2020
April
14
Tuesday

Monitor Daily Podcast

April 14, 2020
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TODAY’S INTRO

When feminine qualities rule

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

In the heat of the battle against COVID-19, we’re seeing leadership forged.

A compelling case can be made that women have had the most success, so far, in guiding their nations through this pandemic. Consider Germany, Taiwan, Iceland, Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, and Norway – seven nations with relatively low numbers of cases and deaths. We’ve published stories about German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s calm honesty, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s tech-savvy approach, and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s deft handling of the crisis. 

Consultant Avivah Wittenberg-Cox writes in Forbes that the success of these seven leaders lies in employing honesty, decisiveness, wise use of technology, and empathy. Norway’s prime minister, Erna Solberg, for example, held a televised press conference to address the fears of children. No adults allowed. Brilliant. 

The “empathy and care which all of these female leaders have communicated seems to come from an alternate universe,” a far cry from the self-serving autocratic moves by some male heads of state, writes Ms. Wittenberg-Cox.

Indeed, “Don’t command, empathize” is one of the seven leadership lessons that men can learn from women, according to a recent article in Harvard Business Review. 

Of course, some nations led by men – Singapore and South Korea – have managed this crisis well. But the HBR authors write that research – and now this pandemic – shows that instead of encouraging women to act like male leaders, men should be adopting some of the more effective leadership qualities commonly found in women. 

Hey guys, let’s watch and learn. 

The politics of a pandemic: How Trump will be judged in November

For President Trump, the election is likely to hinge on his handling of the pandemic and the economy. His communication now, and in the months ahead, is largely framed by this political context.

David

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Since 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid” has been a mantra of presidential campaigns, courtesy of Democratic operative James Carville. Today, it’s President Donald Trump’s handling of the pandemic that’s likely to shape voter calculations – though it and the economy are in many ways linked.

Already, the president has been setting expectations and positioning himself to take credit or deflect blame, depending on where things stand come November. He has pushed back hard on news reports that have portrayed him as slow to respond to early warnings about the virus. His daily briefings have featured blunt attacks on the reporters in the room and the “fake news” media in general. 

It’s possible that by November the public health emergency will be waning and the economy starting to come back. If that’s the case, “Trump could run on recovery – ‘morning in America,’” as President Ronald Reagan did in 1984 after a deep recession, says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll of Wisconsin voters.

“But if we’re in a prolonged recession, let alone if there’s a second wave of the coronavirus in the fall,” he adds, “then we’re looking at a very different situation.” 

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1. The politics of a pandemic: How Trump will be judged in November

President Donald Trump’s bracing assertion on Monday that he will decide when to “open up the states” sparked a flurry of pushback.

In America’s decentralized federalist system, governors are the drivers of state policy, as even Trump-friendly scholars quickly noted. Orders to “stay at home” amid the pandemic – closing schools and most businesses – have come from governors and local authorities, not the president.  

In fact, President Trump himself has repeatedly pointed this out. Just days ago, he made a show of not issuing a nationwide call to shelter in place, as a once-in-a-lifetime global health crisis has swept the United States, killing thousands and wrecking a once-strong economy. So far more than 25,000 Americans have died and analysts say that the economy has lost more jobs in a month than had been created since the Great Recession.

But this seeming contradiction makes more sense when seen through the lens of the looming 2020 presidential election. Like all races featuring an incumbent, the election is likely to be a referendum on Mr. Trump’s performance in office. And he is positioning himself, analysts say, for a range of potential scenarios – to get credit if things are improving, and avoid blame if they’re not.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

“He has a knack for creating ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ conflicts,” says Lee Drutman, a senior fellow at the New America think tank.

It’s possible that by November the public health emergency will be waning and the economy starting to come back. 

If that’s the case, “Trump could run on recovery – ‘morning in America,’” as President Ronald Reagan did in 1984 after a deep recession, says Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Law School poll of Wisconsin voters.

“But if we’re in a prolonged recession, let alone if there’s a second wave of the coronavirus in the fall,” he adds, “then we’re looking at a very different situation.” 

The politics of the pandemic have set up a push-and-pull dynamic between the Republican president and governors of the hardest-hit states, almost all Democrats. For the most part, they have appeared to work well together in procuring needed equipment and supplies, setting up unusual moments of mutual praise – most notably involving the governors of the nation’s two largest blue states, California and New York.

Such bipartisan collaboration helps both sides, and not just in addressing the critical needs of the moment. For Mr. Trump, it’s a good look as he campaigns for reelection – particularly with swing voters who could tip the election. For Govs. Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York, dubbed by some the “Trump whisperer,” the above-politics approach to crisis management may boost aspirations for a future presidential bid. 

Many governors have seen boffo poll numbers within their states on their handling of the pandemic, some upward of 80% – with high marks from Republican voters for Democratic leaders and vice versa. Mr. Trump, by contrast, saw a modest, early boost in overall job approval that quickly faded. His scores on handling the pandemic, which briefly made it above 50%, have also dipped. 

Perhaps predictably, many on Tuesday shot down Mr. Trump’s claim of “total” authority to reopen the country. 

“We don’t have a king; we have a president,” Governor Cuomo said on NBC’s “Today Show.” 

Mr. Trump responded on Twitter: “Cuomo’s been calling daily, even hourly, begging for everything, most of which should have been the state’s responsibility,” he wrote. 

Since 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid” has been a mantra of presidential campaigns, courtesy of Democratic operative James Carville.

Today, that seems only partly true, as Mr. Trump’s handling of the pandemic will also surely factor into voter calculations – though the two are in many ways linked. Analysts agree it’s too soon to say where either the economy or the pandemic will stand come November. 

