She contacted The Tyee after signing up for our newsletter in early May. All new subscribers receive an automatic message from us, asking them what stories and issues they’d like to see us cover. “At the risk of coming across as self-serving, I’m interested in how our province’s spiritual communities have pivoted since the pandemic,” she wrote in response. “This is an underreported part our province’s culture, and encompasses not only mainstream faith traditions, but many others.”
Wilson is right: faith is an underreported part of our culture. I realized I was unfamiliar with how community minded faith groups had supported their members during periods when in-person meetings were unsafe due to COVID. And, beyond the headlines, how thoughtful communities had confronted disagreements between their members on issues such as masking.
So I asked Wilson if she’d be willing to hop on a Zoom call to tell me a bit more about what it was like to navigate the strictures and tests of the pandemic as a faith leader. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Could you start by explaining a bit about what you do as an interim minister, and what it means to do interim ministry?
Interim ministry is used in many faith traditions to create a bridge between one minister’s departure and the next one’s arrival. At Centers for Spiritual Living, what we noticed was that when ministers leave, some have been with a community for 20 years, so they have become the “face” of the teaching. When they leave, the community often goes through an unconscious grieving process. This can get vested on the new minister coming in, and the organization started to see that there was a pattern of that new minister coming in and actually not staying for very long. The community, in essence, hasn’t let go of their former minister. Interim ministry steps in to build that bridge and address and heal any old wounds, so that there is fertile soil once more for a new minister to step into.
How did the pandemic change the way you do your work?
I was living in Vancouver and supporting a community in Edmonton, so I was travelling back and forth every two weeks to be with that community and spend my weekend with them, essentially, and then supported them remotely. And they were OK with that because I was there physically every two weeks. But as soon as the pandemic hit, I wasn't. And we thought, “Oh, well, it'll just be for a short period of time.” And then of course, it turned into a much longer period of time.
Through all of that, there were only a very small number of ministers who knew anything about technology. It was a big question: How do you serve people when you're not physically with them? You had to figure out how to do your Sunday service in a different way, you had to figure out how to hold people, while they're grieving, in a different way. It was a complete change.
I would have my own stress about the pandemic, in addition to the stressors my community was facing. People were not able to see their loved ones. I was not able to go to the hospital to support people in palliative situations. You’re completely removed from everything, and yet life is still going on. The layers of division, of separation, were quite deep.
How do you hold a community together when they're never together? And how do you make sure that they know that you're still there so that, frankly, you can still put the lights on? You can still pay the bills? Are they going to keep donating? Are they not? Because that's part of the reality as well.
I belong to a Facebook ministers group that was specifically about COVID, and about the pandemic and interfaith issues. There were people who were of the Jewish faith, Mennonite, Pentecostal, Unitarian — like a wide, wide range of different faiths, and they were all going through the same things. People were facing extreme burnout, because the hours were kind of crazy, so that we could just ramp up and adapt and keep going.
What does a normal week look like for you? Is it oriented around the Sunday service, or is that a misconception?
You can't really serve your community well as a minister unless you serve yourself first. So my workday can begin as early as 5:30. And during the height of the pandemic, I think it began at 4 in the morning, so that I could get my spiritual practice in before I started serving other people. And then, generally speaking, I would work a Sunday to Thursday schedule. I would take Friday and Saturday off if I could. But often, you get phone calls whenever. Your phone calls can sometimes be from your board, or your more involved volunteers. They could be calling at any time. And certainly if somebody's in crisis, they're calling you at any time. So I sometimes take calls at 8, 9 o'clock at night. And board meetings go into the evening, because volunteers are available at that time. Sometimes they would be in the day if everybody was retired, or had a flexible work situation. You're never really off.
Did you see a change in membership over the course of the pandemic — people either joining or leaving the church?
We had already seen quite a big drop prior to my arrival as an interim minister. But then when the pandemic hit, we probably saw about a 20-per-cent drop. We started connecting with Facebook Live, so I actually didn't really know who was there. Sometimes it would just be random people who I knew didn't live in Edmonton. So in a weird way, our community grew, which was really interesting. We would have people tuning in from Mexico or Europe sometimes. But at the same time, we faced a question: Who is our community? And who are we serving?
What I thought was interesting was trying to re-educate ourselves about what the community was now, because we kept thinking about who wasn't there. I said, if we keep serving who isn't here, we're actually not serving the community who is here. If we serve the community who is here, we will be doing our work, which will, in turn, expand. That did start to happen as I transitioned out, and we had new people coming in who had never been to the community before. And that was exciting to see. And the people who stayed were far more entrenched and committed than they were before. So it was a really beautiful growth experience — but wobbly.
Did the pandemic shake your faith? Or the faith of those around you?
