-19 Resources for Churches
Here are some very useful articles and tips for church to utilize during COVID-19 from the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.