But already, the president has been setting expectations and positioning himself to deflect blame if the economic and public health crises are still raging come November. He has pushed back hard on news reports, most comprehensively in The New York Times, that have portrayed him as slow to respond to early warnings about the virus. His daily briefings have featured blunt attacks on the reporters in the room and the “fake news” media in general. 

Models in late March that showed between 100,000 and 240,000 Americans dying from the coronavirus have been dialed back, as new information has become available. The models had also shown that without mitigation, between 1.5 million and 2.2 million people could have died. 

Though it’s Mr. Trump’s medical advisers who come up with the models, and not the president himself, he would still be able to claim as a victory any eventual death toll that’s lower than what was initially predicted, says Professor Franklin. 

“President Trump has a genuine talent for how he presents even bad outcomes, to turn those to his advantage,” Mr. Franklin says. 

Before the crisis hit, Mr. Trump was by no means a shoo-in for reelection, despite record-low unemployment and soaring markets. Even now, the deeply polarized electorate appears to be fairly frozen in place, with a slice of swing voters in a handful of states likely to determine the outcome. 

But the November election will “unquestionably” be a referendum on Mr. Trump, says Ari Fleischer, who served as White House press secretary for President George W. Bush. 

Mr. Trump has voter intensity on his side, with devoted followers and an opponent – former Vice President Joe Biden – who does not inspire enthusiasm, Mr. Fleischer says. Mr. Biden’s image will matter come the fall, he says, when the election inevitably becomes a choice.

And what of Mr. Trump’s talk about reopening the country? “He’s on the side of hope and on the side of what people want,” Mr. Fleischer says. “That cuts in the president’s favor.” 

Besides, he notes, Democrats are saying the same thing. On Monday, governors on both the east and west coasts formed regional coalitions aimed at looking ahead to a time when they can reopen their economies in a coordinated way. 

“If things bounce back, will [Mr. Trump] get credit for that? And if so, how much?” asks Christopher Wlezien, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin who has studied the impact of economic conditions on presidential elections. “That might be part of his thinking in not wanting to be involved in the closing of the economy, but wanting to be involved in reopening the economy.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

The Explainer

When is it safe to reopen the economy? Three questions.

What’s the right path to economic revitalization? Our reporter takes a concise look at some of the tough choices facing U.S. leaders.

David

Two ways to read the story

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President Donald Trump says that it’s the biggest decision he’ll ever make: When and how to lift the COVID-19-related restrictions on social and economic life that have upended how Americans live for the past month. In reality, the decisions will mostly be taken at a state and municipal level, and there will likely be phases of reopening, not a big bang approach.

Experts have drawn up various proposals for how to restart the economy – not necessarily all of it, but enough to snap a vertiginous slide into a deep recession. But they are built on assumptions about the pandemic itself and the public-health capacity to tamp down future outbreaks. None of that is simple and it varies by region and locality. But public pressure for an easing of lockdowns is building. 

“[The people] are telling us, ‘We want to go back to work,’” says Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington. “They’re telling us, ‘Give us a way out of it. ... We’ll work with you in order to overcome this.’”

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2. When is it safe to reopen the economy? Three questions.

With the economy in near free-fall and Americans hunkering in their homes, many are asking how they can get back to business as usual. A normalcy where parents go to work, kids go to school, and consumers can shop and eat out freely.

It’s a question without easy answers. 

Because the current economic plunge is rooted in a public-health emergency, experts say the path toward a reopened economy is tightly bound to containing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

But with the unemployment rate possibly headed to levels not seen in living memory, policymakers are increasingly anxious to end the disruption, with looming elections adding to the pressure.

President Donald Trump on Monday claimed he alone had the power to declare a “reopening,” and is appointing a special task force of political and business figures to weigh the issue. State governors, who instigated key virus-related restrictions and insist they will decide when and how to lift them, are laying their own plans – with constitutional scholars widely backing their authority to decide.

And even public-health experts, while focused squarely on quashing the pandemic, acknowledge the importance of reopening and recovery as soon as feasible.

“[The people] are telling us, ‘We want to go back to work,’” says Ali Mokdad, chief strategy officer at the Population Health Initiative at the University of Washington. “They’re telling us, ‘Give us a way out of it. ... We’ll work with you in order to overcome this.’”

Here are three questions about the battle over restarting the economy.

What does “reopen” actually mean?

From politicians and economists to health experts like Professor Mokdad, a broad consensus is that halted activities will come back to life in phases, not all at once. 

“It’s not going to be we flip a switch and everybody comes out of their house and gets in their car and waves and hugs each other,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said this week.

Three Pacific Coast states this week sketched a joint framework for reopening, with Gov. Gavin Newsom of California pledging an “incremental release of the stay-at-home orders.”  

“We need to see a decline in the rate of spread of the virus before large-scale reopening,” the joint statement with Govs. Kate Brown of Oregon and Jay Inslee of Washington said.

Experts, ranging from Democratic-leaning think tanks to President Trump’s former Food and Drug Administration chief Scott Gottlieb, say stay-at-home orders can be lifted when localities are ready to use widespread testing for the virus, in concert with some measure of “contact tracing” so that those at risk of spreading the virus can be quickly quarantined.

Many details are unsettled. Governor Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, for instance, have bickered recently over the Mayor’s decision that the city’s public schools will remain closed through September.

Mass public events could be among the last activities to revive. A plan from the liberal Center for American Progress proposes that, even once conditions for “reopening” are met, precautions should include bans on gatherings of more than 50 people. 

Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, on Monday outlined a plan with “sites like offices and stores reopening before arenas and theaters.”

