Jessica Gulseth: A Year Later, Who Are We?

A year later, who are you?

I’ve been thinking about the lap we’re making one year after the first lockdown in the United States. It feels like we’ve been running a lot longer than a single lap. But that’s a conversation we’ve had before. Lately I’ve wondered, after this year, who am I now? What has changed in and around me? Not to spoil the ending here, but I’m going to ask you the same questions. But first, here’s what I’ve been curious about as I reflect on this question.

How have my relationships changed?

Do you feel like the same person? Frankly, I don’t think we are. I know I am not. I have learned to give myself far more grace than I could have imagined. I have grown to stand my ground with more ease. As a conflict-averse person, I have learned to live with more tension in relationships. Before the summer of protests, one of my personal goals was to ‘find my voice’ as they say. This year planted its hand firmly on my back and gave me a big, aggressive shove toward this growing edge. I’m still working on it, but 2020 got me to where I am now.

I’ve also seen some of my relationships with others taper off. In certain cases because I quit reaching out, and in others because they never called back. At the same time, there is a group of people I have talked to every single day since the lockdown began. We have video chatted through the most shocking, traumatic, and ridiculous events of the last year. A year of distant relationships has challenged me to put forth a different kind of effort in order to maintain the relationships I value. While several friendships flourished in ways I could not have predicted, I found myself devastatingly disappointed with friends, family, and colleagues as we maneuvered through systemic issues, politics, church, and pandemic life.

My working relationships are different as we’ve grieved together what may have been lost in ministry in 2020. They’re also agitated because of the quick changes, inconsistent communication, and difficult conversations we’ve endured.

Maybe your relationship with wellness, prayer, food, or reading has changed? So what about you? Have your relationships changed?

Have my priorities changed?

We spent the year being restricted in ways that made us ask: ‘What really matters?’ Some of us had extra time on our hands, and we wondered how to reprioritize it with family, time outdoors, new hobbies, new businesses, and added wellness habits. In some spaces, we added things to our lives, and in other spaces we had to trim. We sat in Zoom calls with our staff and figured out how to move forward with all the limitations we had. This happened to the staff I serve within our congregational setting.

When we had to figure out what online worship looked like. We knew that it wouldn’t be like it was before. We knew that we couldn't offer all that we had before. We needed to ask ourselves what really matters here. As the worship experience began to change, we had to dig and wrestle with our theological understandings of worship, community, and service. If community is important to us, what does it mean to have a community in a digital and physically-distanced time?

In a year that had us at our wits’ end nearly every day, we had to ask, ‘what gets my effort, and who gets my energy?’

I found myself having more compassion, love, and grace for myself. I remember in the early weeks of the pandemic, everyday there was a new challenge. I was figuring out how to be present for someone after they lost a child. How to celebrate an engagement and a wedding. I was figuring out how to maintain energy and momentum in life when no day was like the one before.

As I sat with my own trials and listened to the experience of others, it became more and more clear to me how much nuance exists in life. While I don't believe that there's an antidote to this nuance, or that we even ought to avoid it in the first place, our best treatment plan certainly is compassion and grace. I prioritized compassion and grace for myself and others.

My favorite thing to do is ask questions and encourage you to reflect. So, as we move forward together, here is what I wonder.

How will we make space for, acknowledge, and work through our grief and trauma as a collective?

As members and leaders of the church, how will we not just ‘move on’ or ‘get over’ the pain and loss of this last year, but instead knead it into goodness? There is strength, not weakness, in lamenting, confessing, and repenting over 2020. Let us pave the way as leaders. Let us hold a posture to intentionally address this year so that we can foster a healthy and thriving community.

How will we continue to cultivate an accessible church community?

My worshipping community has reached more people in the past year than we imagined. A digital worship experience has allowed us to reach people beyond our church walls. People who are homebound, people from out of state, or people who don’t feel safe in the building. Is it everyone’s preferred form of worship? No, it is not. Does it create more work for the staff? Yes, it does. Does everyone have endless resources to pull from? No, but we always have more than we think.

Let’s keep working at this because the truth is: there are people seeking a community who have yet to find a home. They’re looking for a place that is wheelchair accessible, a place with subtitles, and a place with inclusive and thoughtful language. Can we continue to work through the barriers to accessing worship in our churches? Yes, yes we can. Let’s be a body that serves everybody.

What is our commitment to social and systemic change in our communities? How will we be accountable to the conversations, statements, and promises we made in the last year?

I am grateful for the people who stepped up, stepped in, spoke up, and spoke out advocating for justice and change. Those social statements are empty without real back-breaking commitment, because that’s the effort needed to make change. For better or worse, the Church has influence in our communities. We don’t do what we do without believing in God’s power and the impact of the Church. Leaders and members of the church dedicate energy to well-thought-out strategic efforts with regularity. Capital campaigns and improvement efforts are rarely successful by asking for support from the front just once. We have the skills and framework to create and commit to a wise and intentional plan to tackle racism and white supremacy in the Church.

How have you changed? Who are you? How have your people changed? What will come next? I am praying for our internal and external reflection. May God reveal the goodness to be had in a reflective journey.


Jess Gulseth

Jessica Gulseth

Jess Gulseth is a seminarian at Luther Seminary in St. Paul seeking ordination in the ELCA. Jess is a Director of Children & Family ministry in the Des Moines, IA area.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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