Monday, July 11, 2022

Facing COVID and Other Crises, Boulder Church Learns to Listen, Adapt

By Tracy Simmons

Origami butterflies with the names of those who died from COVID hang from the rafters of First Congregational Church, UCC in Boulder, Colorado/Contributed

Like most congregations across the U.S., First Congregational Church, UCC in Boulder, Colorado was rattled by COVID-19.

But since 2020, the church community has faced more than the pandemic.

“In the last two years, Boulder has experienced other pandemic crises – gun violence and the climate crisis,” explained the Rev. Christina Braudaway-Bauman.

Ten people were shot to death in a local grocery store in March 2021, and in December of that year, about 30,000 people were evacuated after a wildfire ripped through the area, burning more than 1,000 homes to the ground.

“These events, as well as COVID-19 and George Floyd’s murder, have changed us as a congregation – in ways that have deeply grieved us, but that also have brought our callings as a church into clearer focus,” Braudaway-Bauman said.

She said, for example, because everyone was isolating when George Floyd was killed in May 2020, many parishioners watched from their homes as the events unfolded.

The congregation, located in the heart of Boulder, reacted by forming a racial justice ministry. Immediately, Braudaway-Bauman said, 89 people signed up for an intense six-week series on white privilege.

In response to the mass shooting, a gun violence prevention ministry was created.

And the church already had an active climate action team, but the group kicked it into high gear after the fire.

To keep momentum, they hosted an electric vehicle car show and a vegan ice cream social during Covid.

“The climate action team is committed to having fun,” Braudaway-Bauman said.

But the church also made time for the congregation to come together and process events.

“We kept making space for people to come together, to grieve together, to talk about what happened to them,” Braudaway-Bauman said.

She said the congregation, which has about 850 members, learned to lean into their discomfort and not move too quickly.

It was important to discern and slow down and listen, she explained.

“We had to pay attention to where the spirit was moving among us and make room,” Braudaway-Bauman said. 

She said that’s how new ministry is formed.

Karen Cumbo, immediate past moderator, said the church is ready to do things differently, “not how we’ve done them the past 15 years, or 40 years.”

She said that enthusiasm came from a series of visioning conversations the congregation had.

“It gave us space to look at church in different ways,” she said, “and make room for new things.”

Braudaway-Bauman agreed.

“It’s prayer and worship and study and action,” she said. “Those things and really staying in rhythm with all those…We talk about moving from vigil to vigilance.”

She said in 2016 First Congregational Church went through a self study, so Braudaway-Bauman already knew her congregation was adaptable.

Recent events reminded her, though, just how much her congregation cares for one another. Small groups, she said, were key during COVID and continue to be.

It also reiterated the importance of worship.

“Wow, that knits us together,” she said about praise, lamentation and singing. 

The church live-streamed worship during the height of the pandemic, a practice Braudaway-Bauman said will likely remain from here on out.

Cumbo said she’s grateful for the leadership at First Congregational. The staff and board listened and paid attention to the congregation, which she said made all the difference.

“It’s really about listening and putting the congregation first and seeing what’s needed,” she said. “The last couple of years have been a challenge, but also a very positive experience.”

First Congregational Church of Boulder is one of our longitudinal panel study participants as part of the Exploring the Pandemic Impact on Congregations study, a 5-year component of our research designed to track change and innovation in a consistent group of 280 churches across the U.S. over time. If you represent a congregation interested in being a part of this panel study, please complete the form on our Get Involved page and check the “five-year longitudinal study” box.