Many plans also involve special safeguards for the most vulnerable segments of the population, such as people who live in nursing homes or who work in essential jobs that involve proximity to many people.

When can it happen?

President Trump last month voiced hope that a reopening of the economy could happen by Easter, but now even a revised White House aspiration of May 1 looks premature. 

The Center for American Progress plan calls for “national and state stay-at-home policies [to] remain in place for a minimum of 45 days starting April 5.”  

The plan put forth recently by Mr. Gottlieb and other health experts calls for states not to relax restrictions until confirmed new cases fall consistently for at least 14 days, local hospitals are ready to treat all coronavirus patients, and testing is available to anyone with symptoms. Some states may already be seeing their peak in coronavirus cases, but the capacity for large-scale testing or contact tracing is not yet in place.

How can success be judged? 

If a reopening goes well, the nation will see both a steady revival of economic activity and a steady decline in virus cases – and avoid subsequent new outbreaks. But expectations based on a prior “normal” may need to be tempered.

Even in this scenario, many economic forecasters expect a degree of “social distancing” to persist, and that some jobs and businesses will never come back.

Adam Posen, president of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, envisions a “checkmark”-shaped rebound rather than a V-shaped pickup that is as fast and strong as the downturn was. 

A full return to 2019 levels of activity could take several years, even with the massive, $2 trillion and rising, federal efforts to rescue workers and businesses. And health experts say a successful recovery will hinge partly on medical unknowns: Will immunity to the disease prove fleeting? When will treatments or a vaccine arrive?

Mr. Posen agrees that the public-health battle is a wild card. But he voiced a cautious hope in an online briefing last week. “I think we are meaningfully going to recover faster than many people are now expecting,” because so many workers and small businesses have a resilience honed by prior hardships, he said. 

Dr. Mokdad at the University of Washington says the balancing act ahead is a very personal one for himself and other Americans. His own 20-year-old daughter is now stuck taking her college classes from home. 

“I want the best for our kids. I want my country to go back to normal,” he says. “But at the same time, I don’t want people to die. I don’t want to take chances.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

Precedented

Lessons from history

COVID-19 revives an urgent call for universal health care

The coronavirus pandemic is putting new pressures on the U.S. health care system – and bringing fresh urgency to the debate over universal coverage. In this video we look at America’s long history with health care reform, and what we can learn from the role that crises play in fueling change. This is the second installment in a video series about how the past can help us understand, and face, the issues of the present. View the first in the series here

David

A deeper look

Pastor-sharing: For clergy, a holy hustle and labor of love

In Colonial days, pastors often served multiple congregations, traveling from church to church on horseback. Now minister-sharing is returning for another reason: It sustains and even invigorates worship at a time when fewer people are in the pews.

David
Ann Hermes/Staff
The Rev. Jay MacLeod of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church skis down the slope after holding a mountaintop mass at the Mount Sunapee ski resort in New Hampshire. Mr. MacLeod delivers sermons at two churches on the same day.

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Pastor-sharing is happening across time zones and across denominations, from the mainline Protestant churches to Unitarian Universalism and Roman Catholic parishes. It’s a practice that requires stamina – just ask one New Hampshire Episcopal priest who races every Saturday in winter from a Mass atop Mount Sunapee, where he presides in black cassock and ski boots, to an indoor service 11 miles away in Newport, New Hampshire. The next morning, he’s in a third town for two more services.

Money is the main driver of the growing trend. Congregations that used to be able to afford full-time clergy can’t cover the costs of salary and benefits in a time of declining church attendance and lighter offering plates. 

Yet as pastor-sharing helps revive some small churches, it is also changing the culture in the pews in unexpected ways. Sharing clergy brings new partners into the life of a congregation, such as congregants of a sister church. As a Congregationalist churchgoer in rural Maine says, his pastor “has the ability to make both churches feel like they are No. 1.”

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4. Pastor-sharing: For clergy, a holy hustle and labor of love

The Rev. Susan Tierney had already done what would have been a good Sunday’s work for any clergyperson. Then she got up in front of her second congregation to do it all again.

She’d risen before dawn at her home in Pittsfield, drove 70 miles across rural western Maine, and led worship for 19 people huddled close (pre-coronavirus outbreak) at Weld Congregational Church on a crisp early March morning. No sooner had the benediction ended than she was in her red 2009 Subaru Forester, adding to the 177,000 miles on the odometer by racing around Mount Blue on a rutted 20-mile road to Phillips Congregational, her other church.

Editor’s note: As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

Now she was standing at a lectern before nine women and one man, all seated at tables in the church-owned community building, waiting for an encouraging word. They really needed it. Two blocks away, their hulkingly prominent white church sat empty, mothballed behind snow-covered steps.

The sermon she’d delivered in Weld wasn’t going to work here. Her call to confession from the Weld pulpit would have been too bracing in Phillips, an economically struggling town where defunct factories no longer churn out clothespins, matches, or shoes. Congregants had just voted in February to sell their church building and cut back on clergy-led worship from weekly to monthly. They could afford nothing more, but they felt guilty nonetheless about the ministry winding down on their watch. So the pastor customized a spiritual meal that she felt they needed. 

“Our Easter will come, and we will know it for the promise of God, who has promised us good things,” Ms. Tierney assured her flock. “But we will not see the dawn if we only look backwards toward the darkness. Rest in God’s love. That is your call for this Lent.”

Ann Hermes/Staff
Susan Tierney, who is the pastor of two different churches, leaves after conducting a Sunday service with the Phillips Congregational Church in a community center in Phillips, Maine. The old church building, where the congregation used to meet, is visible at the end of the road.

