I’ve been transitioning from a 13 ½ year, lead pastor position in Atlanta to take on a struggling church in Ohio. Our church in Atlanta is a 1,500 member, multiethnic, Gospel-centered, outward-focused body. The new gig in Ohio is to help a struggling, battle-torn church of about 300. Within all the necessary movements of transition came COVID-19. The crisis threw an unprecedented wrench into the gears of life and ministry. Thanks to the coronavirus, here are 7 reminders of what I’ve learned to do, again, as a pastor.
Sit in the presence of Jesus (and lead others there as well).
Crisis has a beautiful and definitive way of cutting through the crap. Not that all programming and church world initiatives are bad, but many of our efforts have become lackluster. The Acts 2 church did four things very well, and they were living in similar tenuous times. They taught the Gospel, took the Lord’s Supper, fellowshipped, and prayed. These are four ways to accomplish the same thing — namely, sitting in the presence of Jesus. Over the centuries, Christians have done the same thing through major pandemics.
Through the Bubonic plague of the 1300s, where 200 million died, to the Spanish flu of 1918-1919, where 40-50 million perished, to the Asian flu of 1957-1958, where 1.1 million people died — Christians focused on the priority of sitting in the presence of Jesus.
Over and over during tough times, Christians put the Gospel, communion, fellowship, and prayer as top priorities to seek the face of Jesus. When believers did this, they found hope, and then they helped. The great Antonine plague of the 2nd century saw five million die. Some believe a quarter of the Roman Empire was decimated. But during this blight, Christians rose up and the Kingdom expanded. Jesus followers cared and loved and helped the sick because they had sat in the presence of Jesus, found hope, and then sprang into action. Christians of the 2nd century were able to explain the horrible plague as part of our broken world, instead of angry gods exercising arbitrary power – all because they were grounded in the presence of Jesus.
Spend time with family.
Sheltering in place and quarantining has many of us in close quarters with our families.
Without counseling sessions, in-person meetings, lunch appointments, and office hours, there’s family to contend with. What a tremendous and necessary blessing.
We can use easily accessible tech for online meetings. We can work on our sermons at home.
We can disseminate online videos from our basement. And then we can play with the kids, talk with the spouse, and pull out old board games like Mouse Trap. Laughter can abound if you let it. We’ve learned that too much cable news and COVID-19 updates wear us down, but a little info keeps us informed enough. With that, there is time. This is God-given time to lead and love our often-neglected families. We’ve learned to do morning devotionals with our families.
We’ve explained our national circumstances with our kids using graded level thinking. What a blessing to see Jesus take care of His Bride, while we take care of ours and our kids.
Offer practical ministry every day.
This pandemic has pushed us to stay connected, lead, and teach our congregations.
We haven’t had Sunday’s to rely on, so many pastors have gone online from their bunkers. Without Sunday content, daily leadership has become necessary. Our people are isolated, but we dare not want them disconnected. We’ve rolled our sleeves up. Pastors are encouraging, teaching, leading, answering questions, and becoming purveyors of hope for a broad audience beyond the attendance boards of their churches. It’s been a refreshing struggle to seek content, use our daily thoughts and leadership, interface with other pastors, ask Jesus for help, while removed from our office and Sunday-only sermons.
Teach the Gospel.
Dan Stone, in his excellent book The Rest of the Gospel, reminds us that God doesn’t dangle a treacherous rope to climb. Jesus doesn’t give us the burden of salvation work. The work we are to do is to believe. Stone writes, “The Christian life is totally grace. God initiated it. God fulfills it, and God will complete it. He is the One who lives it in us.” With most of our ordinary lives stripped away through a pandemic, we are reminded of Jesus’ finished work.
When we can’t do anything, we remember Jesus did everything. Not having theatres, restaurants, chiropractors, gyms, and schools make us feel vulnerable. It stirs feelings of inadequacy and low productivity. Our illusions of control and independence have been shattered, and we get to shout, “Congrats on your disillusionment! Who wants to be ‘illusioned’ anyway?” The work and rest of the Gospel emerge powerfully when our lives no longer work. Pastors have the incredibly good news of the Gospel as the ONLY means of hope and help during a global crisis. That’ll preach.
Lean on non-staff.
The smaller, hurting church in Ohio I’m beginning to lead has few on staff. Our resources are thin, and many church cupboards are bare. However, I’ve watched church members and leaders rise up and BE the church. We scrambled to go online with Sunday services starting March 15th.
The decision, like many churches, was made the Thursday before. What I witnessed was nothing less than amazing. Volunteer tech people configured old iPhones to free iPad video switcher software. Graphics people created necessary messaging on social media. The people of the church began sharing and inviting their friends. Music people contacted CCLI and found free licensing during this crisis. There simply wasn’t time, resources, or staff to pull this off like many larger churches did. Still, I loved seeing volunteers take incredible ownership and their cues from the Mother of invention: necessity!
Other leaders in the church rose to the occasion for school kids who need food. We helped smaller churches and older pastors get online with very simple-but-doable technology. The real beauty is this: Along with the secretary, I’m the only full-time staff person, and I currently live eight hours away. The church has moved forward, and we’ve gained a broader, online audience of over 10,000 through the passion of great leaders and volunteers. During this slowdown, many Jesus followers have extra time and want to help the Church rise up. They are incredibly energized by Kingdom opportunity and only need slight direction before they are off and rockin’ the free world.
Listen to Jesus.
As news of COVID-19 was breaking, my mind was freaking. I wanted to know what other pastors we’re saying and how they were leading. I quickly surmised how each church would have to craft their own unique messages to their own hurting and confused people. A blanket statement from Keller or Platt might be useful, but authentic, local pastoring would be needed to shepherd chaotic sheep.
With slower, quieter mornings birthed by sheltering in place, I’ve found space to listen. While previous morning prayer times were infused with many words and requests, this crisis has is given more to sitting and listening to Jesus. My dependency has grown, and His faithfulness has given me the right words for the people He’s entrusted me with. With listening skills honing sharply to my Good Shepherd, He is giving me deep, encouraging themes each morning to help lead and love desperate people each day.
It may sound a bit callous, but I began intentionally prepping and asking questions to several leaders weeks before the wave of coronavirus hit. When closings and social distancing kicked in, so did my pastoral pulse. This is what pastors do. During slower times, my teaching role can often choke my pastoring. Crisis begs for pastors to shepherd and teach with a deepened fervor. It happened during 911, and it’s happening during COVID-19. Pastors use the power of the Holy Spirit to dream and problem solve when brokenness becomes overwhelming.
Pastors engage leaders and church members with a determined resolve when times are tough. The Lord enables us to do whatever it takes with wherever we are. God has called us for such a time as this. Pastors have become strong and courageous during COVID-19 because the Lord is with us.
Creativity is flowing from our Most High Creator into our hands and feet. We sleep at night, knowing we’re making a difference. As gut-wrenching as COVID-19 has become, our spirits are renewed and energized as God confirms and uses our calling while creation moans.
And as God sees fit, we will return to a normal routine. My prayer, as a sixty-year-old pastor, is that I don’t.