This pandemic will not last forever. The Americans are approaching “herd immunity” after a rather bumpy ride that saw them endure a death rate per capita 3 times higher than experienced here in Canada. Their vaccination efforts are also bearing significant fruit and it is possible that life for them could be back to some semblance of “normal” by early summer.
Here in Canada we are also making significant progress. After a frustrating start to the vaccination campaign, it now appears that 1/3 of Canadians will be vaccinated by the end of June with every Canadian who wants to be, vaccinated by early September. While the COVID19 virus will likely live on more or less indefinitely, just as the influenza virus and other SARS type viruses have done, it does now appear that it will become endemic and will be managed and contained for all intents and purposes. The lockdowns and other safety protocols put in place on a temporary basis to control the outbreak will slowly begin to expire and this very difficult season will finally come to an end. Churches will be able to meet at 100% of their building capacity, congregants will be able to sing as loud as they like, hands will be shaken, meals will be shared and friendships re-established.
Joy will come in the morning.
And then a whole new phase in pastoral ministry will begin.
The last 12 months have been incredibly difficult for pastors – as they have been for many others – but the next 12 months of recovery, regathering, and rebuilding promise to be even more so. COVID19 blew through the evangelical church in North American like a category 5 hurricane. As we begin to emerge from our lockdown shelters to survey the damage, the sheer scale of the task awaiting us will prove overwhelming for many. Toward the end of our mutual endurance and delight I offer the following counsel:
I’ve lost track of the number of events, conferences, weddings and funerals that have been postponed or deferred because of COVID. As soon as gathering restrictions are relaxed all of these events, in some way or another, will attempt to reschedule and proceed. It will simply not be possible for you as a pastor to conduct every funeral, officiate every wedding, speak at every conference or participate in every seminar that is currently sitting in your queue. If you are not careful you will find yourself booked for every weekend and evening for the next 6 months – that on top of the fact that most of us have taken only a fraction of our holiday time over the last calendar year.
That is a recipe for burnout.
Do not do it.
If you have Associates or Assistants, then share the load – and eat the criticism for doing so. I know that members can feel slighted if you don’t take their aunt’s funeral, but everyone in your church has an aunt. And an uncle. And a cousin. And you simply cannot minister effectively or sustainably to that wide a circle. Tell your board that you won’t be able to do it and ask for their support in dealing with those who are upset.
If you are a smaller church pastor and you don’t have any support staff, then invite your elders to share the load. Elders are pastors. They are shepherds. They can do a funeral. They can do pre-marriage counselling. They can even preach a sermon. Delegating and training them might turn out to be more than just a temporary coping mechanism, it might end up preparing your church for future growth and expansion.
Be very careful about taking on outside speaking opportunities while rationing in-house care. Every cancelled conference and every shutdown ministry will be looking to ramp things back up to speed and they will be calling and asking for your help to do so. Involve your Board of Elders in deciding how to allocate your time and resources. Do not make those kinds of decisions, in this particular season, on your own. Now is the time to lean into plurality.
Prioritize Your Family
12 months is an awful long stretch of time in the life of an ordinary family. A normal calendar year has a certain number of birthdays, a certain number of milestones, perhaps a vacation and a handful of other special occasions. All of those things will have been affected and deferred because of COVID.
I have 5 kids that cover the entire range of early life and childhood so we have an awful lot of catching up to do. My son graduated from High School – but he didn’t get to walk across the stage, receive his diploma or celebrate with his friends and family. My teenage daughter missed out on a team dance trip to the United States. My 12-year-old missed out on her daddy daughter road trip to PNC Park in Pittsburgh. My wife is in desperate need of sleep, sun, and sand.
If I said yes to every funeral, wedding, conference, and mission trip that is currently in my queue I would have to further defer each and every one of those family events and milestones. That would send a message that I don’t want my family to receive.
God made me their pastor too. And their dad. And her husband. I am supposed to love my wife as Christ loves the church. I am supposed to raise up my children in the fear and admonition of the Lord. Loving and raising are things that generally take a great deal of dedicated time so don’t leave your family in lockdown while you go outside to save the world.
This mess will be a lifetime of cleaning up, so pace yourself and prioritize your family.
Sort And Scan
Necessity is the mother of invention, or so my mother told me when I was a boy. We have had to do a great many things over the last 12 months that we didn’t have to do before – and that we didn’t know how to do before. Pastors have become rather good at producing and editing videos. We know about Boxcast, Recast, and Zoom. We’ve figured out how to do prayer meetings online, how to organize meal trains with an app, and how to do contact tracing with Eventbrite.
Some of these skills and technologies should be retained and some should be retired. Knowing which is which will require some wisdom and discernment.
It is probably a good thing that we have all learned how to broadcast services online. That will be helpful to the sick, to those travelling and to the shut-ins. However, as efficient as it may be to conduct our business on Zoom, there is something essentially human about personal interaction. Therefore as soon as it is safe to do so, Prayer Meetings, Board Meetings, and Staff Meetings should be conducted face-to-face.