Ms. Tierney is symbolic of a centuries-old model of ministry that is making a comeback in the United States as individual pastors cater to multiple congregations in a time of financial and spiritual need. From Maine to California, Minnesota to Florida, congregations are sharing clergy as attendance declines and churches seek resourceful ways to sustain a variety of ministries.

The pastor-sharing is happening across time zones and across denominations, from the mainline Protestant churches to Unitarian Universalism and Roman Catholic parishes. It’s a practice that requires stamina – just ask one New Hampshire Episcopal priest who races every Saturday in winter from a Mass atop Mount Sunapee, where he presides in black cassock and ski boots, to an indoor service 11 miles away in Newport, New Hampshire. The next morning, he’s in a third town for two more services, starting at 8 a.m.  

Yet pastor-sharing is helping to revive some small churches and changing the culture in the pews in unexpected ways. Does this brave new world of sharing clergy represent just a pragmatic solution to burdensome budgets? Or is it part of a modest reinvention of American religion and its basic building block, the congregation?

One thing is certain: The trend is growing. Some 44% of the United Methodist Church’s 45,000 churches now share a pastor. In the United Church of Christ (UCC), which includes Weld and Phillips among its 3,277 congregations, 11.1% of churches share a pastor, up from 9.4% in 2016. Preliminary results from the not-yet-released 2018 National Congregations Study suggest the percentage of churches sharing pastors might be climbing across mainline Protestantism as a whole, according to NCS Director Mark Chaves of Duke University.

The main driver is money. Congregations that used to be able to afford full-time clergy can’t cover the costs of salary and benefits in a time of declining church attendance and lighter offering plates. In 2018, fully 43% of mainline churches already had no full-time clergy all to themselves, according to NCS preliminary data that suggest many work a second job, either religious or secular. The coronavirus-induced economic crisis of 2020 is apt to push that percentage even higher. 

Tradition with a twist

Such pressures are rekindling a shared ministry model that helped build America’s church landscape. Anglicans routinely shared clergy in Colonial days because trained priests were too scarce for every church to have its own, according to E. Brooks Holifield, author of “God’s Ambassadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America.” One church might sponsor as many as nine chapels that a priest would visit occasionally to administer sacraments. As the frontier was settled, Methodists assigned preachers to circuits, or a string of churches that the horse-riding clerics would check on and feed with word and sacrament every few weeks.

The shared pastor model “goes back a long way, but it’s coming back,” says Mr. Holifield, a historian of American religion.

While population shifts are helping to fuel the trend today, as it did back then, it now comes with a new twist. Mainline congregations are no longer sharing clergy in an ambitious bid to reach a growing country. Burdened with aging church buildings and other costly structures, they’re trying to scale back to a sustainable footprint, especially in small towns that are losing residents.

“It looks the same [as in centuries past], but the underlying dynamics are different,” Mr. Holifield says. “In the early 19th century, the issue was rapid geographical expansion. In the 21st century, the issue is more one of contraction – having to cut back on things so that churches that once were able to afford a full-time pastor often now cannot.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Andrew Borden, pastor of two different Lutheran churches, eats a potluck supper with parishoners before a Wednesday eve- ning service at one of his venues, Bethel Lutheran Church in Auburn, Massachusetts.

Moving to shared clergy means a church is reaching beyond its walls for new support, but to what end can vary widely. Depending on the setting, it can be a way to keep church doors open or launch an experimental format. No matter what the circumstances, it challenges pastors and congregants alike to set priorities and accept trade-offs.

All of that is on display in America’s most secular region, New England. From rural corners to urban downtowns, congregations are entering new stages of life with pastors who aren’t theirs alone. And they’re finding that means a lot more relationships come to bear on shaping their futures.  

Holy hustle

Inside a stone church off the main road in Newport, a congregation of 17 gathers for worship on a Saturday at 5 p.m. even though there’s no fixed furniture to sit on. The pews at Church of the Epiphany were removed, along with assumptions that every church needs a priest all to itself, as part of a relaunch of the congregation in 2017. 

Chancel and pulpit, once reserved for a choir and collared cleric, now go unused. Instead the Rev. Jay MacLeod – who also serves as rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in New London, New Hampshire – mills among the people, animatedly preaching to them in a partial circle of folding chairs before leading the congregation to the altar for Holy Communion.

Epiphany hasn’t always had so many signs of fresh thinking and new life. The church had dwindled to about a dozen people before its part-time priest suddenly retired in 2015 after a family tragedy. The future was uncertain for this cash-strapped congregation in a town struggling with poverty.

“Epiphany had a choice to make,” says Aaron Jenkyn, who coordinates outreach and pastoral care at Epiphany and St. Andrew’s. “They had to decide if they were going to shut down, join with another church, or push through and make some big changes to the way that they were doing church. And they bravely chose to make big changes.”

Teaming up to share a priest with St. Andrew’s, a larger and more affluent parish, has been as significant as moving worship to Saturdays, renovating interior space, and launching two after-school enrichment programs. One reason: Congregations that share a priest qualify for grants that they otherwise couldn’t get, according to Tina Pickering, canon for ministry development in the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire. With grant support, Epiphany is able to provide free music lessons and 4-H programming for neighborhood young people from low-income homes. 

The church feels it’s getting a bargain. For $9,000 a year, it gets Mr. MacLeod sometimes after school for the music program, for pastoral support in times of crisis, and every Saturday for Mass. In winter, he officiates in ski pants because he’s just been atop Mount Sunapee serving Holy Communion to skiers. Nobody seems to mind the informality. 

“We want to see this parish survive,” says Epiphany member Gene Jannenga. “The only way we’re going to be able to do it is to do what’s happening in other parts of this region” by forging partnerships, including priest-sharing.

