In a matter of a few weeks, pastoral ministry has become something none of us imagined. The impact of COVID-19 requires pastors to think innovatively and creatively about the calling we have given our lives to follow. In one day, it seems, so much changed.
A mere six months ago, no one would have believed churches around the world would refrain from gathering on Easter morning and that they would be doing so out of love for one another. No one I know ever talked about what it would be like for the church to be dispersed in such a way.
It is not that we have moved from church buildings to house churches. That would be more tolerable, since at least we would still be gathering. But we have been scattered to our screens.
We are preaching to our people, but we cannot see them or touch them. We cannot look in their eyes and tell if what we are proclaiming is resonating with them or not. We cannot hear them laugh or watch them fight to keep their drowsy eyes open.
We cannot gather them to celebrate the life of a brother or sister who has died, to celebrate new life with parents coming to dedicate their child, or the new life in Christ declared in baptism. We cannot break off a piece of bread and look in their eyes and say, “The body of Christ broken for you.” We cannot be in hospitals with the dying or sit around the table with the living.
I have spoken to dozens of pastors over the past few weeks on the phone or in a video call. I have been online with groups of you and have exchanged texts and email with others. I have worshiped online with a half-dozen different congregations and have followed many others on social media. I watched tears well up in a pastor’s eyes and heard his voice crack as he pronounced the benediction to an empty sanctuary on Easter.
I have witnessed both an admirable desire to continue to shepherd your flock and a discernible weariness and discouragement beginning to set in after a month or more of this “new normal.”
Encouragement for the present
I want to attempt to offer some encouragement to you as you continue to serve in these strange days.
First, keep up the work of preaching.
I have been sitting in the pew—well, actually a recliner—during these Sundays. I was not prepared for the online experience to be as meaningful as it has been. It has been valuable to me, because I have not been listening to strangers preach, but friends and colleagues.
It must be terribly frustrating for you to preach in such circumstances. But know people on the other end of the line are listening who need a word from the Lord and who love to hear your voice and see your face, because they know of the affection in which you hold them.
“My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus said.
What you are doing and saying is important. Yes, it is awkward. Certainly, it is not the way you’d prefer to deliver the message. But do it anyway. Do it with the same effort and passion that you would do if things were back to “normal.”
Study. Pray. Preach.
As Paul said, “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” (2 Timothy 4:1–2).
Second, use every means to overcome the distance.
What Paul would not have given for video calls! He did what he could when isolated from his churches, whether by prison bars or mere geographical distance. He prayed for them. He wrote to them. He rejoiced when he heard from them. He did all this with confidence that God was at work in their lives, whether he himself could be with them or not (Philippians 1:1–3).
So, email and text and phone and video call and do whatever else you can to stay connected with those you serve. You are still called to make disciples. You are still called to be their pastor. Do what you can, and let that be enough for now. The time will come again when your physical presence can express your care.
Third, lower your standards.
A weekly production is not necessary in worship. If nothing else, we are being weaned from some of that. The dramatic light and sound show worship easily becomes is not what is needed in these days.
Your congregation longs for a word from the Lord, and they want to hear it from you. Period.
Some of the best preaching I have heard in the last few weeks has come from a pastor sitting with his laptop in an empty sanctuary, speaking transparently and powerfully to his flock. Let go of the need to impress your people, and just be there with them.
Fourth, take care of yourself.
Stay current with your spiritual practices. Adapt them to the new situation, but continue to practice prayer and study and silence and solitude and other habits that strengthen your soul.
Care for your body. Sleep and eat and exercise.
Care for your relationships. Increase contact with family and friends virtually where you cannot be physically.
Care for your mind. Read. Study.
When we do emerge from the pandemic cocoon, be ready to emerge stronger rather than weaker.
Fifth, share the burden.
Don’t try to do it all yourself. Allow others in the congregation to do the work of ministry as well. Encourage them to do it. Bless them in their efforts to care for one another, to teach their small groups, to carry out their own ministries. And don’t try to do it by yourself.
Talk with fellow pastors about what the burden of these days is like. Listen to one another, and pray for one another.
Sixth, accept the reality of the present.
We have loved our meetings and our programs and our impressive presentations. For a time at least, those things are but dust.
We are being pushed into a new way of doing the work of the gospel. Lean into it and learn new things.
Parker Palmer tells of being in an Outward Bound course and finding himself paralyzed on the side of a cliff during a rappelling exercise. His instructor shouted down to him the Outward Bound School motto: “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” Then his feet began to move.
That must be the posture of pastoral leaders during these days. We serve the God whose creativity knows no bounds. We are part of the church that has endured more difficult days than this over two millennia. It does not become us to think if we can no longer do what we have done, then we are stuck. We must get into it.
Seventh—and as a good biblical number, that will do—abandon both optimism and despair, and serve with hope.
Jurgen Moltmann says the two sins against hope are optimism and despair. Optimism is groundless. Despair is faithless.
Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, gave us the “Stockdale Paradox.” When asked about what POWs did not make it out of their Vietnam imprisonment, James Stockdale said, “the optimists.” Those who constantly were saying, “We’ll be out of this by Easter, or Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or New Year” constantly were disappointed by reality. They had no grounds for such false hopes. It was the realists, Stockdale said, who survived. This is an important perspective to hold during these days.
Depending on who is prognosticating, we may be in this social distancing mode for some time. We should prepare ourselves to do our ministry in this situation for the long haul.
Hope is not optimism. It is, for the Christian, a part of a realistic outlook. The Easter reality is whatever future in which we find ourselves, God is present, God is with us. He is our hope.
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).
Pastors, what you men and women are doing never has been more important. Your people need your love, your leadership and your faithful ministry.
The church will need to think carefully about how we do our work in such days as this. How do we preach Christ? How do we demonstrate love for neighbor? How do we serve with compassion? How do we bear witness to a frightened, lonely world?
You, pastors, are called to this. You have been prepared for this. You, with the Spirit’s power, can do this. Be encouraged.
Robert Creech is professor of pastoral leadership and the director of pastoral ministries for Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary. This open letter to pastors is adapted from the original and republished by permission of the author. The views expressed are those solely of the author.