I am not a pastor anymore, but I was for 15 years of my 35-year ministry.
This allowed me to watch my church navigate the COVID-19 pandemic through two distinct lenses: 1) observing our pastor’s stress, concern, creativity and commitment and 2) considering how I might have responded in a similar circumstance in my former ministry.
What I saw was my pastor’s steadfast commitment to offer safety and nurture.
I saw his ability to be flexible and creative. I saw his challenge of being a pastoral presence while distanced. I saw his willingness to follow the guidelines developed by our church’s pandemic task group even if he preferred to apply guidelines in a different way.
I observed my pastor struggling to guide our congregation while they suffered the throes of the pandemic. This meant offering pastoral care in hundreds of ways for every unique situation.
There is always enough stress involved when a pastor is caring for just one congregant or family navigating a difficult time, but this pandemic-infused pastoral ministry meant caring for hundreds of families, all experiencing the throes of the pandemic in different ways.
“Throes” is an unusual word, with synonyms such as agony, distress, suffering and anguish. It describes precisely what pandemics look like.
Watching those things happen in our church, and watching it from afar, prompted me to consider what I might have done as the pastor of a congregation living in the throes of a pandemic.
The church provides many avenues of spiritual care, including worship, study, contemplative practice, community, pastoral care and celebrations of life milestones. Where would I start? I imagine myself starting with what seems most critical: pastoral care.
How do I do that in a time of social distancing? What kinds of person-to-person (if not face-to-face) care could I provide? How do I care, while distanced, for a mourning family who lost a family member?
How might I help those who cannot be with a loved one dying in a hospital? How do I help families reassure their loved ones in nursing homes when their visits must be separated by a window?
How might I work with socially distanced funerals, weddings with minimal guest lists, postponed baptisms and infant dedications?
The pandemic raised so many questions.
If we have learned anything at all about congregational life during this pandemic, we have learned that every hard question asked by a church member has its own answer – one unique to every situation that requires our thoughtful consideration.
Many a writer has used and reused the somewhat irritating phrase, “no easy answers.”
British essayist Pico Iyer, in his book, Cuba and the Night, may have given us the best description of “no easy answers” when he wrote, “Everywhere you turned, everything was happening, and everything that was happening took you away from all abstraction and into something human, where answers weren’t so easy.”
That describes our pandemic experience.
I hope that our church – and every church – learns this one pandemic lesson: Bad things that happen take us “away from all abstraction and into something human,” where answers are not so easy.
If we learn that, we will have learned the mystery and wonder of congregational care.
That lesson will serve us season after season, in sweet times and in times when pandemics are bitter. It is, indeed, a faith lesson that points us again to a God who knows all about pandemics and who knows all about the suffering of the people struggling to endure them.
What would I have done if I had been a pastor through the pandemic? I can only answer, “I don’t know.”
What I hope I would have done, for my congregation and for myself, is to find ways to surround us with sacred space where the sheer wonder of our faith and our faithfulness would carry us through any crisis.
Almost everyone who is a student of congregational life and dynamics agrees that our churches have endured something that will create lasting change. We are different people than we were before the pandemic. Our churches are different. Pandemic has changed us.
The spiritually healthy way to deal with this kind of change is to focus on the better changes, the ones that are life giving to us and the ones that show us the wonder of a faith that can move mountains and survive pandemics.
Rich Mullins (1955-1997), who was once described as “the uneasy conscience of Christian music,” was raised in the Quaker tradition, devoted to the Christian faith and heavily influenced by St. Francis of Assisi.
“A faith that moves mountains is a faith that expands horizons. It does not bring us into a smaller world full of easy answers, but into a larger one where there is room for wonder,” he wrote.
This speaks to the idea that change, even change that rises from a difficult pandemic wilderness, can expand our horizons beyond the faith we have always known. This kind of change can lead congregations to sacred mystery, wider vistas of discernment and fresh glimpses of wonder.
Today, there are still no easy answers. Yet, the pandemic may well have led congregations to a new place of wonder where faith will deepen in us.
Epiphanies rarely grace us, but I like to think that the epiphanies we experienced through this pandemic will guide us on the rest of our journey.
Editor’s note: From June through August, articles will be published from faith leaders reflecting on the pandemic ministry adjustments they enacted, looking ahead to the future or both. If you’d like to submit a column for consideration, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
A semi-retired pastor, hospital chaplain, missionary, trauma counselor, victim advocate and nonprofit executive. She is a member of First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia, and is the author of two serious books, one Kindle novel (just for fun) and a curriculum on racial justice. She is currently a minister-at-large, a watercolor artist, iconographer, liberation theologian, preacher and blogger who still writes about “all things church.”