The arrangement seems to be working. Average weekend attendance has doubled since 2015, to 24. Once a month for worship, the congregation offers Messy Church, a popular casual, intergenerational format that drew 65 to Epiphany one Saturday in February. 

For Mr. MacLeod’s part, hustling between churches can contribute to feeling emotionally and physically fatigued, he says. But working with young people in Newport is a highlight of his week. The ambitious schedule also fits his personality: A Rhodes scholar with three degrees, he enjoys being challenged.

What makes the partnership tough at times is the long-standing class divide between St. Andrew’s and Epiphany. 

“Prone to an inward-looking, country club ethos, St. Andrew’s needed to develop a stronger sense of its own vocation,” Mr. MacLeod says in an email. “St. Andrew’s supports ministries in Haiti, Honduras, the Middle East, and Navajoland as well as disadvantaged Boston youngsters, but supporting our neighboring parish in Newport has probably raised more eyebrows. I suspect most people are coming around.” 

Sharing a priest has helped bridge that gap, churchgoers say, because Mr. MacLeod’s two flocks rub elbows in ministry trenches. Dozens from St. Andrew’s volunteer at Epiphany’s programs for children, and they’re bringing insight back to New London. In January, for example, St. Andrew’s began hosting its own Messy Church once a month.

“At first it was very awkward” to volunteer alongside folks from St. Andrew’s, says Linda Radford, an Epiphany member since 1965 and a Newport resident. “I’ve always felt like New London was a little above us, and they might look down on us a little bit. I think that was difficult at first, but now I don’t feel that.” 

‘One big parish’

Kate Valleli has always belonged to a Lutheran church and wants the same for her three children. When she was growing up, her military family would find the flock in every community in which they lived. It kept them connected to their German Lutheran roots, to new friends, and to God. 

What makes the family tradition sustainable in central Massachusetts, where the Vallelis now live, is a pastor-sharing arrangement between two congregations that couldn’t afford a full-time clergyperson on their own.

Because Zion Lutheran in Worcester and Bethel Lutheran in Auburn have teamed up, the family takes part in youth programming at Bethel and urban outreach at Zion. The unifying factor is their pastor, Andrew Borden, who serves both churches under the auspices of Grace Ministries, a framework in which Zion and Bethel act as yoked congregations employing him together. 

“If it were just this campus, there would be fewer and fewer outreach programs happening because of the demographics,” with Zion’s aging makeup, Ms. Valleli says, as she serves shepherd’s pie at Zion’s neighborhood meals program for older people in Worcester. “Pastor is trying to bridge that by bringing more able people from the other congregation to bring things alive here.”

Stories like the Vallelis’ affirm that the two churches offer more together than apart. It helps them survive the costs of maintaining multiple properties. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Pastor Borden leads congregants during a Wednesday evening service at Bethel Lutheran Church.

Mr. Borden tries to be present wherever he’s needed and spreads himself thin at times. When he leads midweek worship in Lent, he scrambles from the altar over to play the piano. He oversees at least four buildings as reflected in the jangling key ring on his belt loop. When a tenant lease needs renegotiating, he gets involved. And when services are closely scheduled, he arranges for a lay leader to start things off so that he can arrive partway through the service, don vestments, and step in.

“I look at it as being one big parish with two geographical locations,” Mr. Borden says. “At one rehab facility, I might be visiting a person from one campus at 10 o’clock and see someone from the other campus there at 11 o’clock. For me, I don’t have to worry about ‘am I giving time here or am I giving time there’ because it’s all a blend. I just go and do.”

The pastor-sharing comes at a price, however, for people like Bill Toombs, a retired garbage collector. He used to attend Lenten suppers weekly at Zion, his neighborhood church. Those seasonal sessions still happen, but every other week they’re now at Bethel. That means he has to load his octogenarian mother-in-law and her wheelchair into a van for the 9-mile ride to Auburn if they want to take part.

Time with the pastor can be hard to get, too, Mr. Toombs says. He likes to talk with Mr. Borden about common interests or changes in family life, but seldom gets a chance.

“He gets done here at quarter to 10 and he has to be down there at 10 o’clock,” Mr. Toombs says at a lunch for neighborhood seniors at Zion. “Sometimes you have something like a death in the family and want to talk to him, but he’s running out the door to the next church.” 

Mr. Borden has been trying to make the arrangement work since 2015 when Zion, where he’s been since 2007, could no longer afford to pay him full time. Bethel has the larger and younger congregation. So which one gets him at prime hours on major holiday events like Christmas Eve? 

“There’s a really strong preference for ‘well, we need the early service [at Zion] because we have 30 people for dinner and it starts at 6 o’clock,’” Ms. Valleli says. “People are just rigid about – you can’t change that. But if we have a bigger congregation over there [at Bethel] and a bigger turnout, that’s where he’s going to be.”

Sharing a pastor can mean revitalizing a congregation or helping one wind down. In Weld and Phillips, Ms. Tierney is doing both at the same time. Like many rural flocks, the Congregational church in tiny Weld (pop. 419) has struggled at times to survive financially. 

A few years ago, parishioners were worshipping in the parsonage all winter so they wouldn’t have to heat the main church building. But having a shared pastor arrangement has helped free up funds, including for building expenses. The congregation now holds services in its classic white-steepled church building even on chilly winter days, with fleece blankets offered on pews for extra warmth.

Switching back to the traditional venue has helped attract relatively new members such as Tom Skolfield, who felt the church should meet in its meetinghouse. And having a pastor who specializes in tending to small congregations has been a bonus.

