It has been a unique and, frankly, strange year that now comes to a close. And while the restrictions we faced this year were certainly less strict than those experienced in 2020, they certainly were challenging. Mandates and masks, pro-vaxers v. anti-vaxers created confusion and conflict. And from a staff point of view, there was the overlying threat that the whole experience could have negative long-term effects on our church.
But there were blessings aplenty for which we are grateful.
Here are my top 10:
- Adult Small Group Growth Our Small Group Program has been growing in recent years and it was great to see that COVID didn’t reverse the trend. Our Lenten push inspired many to step forward for the first time and give a group a try. Groups are the very best place to grow as a disciple and seriously undertake the other discipleship steps, especially Mission service (outside the parish) and Ministry service (inside the parish)…both of which also grew in 2021.
- Nativity’s Easter Celebration Probably our first “big” back-in-person celebration, it felt a little like a reunion, with many returning for the very first time in a year. It was festive and fun and the music was amazing.
- High School Confirmation Our High School Youth Ministry program continues to grow, especially our Confirmation program. The celebration of the sacrament, with Bishop Adam Parker, was a wonderful illustration of that growth, as well as the health of the program more generally. It was a snapshot of the strength of our whole “Next-Gen” ministry for kids and students, now all in one department with one leadership team. Besides the celebration of the Sacraments, there is really nothing more important that we do here.
- The Summertime “Purge” My contention is that one of the major challenges many churches face is the neglect of physical spaces and the ever-growing clutter of junk. There’s no scientific data on this but I believe that neglect and junk, when it comes to our church and educational facilities, slows down mission, distracts from vision, and can create a lazy environment. Churches that are missional should operate out of clean, efficient, spare spaces. That’s my contention anyway, and so (notwithstanding that our facility is beautifully maintained) I declared a summertime purge. We didn’t get to the entire place but filled two dumpsters!
- Kick-Off Weekend The first weekend after Labor Day is always the kick-off of our fall season, kids and student programs back in full swing (in-person). It also brings the launch of our first message series for the fall. This year’s was one of my favorites and was all about the mind-heart connection. We even celebrated the ‘new year’ with a beautiful video retrospective that movingly captured the past months of COVID at Nativity.
- Rebuilt Webinars One of the new initiatives of this year has been our weekly Rebuilt Webinars. Obviously, they’re helpful too, as so many parish ministers and pastors from across the country keep coming back. Rebuilt Parish had a great year of growth all around, with a growing collection of parishes who have engaged with us in a coaching relationship, a growing staff of its own, and now even a small office off-campus.
- Publication of Seriously God While our speaking engagements have all been postponed or suspended, we continue writing. This fall we launched our latest publication about our observations around the parish of people’s responses to hurts and losses or, more generally, to life not making sense. Like the daily devotionals that we have been publishing with Ave Maria Press every Advent and Lent, this book is a departure from previous books on parish renewal. We’re hoping to broaden our audience and impact among those interested in more “pastoral” reflections. This next step comes as some of our own parish pastoral care programs are expanding: grief and healing ministries, care for the sick, and preparation for the sacraments.
- Stewardship Sunday People always think it sounds strange to say, but this weekend is always one of our favorites. It’s not about raising funds, it’s about raising givers, and it is a lot of fun. This year it seems to have been very effective, too. One of the fears going into the COVID experience and seeing our in-person attendance shrink, was what impact it would all have on giving. I am delighted to note that giving has increased and we have some great plans on how to expand our mission in the new year.
- The Theatre Project Back in 2019 and early 2020 we began a discussion on the potential for renovation of our Next-Gen wing. COVID pressed pause on that project but we did decide to go through with some work in the Theatre, our multipurpose space used mainly by our student programs. Essentially it is a major technology installation, and it truly has to be seen to be believed. It will take Next Gen programs to a whole new level.
- Christmas Eve After the decision to stay on campus, we had to decide how to do Christmas here on Ridgely Road, because we’d never done it before. It turned out to be perfect and, in fact, quite special. A thousand thanks to our entire team of staff and member ministers for making it happen. (If you didn’t catch our Mass, and the Prelude program, it’s available on YouTube, our website, on-demand at churchnativity.com)
Our in-person attendance was the best since COVID, thanks to smart marketing, and it was great to see the place full again. But the bigger news was the online attendance. Our online church has exploded in growth and we know it is going to be a big part of who we are moving forward. As such, it will continue to see strong investment on our part. Online church, like our website, is as important to our strategy as our Ridgely Road campus.
Here’s to 2021: a strange and strangely special year.