First year of ministry during a pandemic: a reflection (Elias Mendes-Gomes)

Very early in my faith journey I had an inkling that I would serve overseas. In college, though my major was theology, I took several classes on philology, language learning, ethnography, contextualization/indigenization, cultural anthropology, etc. The aim was to acquire tools that would facilitate future adaptation to a new culture.

A popular concept at the time was that of bonding proposed by Thomas and Elizabeth Brewster. Their research on imprinting in certain species (which happens when an animal is abandoned immediately after birth prompting them to attach to a surrogate mother, including other animal species or even a human being). The well-known picture of psychologist Konrad Lorenz being followed by goslings is a good example of the phenomenon.

Studies of human infants follow along the same reasoning. When mothers and new-borns are separated at birth, babies can become attached to a surrogate mother, including a doll or a particular nurse.

Critiquing the “compound mentality” of the traditional mission movements (in which the recruits are welcomed into a bubble by the expat community), the Brewsters proposed that – for those working in different cultures – the first few months in a new setting are crucial, as their senses are bombarded by a multitude of new sensations, sights, and sounds; an experience akin to that of a birth. Emotionally and physiologically they are ready to bond to the new environment and language, like a newborn.

Although this was written having mission personnel in mind, I believe the same principle applies to the first year of ministry in any community. It is during this time that we are in a state of unique readiness to develop a sense of belonging to the new environment.

Having been introduced to congregational ministry just a couple of months before the CoVid-19 lockdown, I feel cheated out of the opportunity, which sounds rather selfish. I am aware that the global pandemic has killed more than two-and-a-half million people across the globe, countless people have lost their livelihood, and many more have been touched by strained relationships and mental health challenges, but I still grieve my situation.

You may be surprised to learn that grief can be a reaction to events other than death. But, as a friend recently pointed out, we don’t just grieve when someone dies; we grieve whenever we lose something.

I grieve the loss of the dynamics that should have occurred in a first-year of ministry. It is in this period that bonding happens with both the pastoral charge and the surrounding community, which should bring about a sense of belonging. Sadly, we cannot recreate what ought to have happened.

Though we are all affected by the reality of grief brought about by CoVid-19’s dramatic changes, as followers of Christ, we do not journey through grief alone. Scriptures assure us that ours is a God who cares, who even stores our tears in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). We can count on God’s comfort. In the midst of your personal grief, I hope you will, like myself, find solace in this promise.

The Rev. Elias Mendes-Gomes
Faith Presbyterian Church, Fort McMurray (AB)