“She has the ability to make both churches feel like they are No. 1,” says church member Mike Pratt. 

Average Sunday attendance at the Weld church has climbed from six in 2015 to about 25 now in cold weather months. In summer, attendance swells to between 30 and 50 on a typical Sunday. With a picturesque lake on one side and a popular state park on the other, Weld has benefited from its growing popularity with vacationers. They also tend to give generously. 

Phillips Congregational Church had hoped Ms. Tierney’s presence could bear new fruit, much as it has in Weld, but sharing a pastor – even a small-church specialist – didn’t lead to similar results. 

“She came here to help us as a small church, but nothing seemed to make any difference here in this community,” says Mary Dunham, a longtime church member. “It didn’t increase our congregation at all.”

Despite having the same pastor, the churches are moving in opposite directions. That’s partly because they’re barely connected. They happen to contract with the same clergyperson but don’t coordinate compensation or expectations. As Congregationalists in the UCC, they rely more on local governance than do Lutherans or Episcopalians. 

Another reason is location. Weld is more stable economically than Phillips, which has battled decline for decades. The Phillips church’s history of sharing pastors with other congregations dates to the 1970s, when the community was losing manufacturers. Despite sharing pastors with churches of the UCC and the United Methodist Church through the years, nothing has reversed the fortunes of Phillips Congregational Church or the town.

Ann Hermes/Staff
The Rev. Susan Tierney (left) shows her spring sash to members of the Phillips Congregational Church, a small congregation in Phillips, Maine, that has been struggling to attract followers.

“When I was a kid growing up, Phillips had everything you could ever think of – it was a booming community,” says Paul Gardiner, the son of two workers at Phillips’ long-closed Diamond Match factory. “We had a hardware store, movie theater, doctors, dentists, lawyers, and all that stuff. They’ve all gone.”

After a career that’s included stints as a police officer, deputy sheriff, and fire chief in town, Mr. Gardiner now owns a lawn-care business and longs for a renewal of traditional values. “Bunch of young kids don’t care about doing anything that the older people do,” he says. “How many young people bring their kids to church anymore?”

In March, Phillips Congregational entered yet another new phase. The church ended Ms. Tierney’s weekly sermons. Instead she will now visit once a month. During the pastor’s last time behind the pulpit on her regular schedule, two of the three members of the choir wept as they sang “Keep Me Safe as the Storm Passes By.”

“I feel like we didn’t do enough to inspire people to be here,” says Ms. Dunham. “I mean, God is the center of my life. I can’t go a day without Him. I get up early just so I can read and start my day with Him. I just wish other people could feel what that does for them.”

The pastor, in her own way, offered reassurance to Ms. Dunham and her fellow parishioners in her sermon. “Do not use this time to struggle to figure out our situation or try to understand what comes next,” Ms. Tierney said. “What I ask of you in this season of Lent is just to rest in hope and take in nourishment from God’s always-devoted love.” 

A culture transformed

As churches increasingly share pastors, they’re entering what promises to be an extended transition – one that can be challenging for both clergy and congregants. 

“The grief is over the loss of what once was and isn’t coming back, and [the] loss of identity,” says Richard Simpson, canon to the ordinary in the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. “What makes this work [of clergy-sharing] hard is that the clergy themselves are going through it alongside the congregations they serve.” 

What emerges from these partnerships runs the gamut from the daunting to the invigorating to the experimental. Sharing clergy brings new partners into the life of a congregation, not only a pastor but also congregants of a sister church. This means more experiences, new sensibilities, and transformed church cultures – all of which factor into decision-making. And with more influences come more ideas and possibilities. 

“We are preparing ourselves for a new kind of life that we believe will be revealed to us,” Ms. Tierney tells her flock in Phillips. “Do not worry. Just look for signs of what we believe will be our spring rising.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectedly reported an imbalance in how Pastor Borden's salary is sourced. He is paid equally by his two congregations.

As a public service, we’ve removed the paywall for all our coronavirus coverage. It’s free.

‘Psst! The poachers are coming.’ How tiny birds tip off rhinos.

Nature is replete with examples of symbiotic relationships. In Africa, our reporter finds that black rhinos are using cues from birds perched on their backs to avoid human poachers.

David
Martin Harvey/Photoshot/Newscom/File
A red-billed oxpecker sits on a black rhinoceros in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya.

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You’ve likely heard the fable about the mouse who pulled a thorn from a lion’s paw. But what about the hitchhiking bird that serves as an alarm for black rhinos?

Black rhinoceroses have notoriously poor eyesight, which makes them particularly vulnerable to poachers. But these critically endangered beasts appear to be getting tips that poachers are approaching from a little bird that rides on rhinos’ backs. The red-billed oxpecker has long been portrayed as a friend of the rhino in local folklore, but a study published last week brings new recognition to the symbiotic relationship between the two species in Western science.

Beyond highlighting the interconnectedness of the natural world, this research offers an expanded view of how eavesdropping fits into the social order of animals, and how animals communicate and interact with one another more broadly.

“Who would’ve thought that a 2-ton behemoth would pay attention to what this tiny … bird sitting on their back says?” says Erick Greene, a professor of biology. “These studies of animal behavior show us just how attuned species are to each other in weird and mysterious and wonderful ways.”

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5. ‘Psst! The poachers are coming.’ How tiny birds tip off rhinos.

From afar, a rhino looks a bit like a living, breathing tank, oblivious to the smaller critters around it. But these great beasts may actually be paying attention.

Critically endangered due to poaching, black rhinoceroses have learned to tune into the alarm calls of little birds, known as red-billed oxpeckers, that hitchhike on their backs, according to a study published last week in the journal Current Biology.

