Recent observations in and around the parish:
- Over the last ten weeks, we have recorded a modest but steady decline in weekend online attendance, coming at a time of year that would normally (pre-COVID) bring our best attendance.
- Lenten men’s and women’s retreats that we would normally (pre-COVID) struggle to attract interest in and attendance at were our largest ever … by far.
- Weekday Mass attendance is very limited, some days to no more than 2 or 3 people, but weekend attendance is at capacity and reservations fill up fast (within hours). At the same time, we know of dozens of parishioners who have not come back to in-person weekend attendance even once in the past year, perfectly content to join us online.
- Confessions are more numerous than at any time in our memory. We offer Confessions on Saturdays from 3 to 5pm and we’re going to be adding a confessor and expanded hours this week.
- We recently had our annual ministry “push” weekend, in which we challenge our members to take the step into ministry/service here at the parish. Usually, this challenge brings a response of hundreds of people. This year it brought only a few dozen.
- As we head into the last quarter of our financial year expenses are down, income is up and we have recently added 3 new staff positions. Historically it has been very challenging to identify potential candidates for staff positions here are church. Suddenly we have been experiencing a burst of interest.
What is up? What do we make of all of this?
In an iconic scene from “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy’s old Kansas farmhouse is lifted up into a tornado. While in the storm Dorothy holds onto her bed, tries to protect her dog, and watches as the storm blows various people and things past her window. That’s about all she can do. She only begins to try and evaluate her location when she gets there…when the storm ends and the house lands.
The experience of the past twelve months has been rather like a storm for us all, including those of us in parish ministry. We have had to hold on, try and stay safe, and watch with wonder at the various things we’ve witnessed blow by. And while I agree with many commentators that it is unwise to expect any kind of instant or magical end to this COVID experience, it will end. The mask will come off, the distancing with be lifted, fears will abate, the storm will be over.
It is then we can begin to understand we’re not in the same place we once were. Whatever we thought we knew about how to do parish pre-COVID, whatever our experience during COVID, may or may not apply post-COVID. Nothing we knew, and nothing we’re currently experiencing in terms of attendance and numbers, necessarily tells us anything about where we will be. What will be essential in the next year, and probably beyond, is the ability and willingness to adapt to the fact that we’re not in Kansas anymore.
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Adaptability is key. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that out of all the churches in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, Nativity is best-equipped to handle post-COVID because of the infrastructure that was in place pre-COVID.
I’m not optimistic about the end of the COVID experience. COVID is going to leave a lot of scars. People have lost loved ones. We have long-haulers. People lost businesses and occupations. There is a lot of anger and division. We have one camp of people who feel COVID protocols are an overstep. We have people who are furious at those who were against COVID protocols and against those who ignored said protocols. I believe that every time the sniffles come around, you’re going to have people who want to take us back to April 2020 and those who will be against that.
In the short-term, I can’t say how this is going to play out. Will vaccine supply outpace demand? How do variants and mutations fit into things? As vaccinations increase, we are going to see people demand protocols be reduced or eliminated all together.