We also need to conduct a thorough scan on ourselves and on our people in order to detect and eliminate theological viruses. We have all been pushed deeper into cyberspace and social media than has been good for us. In the absence of face-to-face interaction, people have sought engagement through other means. That is to be expected. But it will require some remedial action on your part as a pastor.
Our people have been exposed to online theological voices and authorities that likely do not correspond to any actual real-life experience of church community. There are many things that live only on the internet. There are many voices and viewpoints that make for a great podcast but that do not contribute to personal growth and sanctification. It is not only extremist Islam that grows and flourishes on the internet. Evangelical pastors have discovered over the last 6 months just how many of our young people have been radicalized by online voices. All of that will have to be processed. All of that will have to be evaluated. We will need to do some extensive de-catechizing once this is all over and we are able to begin meeting and talking in person.
In the meantime, find out what and who your people have been listening to and prepare yourself to address malevolent influences.
A great many silly and ill-considered things have been done and said under the pressure of this pandemic. When people are experiencing personal, financial and spiritual stress, they respond in predictable and human ways. It is important not to overreact to what you’ve heard. When Job’s friends were shocked by his vehement protestations, he responded by asking:
“Does the wild donkey bray when he has grass, or the ox low over his fodder?” (Job 6:5 ESV)
Creatures respond to external stimuli. That is an amoral reality of bodily life. Don’t over process. Be quick to forgive and quick to forget.
Most churches have been divided over a wide range of confusing and potentially contentious issues specific to the fog of COVID19. How serious is this virus? How much authority does the state have to restrict our worship in the interests of public health? Are masks helpful or just a panacea for the sheeple? If you haven’t had an unpleasant conversation with someone in your church about one of those questions then you must be a very good pastor indeed. The rest of us have been having those conversations every other day for 11 months. Some of the things that have been said to us have definitely crossed a line. We’ve probably crossed a line or two ourselves.
I recommend a blanket indulgence.
The human mind can only tolerate so much stress and so much uncertainty. Like a 200 amp panel being asked to manage 500 amp service, a certain amount of stink, smoke, and snap ought to be factored in.
Process broken relationships, but don’t seek closure for every awkward encounter.
I imagine that many pastors will emerge out of the lockdown like a racehorse exploding out of the starter’s gate. The extraverts will be hugging, the preachers will be thundering and the leaders will be plotting and planning the future.
There is a time to tear down and there is a time to build up.
But before we get too far along in the process we need to make absolutely sure that we have learned the lessons of our exile.
In Ezra 9 there is a story that we would be wise to revisit. Ezra had been sent by the King of Persia to assist in the rebuilding of the nation and worship of the Jews. An earlier wave of exiles had returned under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Joshua and had rebuilt and rededicated the temple. Despite their remarkable efforts, the community as a whole appeared to be in a state of decline. Ezra was sent to get things back on track, however when he arrived he discovered that the people had failed to learn the essential lesson of the exile. They didn’t understand that the blessing of God was more important than the leadership and giftedness of men. They had disobeyed God by marrying foreign women. They had committed the very same sin that began their decline as a nation!
Ezra shares his reaction to this discovery:
“As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. 4 Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice.” (Ezra 9:3–4 ESV)
The failure to reflect deeply upon their own experiences as a nation – the failure to read the Providence of God – nearly resulted in the total forfeiture of Divine blessing upon their venture.
The moral of that story lies fairly close to the surface.
Evangelicals in general tend to be activists by nature. But activists are very bad at reading history; they’re far too busy making it. But in times of crisis, times of change, times of upheaval, times of pruning and correction someone has to be reading Providence. Someone has to be asking the question: What just happened? Why did it happen? What does it mean?
A lot of us pastors spent the better part of the last 12 months focused on the agent rather than the author of our present lockdown. We thought a lot about government and perhaps not enough about God. That needs to change. There needs to be a prayerful and penitent pause before we resume our activities.
This will be hard for us as evangelicals – it will be even harder for those of us who are evangelical pastors. But it will be worth it. Let’s not just rebuild everything that COVID tore down. Let’s pause, pray and repent.
There may be some things God wants us to leave behind.
Recommit to Basics
The fact that Jesus referred to the Father as a vinedresser ought to have prepared us for the occasional experience of pruning. A pastor friend of mine who worked with us for a few years used to call us “the church that never sleeps”. Pre-COVID19 we were a very busy community. We had the most colourful planning calendar in the history of colourful planning calendars – which hasn’t been touched by anyone for nearly 11 months now.
Obviously things have changed.
COVID stripped away almost everything. That was hard, but it was also helpful. It showed us what we could live without and what we couldn’t. That information will be factored into our rebuilding plans on the other side.
There are other things that might be added in later on once we have the main engines up and going, but initially I plan to focus rather narrowly on the following:
- Preaching the Word
- Building community
- Caring for the poor
- Investing in missions
Those are the basics. And everything else flows out from there.
Whatever else COVID did, it certainly cleared out the calendar. Now it is up to us to only put things back in that clearly serve and advance the mission of the church. As Stephen Covey reminded us many years ago, let’s make sure we put the Big Rocks in first.
And may God alone be glorified!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. You can also find it on iTunes. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can find his personal blog, Semper Reformanda, by clicking here.