This isn’t a completely new revelation. In fact, the Swahili name for oxpecker translates to “the rhino’s guard.” The relationship isn’t completely harmonious – more on that later – but it does highlight the interconnectedness of the natural world. And for Western science, it offers an expanded view of how eavesdropping fits into the social order of animals, and how animals communicate and interact with one another more broadly.

“Who would’ve thought that a 2-ton behemoth would pay attention to what this tiny … bird sitting on their back says?” says Erick Greene, a professor of biology at the University of Montana in Missoula. “These studies of animal behavior show us just how attuned species are to each other in weird and mysterious and wonderful ways.”

Researchers used to see animal communication in fairly simple terms, says Dr. Greene, largely individuals of the same species sending direct signals to each other. But, he says, “we’re realizing that eavesdropping is huge.”

Dr. Greene wasn’t involved in this particular study, but his own research focuses on the soundscape created by birds and small mammals in forests. “Everybody basically is listening to everybody else,” he says. 

In fact, birds and squirrels seem to communicate warnings in tandem. Birds have a specific alarm call to alert others that a predator is present or approaching, called a “seet” call for how it sounds – and Dr. Greene has observed squirrels making and responding to that same sound. “They’re basically speaking the same language,” he says. In his research, he has encountered similar interactions in forests around the world.

Some researchers had surmised that social, vocal species might be the only ones eavesdropping, and that solitary species might not have the necessary capabilities. But rhinos are neither social nor very vocal.

“It seems to be that their vulnerability to human predation” may be more of a key factor, says study author Roan Plotz, a behavioral ecologist and lecturer in environmental science at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia. Perhaps “it’s predation threat alone and not sociality that drives the capacity to eavesdrop,” he says.

Predation certainly is a large factor in shaping many behaviors in ecosystems, says Daniel Blumstein, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Los Angeles who was also not involved in the new study. “I think we expect that any species that has any risk of predation to pay attention to what’s going on in its environment to understand changes in threats.”

The risk of predation seems to be a powerful force driving the rhinos to accept the discomfort of the oxpeckers’ presence. Although the birds munch on harmful parasites on the beasts, they also feed on open wounds in the rhinos’ flesh – a behavior that makes some other creatures try to toss the birds off. But the black rhinos can’t see very well to spot poachers, which may be why they seem to tolerate the annoyance that comes with the auditory warning. 

The rhino-oxpecker relationship doesn’t come as a surprise to black rhino experts like Mike Knight, chairman of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s African Rhino Specialist Group. And, in an email to the Monitor, Dr. Knight cautions against overstating the results based on a small sample size. 

Dr. Plotz and colleagues focused much of their research on 14 black rhinos that they had already fitted with tracking devices for a different study. 

In the first phase of the study, the researchers counted how many rhinos with birds on them they could find without the aid of tracking devices. According to their hypothesis, they expected to primarily find rhinos without any hitchhikers because the birds would have alerted the animals to their presence. Indeed, out of 100 rhino sightings, just 17 had oxpeckers perched on them. In their control group of tracked rhinos, 56 out of 100 rhinos had birds on them.

Then they tried sneaking up on the rhinos. The beasts without birds on their backs reacted just 23% of the time when the approaching human was an average of 27 meters (88 feet) away. The rhinos with oxpeckers atop reacted every time – and the human was much farther away, at an average of 61 meters (200 feet). 

Questions remain about why the birds call when a human approaches in the first place. They themselves are not in danger from poachers, so are they warning the rhino? Or perhaps warning each other that this behemoth on which they are riding is about to make a sudden movement?

Dr. Plotz and his colleagues have suggested that their study might offer another tactic in conserving rhinos: protect and replenish the diminishing populations of oxpeckers. Dr. Knight is skeptical of that, saying he sometimes uses the alarm calls of oxpeckers to locate rhinos himself, so perhaps poachers have learned the same thing.

Furthermore, this warning system may also not have much of an actual impact in reducing poaching, Dr. Knight says. Since 1960, the black rhino population has plummeted by an estimated 97.6% largely due to poaching, according to IUCN estimates. Even when oxpeckers were more plentiful, Dr. Knight says, the rhino population was being devastated. 

However, Dr. Knight adds, anything that might reduce poaching is good, and the oxpeckers also serve an important ecological function as they pick parasites off the bodies of many species, including rhinos. So, he says, they’re worth protecting for myriad reasons.

Regardless, Dr. Blumstein says, this study highlights the interconnectedness in the animal world. 

“Nature is grand and complex and it’s studies like this that are beginning to show us the complexities of relationships between species,” he says. “When we lose species, we lose those relationships. And we can’t necessarily predict when or how systems are going to fall apart when you start pulling apart important relationships.”

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Breakthrough against chemical weapons

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One of the world’s most popular treaties is the Chemical Weapons Convention. Last week, the agency charged with enforcing the treaty achieved a historic first. It directly attributed a series of poisonous gas attacks on civilians to a particular government – Syria’s – holding it accountable for violating a global norm.

The report did not receive much attention. The world is currently focused on a biological threat, COVID-19. Yet the detailed investigation is a breakthrough in how the world deals with the most dangerous substances. If leaders are now being held responsible for stopping the spread of the coronavirus, surely the Syrian regime can be held to account for inflicting deadly gases on innocent people during the country’s long civil war.

Over the past century, as humans have tried to understand, use, and control the physical world, the more they have also expanded their understanding of their moral responsibilities. A key one is the universal right to life for innocent people during a conflict, enshrined in international agreements. Weapons of mass killing have no place in such a world. Pinpointing blame for their use is a giant step in that direction.

