by Jenna Pulkowski

I love stories—books, podcasts, TV series, movies, WebToons, etc. I don’t discriminate if the story captivates me. Five years ago, when one of my friends repeatedly encouraged me to check out the TV show “Outlander” on Netflix, I trusted her recommendation and gave it a try.

I was hooked within 30 minutes of the first episode. I finished the two available seasons within a couple of days and then went back to watch my favorite moments again. I couldn’t get enough of it. I was obsessed.

My husband’s friend recommended that I listen to her “Outlander” podcast. My obsession evolved as I systematically listened to all the available episodes. When the opportunity presented itself to financially support the show and gain access to their private Slack channel, a community conversation platform, I signed up!

Initially, the Slack community was small, with about 25 active people. My Slack community has become as dear and close to me as many of my in-person friendships. When I was going through the call process for my current congregation, they cheered me on and set intentions for me throughout the whole process.

A Slack community responds
When the pandemic shutdowns started in March 2020, Slack became a lifeline for many of us. We shared news and updates about what we were learning. Some of the healthcare professionals in our community turned to our network as they burned out. One of the other Slackers and I set up a care team. I provided a listening ear and non-religious spiritual care. My friend coordinated care packages for those sick with COVID-19 or who experienced loss during the pandemic.

What started as a group of women who love “Outlander” and an irreverent podcast evolved into a community of people who loved and cared for one another.

In the 5th season of “Outlander,” a beloved character was killed off. We held a virtual wake for him. A 45-minute event turned into a two-and-a-half-hour virtual gathering. We sang original songs, I wore my collar and funeral stole and said a prayer for this fictional character who stole our hearts. The ceremony included poetry, artwork, more singing and story sharing.

This wake triggered a massive increase of Slack members into our network. Suddenly we went from 30ish active participants to over 60 active members. What had felt like a known quantity, a known community with a set of norms and behaviors that we were all already familiar with because we had built it up, was now an unknown space.

There were so many new names and people trying to make up for lost time on the Slack. Those of us who were early Slackers, myself included, were deeply overwhelmed.

Our beloved community had changed. It didn’t look the same. I didn’t like it.

As a parish pastor, I am called to lead my congregation through growth and change. While I often know what is most comfortable for me, my role as pastor means I have to step outside of myself and consider the whole picture. Who is God calling us to be, and how are we to live that out? In turn, this often leads to new growth, which every church says they want.

Yet, growth means change. It means new people sitting in “your” seats and pews, unfamiliar faces at coffee hour, and these newbies wanting to get in on the action of ministry teams and committees.

New means the old has shifted away. What we have loved and nurtured has grown and possibly changed to the point that we can no longer recognize it.

Yet the same God who makes space for us—space for our existence, our thoughts, hopes, and dreams—invites us into the holy work of making space for others. Of opening up our boundaries that might otherwise limit us from making new relationships and deepening existing ones.

Realizing this connection between my call as a pastor and my beloved Slack community made me a bit cranky. I didn’t want to have to be mature enough to deal with the changes. I wanted to be cranky and ignore the newcomers—I had enough friends on Slack as it was! Who wanted new people? Bah.

Well, as you may have guessed, many of those newcomers soon became dear friends. Women who listen to my struggles, support me in my challenges, celebrate my joys, and can’t get enough pictures of my stupidly adorable dog and cat. They have flooded my mailbox with postcards, Christmas cards, and baby gifts. When I need good thoughts, they set intentions for me. These women repeatedly make space for me, and I thank God that I set aside my crankiness and made space for them. My life is so much fuller and more beautiful for having every single one of them in it.

“Outlander” is on hiatus right now, but once it resumes and the podcast starts back up again, I know new people will find us, and the dynamics will change again. It’ll be tricky to adjust to the newbies. I thank God that they have taught me how essential it is to my wellbeing to make space for those newcomers and for the Spirit’s guidance in adopting this into my ministry.

Making space is hard, but for me, the story of Slack tells me all I need to know about just how good it is.