In the Diaspora of Their Churches

The Stand and See Fellowship is meant to be anything but virtual. Immersive, intensive, in-person learning, which engages Israel as a living laboratory for Christian leaders navigating an era of complexity. But when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, we were faced with a dilemma befitting precisely our methodology: how do we teach complexity effectively in a situation that none of us could have anticipated? Affirming that, especially right now, “it’s more complicated than we know,” we experimented with building a community of leaders from afar, focusing on fellows whose trip was deferred until next summer. In so doing, we hope to show that Stand and See is more than just a trip.

Instead of meeting for the first time at the airport this summer, we brought together 20 Christian leaders spanning denominations, geographies, and political affiliations for a Zoom conversation about life, belief, and leadership amid the pandemic. In the absence of physical space, we sought to create an emotional space of safety, hope, and nuance.

Pastors, like their rabbinic colleagues, feel ground down by the emotional weight of the pandemic. Funeral after funeral, virtual gathering after virtual gathering, they are emotionally spent – and uncertain of when next they will come up for air or whether their churches will even survive. Research from the London Economist suggests that upwards of twenty percent of churches may close their doors in the next eighteen months. What is the future for ministers – if there are no churches left at which to minister?

What became evident over the course of our initial conversation was the extent to which urgent professional needs crowded out opportunities to reflect on the personal. Some got choked up reflecting on the magnitude of their losses. One fellow had lost multiple family members. Another had just finished a dissertation. A third had just published a book. A fourth could not muster much energy at all. Some were grateful for the first forum since quarantine that did not revolve around their congregations.

With such a wide breadth of emotions and experiences, we could not find a single label or container for the conversation. But for the first time in weeks or months, our fellows finally felt seen and heard, not merely by family and friends, but by fellow clergy who had nothing but support for one another as human beings. Nobody compared prominence, pedigree, or size of church. Nobody critiqued denominations. Somehow, our fellows were most present, while physically apart.

Perhaps the kinship was most akin to the experience of finding a kindred Jewish spirit in the unlikely throws of the Diaspora. The sweetness and common tropes transcended geographic separation. The pastors were all in the diaspora of their shuttered churches. Like Jews have known for centuries, they need not experience it alone. Our community of Stand and See Fellows might be one of the few beneficiaries of the necessary exile of churches from their buildings and preachers from their pulpits. For the trust and sense of kinship made every pastor in the group feel like a landsman.

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