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Breakthrough against chemical weapons

One of the world’s most popular treaties is the Chemical Weapons Convention, supported by 193 states. Last week, the agency charged with enforcing the treaty achieved a historic first. It directly attributed a series of poisonous gas attacks on civilians to a particular government – Syria’s – holding it accountable for violating a global norm against such an indiscriminate tool of war.

The 82-page report from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) did not receive much attention. The world is currently focused on a biological threat, COVID-19. Yet the detailed investigation of the Syrian military’s use of sarin and chlorine gas in 2017 is a breakthrough in how the world deals with the most dangerous substances. If leaders are now being held responsible for stopping the spread of the coronavirus, surely the Syrian regime can be held to account for inflicting deadly gases on innocent people during the country’s long civil war.

Both Europe and the United States are eyeing new sanctions on the regime of President Bashar al-Assad to stop further attacks in opposition strongholds. Past efforts by the West have been stymied at the United Nations by Russia, a close ally of Syria. With this new report, however, Russia’s obstruction tactics may be weakened.

Enforcement of the chemical weapons treaty has been uneven but generally successful. The OPCW has verified the elimination of 97% of the world’s declared chemical weapons. Now those types of weapons remaining in Syria need special attention by the international community.

Over the past century, as humans have tried to understand, use, and control the physical world, the more they have also expanded their understanding of their moral responsibilities. A key one is the universal right to life for innocent people during a conflict, enshrined in international agreements. Weapons of mass killing have no place in such a world. Pinpointing blame for their use is a giant step in that direction

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

A profound statistic to consider

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When illness spreads, statistics play a big role in containment and information efforts, but they also stir fear. Here’s an article exploring a number the author has found particularly meaningful, even healing: the spiritual perspective that God, good, has 100% of the power. 

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1. A profound statistic to consider

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I keep hearing authorities say, in relation to COVID-19, that it’s the numbers that tell us the real story of how things are spreading, how hospitals will cope, and when it will be safe to return to normal. I so appreciate the systematic and attentive care being given to seeing our way through this pandemic as quickly and safely as possible, yet it is all too easy to become fascinated by, and fearful of, these statistics.

In light of that, I am impelled to share a healing I had years ago that helped shed light for me on a number of a different kind, namely the amount of influence God actually has on our lives.

My grandson Collin’s school was facing a flu outbreak. A caring note was sent home that said, in effect, “Sixty-five percent of the children are absent from school; please watch your children carefully for symptoms, and keep them home until they are healthy.” Accordingly, my daughter kept Collin home the next day, as he woke up listless and feverish. But she needed to go to work, so I had Collin over to my house.

I thought of a passage I love in the Bible. The 91st Psalm assures us that we are safe in God, who is divine Love, and our awareness of this spiritual reality is like being in a secret place that cannot be assailed by illness or injury. We can experience this tangibly when we’re listening for spiritual and pure thoughts from God, who is also divine Mind. These thoughts help us know the oneness, allness, goodness, and harmony of God’s entire creation. They awaken us to the spiritual view of creation, how God sees each of us: as spiritual ideas that are always held safely in divine Mind.

I was inspired by these ideas, and by lunchtime Collin was able to eat some soup. When his mom picked him up in the late afternoon, he bounded joyfully to the car, free of the symptoms he’d been experiencing previously.

But just after Collin left, I suddenly felt quite ill with all of the symptoms that Collin had had earlier, and had to sit down. My heart went out in protest against the notion that caregivers could somehow be punished for expressing God’s love toward others. God’s love is powerful and healing – more powerful than any disease.

Then the 65% figure from the letter sent home from school came to thought. It occurred to me that, as the Bible declares, God is all-powerful – not just 35% powerful, but 100% supreme. A passage from 2 Corinthians refers to “casting down” whatever would hinder “the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ” (10:5). In my prayers, I was really defending my right to know what Jesus knew to prompt such healing effects, to entertain the Christly understanding that God is All. And I refused to marginalize God by seeing divine Mind as merely a possible source of help that could be appealed to with only a vague hope.

With great inspiration, I felt the certainty that God, good, is 100% of the power in our lives, and I saw that this is the most profound and significant statistic, because God having this amount of authority means that divine goodness is the only true determiner of our health. A dynamic one-liner from the textbook of Christian Science, “Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures,” declares, “The allness of Deity is His oneness” (p. 267). The book, written by Mary Baker Eddy, also says of all of us as God’s creation, “As a drop of water is one with the ocean, a ray of light one with the sun, even so God and man, Father and son, are one in being” (p. 361). In our spiritual oneness with our heavenly Father, God, we have perfect health.

At that moment, I got up. I’d been completely healed within the 10 minutes I’d been praying. I went on to fix dinner and have a normal evening.

Even as we are sheltering in place in support of efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic, we can shelter in “the secret place of the most High” (Psalms 91:1), the one God, whose power is truly 100%. Caregivers on the front lines, patients, others yearning to help the best we can – no one is helpless. Through prayer, each of us can become more aware of the spiritual reality that God’s love is always enveloping, comforting, reassuring, and supporting everyone, everywhere.

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Answering a distress call

Jane Barlow/PA/AP
A resident peers into the community food larder, set up by local residents using the old village phone box as a food collection and donation point, in Muthill, Scotland, April 14, 2020. Many people have been forced to use food banks to survive because of the social lockdown due to the pandemic.
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Karen Norris and Jacob Turcotte. )

A look ahead

David Clark Scott
Audience Engagement Editor

Thanks for joining us. Come back tomorrow: We’ll bring you a story about museums embracing teenagers as curators of new exhibits. 

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