Yes, it shook my faith, but it shook my faith in the way of realizing that I wasn't deep enough. I had figured I knew what I was doing, from an intellectual point of view. I knew what the principles were, I knew what the practices were. And now something completely different showed up. And I didn't know what I was doing. Because nobody really knew what they were doing. The biggest thing that happened in the beginning was that I realized, when I couldn't physically be there, that I needed to find a way to connect. So, right away, I started a Facebook Live group that I called Pandemic Love. I did a talk every morning, for about 15 minutes, at 6 a.m., every single morning. You can imagine what my hair looked like. But it ended up being a bit of a touchstone, because people could listen to it later on in the day. They knew I was there. It was just something that became part of their daily practice. I did that for 60 days.
I realized I needed to listen more deeply to my intuition. And pull from my intuition as to where we would go next, because there wasn't a clear pathway.
What are the most joyful or meaningful things you experience at work?
About one year into the pandemic, it was obvious the community wasn’t expanding and people weren’t connecting well with each other. They needed a new tool, so I introduced visioning. This helped them to re-establish their community, working on it from the inside out — from the board room to the volunteers working in operations. This visioning approach broke down barriers and created new means of dialogue between these people who really didn't want to talk to each other. Like they only saw each other as the other. It allowed us to say, I know you're all here. You're all deeply committed to this teaching and this practice. You have different viewpoints. And that's diversity and inclusion. And we believe in diversity, and we believe in inclusion. So let's figure out how how to talk to each other. Visioning enabled the community to do that.
That sounds really lovely. I feel like one of the things that people who aren't members of faith communities maybe noticed from the outside looking in during COVID were some clashes around what it meant to protect or celebrate community at the faith level, particularly with regards to mask-wearing and vaccination status. Is that something that your community faced and had to work through?
Yeah, we did. We absolutely did. My community was in Edmonton. And Red Deer was a bit of an epicentre for some of those disputes. One of our communities is in Red Deer as well. We have a wide range of people, and some people, including ministers, chose not to get vaccinated. And I worked very hard to speak with the community about it not being an either/or, because we believe very much in personal responsibility. But we also believe in community. And so it's like, this is a both/and, not an either/or. So when we moved to a hybrid method of service, we invited people to join us in the physical space with all of the requirements: if they wanted to be in person, they could. And yes, you would be wearing a mask. But that doesn't mean they couldn’t take part, because we will continue to hold that service at the very same time online. And so you can stay home and not be excluded in any kind of way. And we walked that fine line all the way through as long as we possibly could.
Have you retained the hybrid model to accommodate immunocompromised folks?
Yes, absolutely. And we also had the fortune of a balcony. We would allow people who were immunocompromised, if they physically wanted to be there, to isolate at a higher level. You know, if they needed to be in the balcony, maybe there would only be two people allowed there. We've thought a lot about how we can do better, and be there, for the people who wanted to be there.
Do you think people have a good sense of what you do for a living? What do you think people who aren’t familiar with your job would find surprising, or have incorrect assumptions about?
I think people think you're only really working on Sunday, and maybe only really working when somebody's sick and in the hospital dying. They don't really think about the work that you do with your board and how important the leadership is. They don't think about the business. If you’ve got a building, how do you take care of all of that? They don't think about the marketing and communications, they don't think about classes or support. They don't think about marriage counselling, they don't think about all those other crises that happen to people. Being able to create a community where people feel safe is a very soft skill. It's not like you just have one workshop and everybody feels kumbaya at the end of it, right? If people are feeling unsafe, for any reason, if they feel like they're not included, if they feel like the community doesn't recognize them, you need to be able to find programming, or ways of communicating so that everybody does feel like they are included.
What role do you think faith traditions and communities play in contemporary Canadian society?
I think it's a shame in a way that religion kind of has taken a backseat. My observation is that spirituality has been with us since the beginning of humanity. It doesn't have anything to do with buildings. It doesn't have anything to do with what clothing you wear. It doesn't have anything to do with altars, or icons, although all of those things can help you to feel like you're in a sacred space. In ancient times, what was sometimes used to create this space was a fire — everybody would gather around the fire, and contemplate the amazing existence of fire. That was enough to be in awe and look up at the stars and see that and realize that there was something bigger, some bigger thing.
Spirituality is a way to gracefully grow through the transitions of life. And I think that's vital for all of us. We just need to find the language that speaks to us. It doesn't matter what that language is. For some person, that's the Jewish faith. For some person, that's the Muslim faith. For somebody else it’s reading a self-help book by Louise Hay.
It's about bringing you into that centred place so that you can be a better human being right here and now and be useful for the planet. That's what I think. I think it's extremely important. And arguably no more important than it is right now. We need people in spiritual practice, so that they're not in conflict all the time about absolutely everything.