Being Faithful in the Time of COVID-19

One Pastor’s Experience of the Coronavirus Pandemic.

It’s been two weeks since I received my second shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine which means I am fully vaccinated. I still wear masks because it is still the state mandate, but it feels like the pandemic is nearing an end. It is not over and things could change that makes things worse. We don’t know if a variant could arise that the vaccines would do very little. That said, it feels like we are moving away from a year of staying away from public spaces. People are starting to peer outside for the first time in a year. Events like the March Madness Basketball tournament are back on after being canceled last year.

Being at the beginning of the end has allowed me to look back at how apocalyptic this pandemic truly was. When I say apocalyptic, I am not talking about the end of the world (though if you lived in NYC during the early days of the pandemic or currently in Manaus, Brazil it certainly feels like the end of the world). Apocalypse comes from the Greek, apokálypsis, which means an uncovering. So when I talk about the pandemic as being apocalyptic,I mean it was revealing. An apocalypse reveals what has been hidden before. This is what happened in my own life over the last year. I saw some things that were hidden that were now out in the open and this is very clear when it comes to the church and my role as a pastor. I’ve learned some things about myself as a minister in the church and society in general. In listening to other pastors, I think this feeling is not unusual. We’ve all learned a lot and it will affect us as we move along away from the dark days of COVID-19.

I’ve learned how much pastors were frustrated. When you are the pastor of a small church, you wear a lot of hats and one of the hats I wore was video producer. I’m thankful I have that background, but that skill comes with a cost. I can’t tell you the many times I would hear other pastors say something to the effect, “we are getting more people than we did before the pandemic!” and feel a sense of envy and shame. You start to wonder why no one is viewing the video you made. You up the production value, try to preach better and still the numbers on YouTube don’t tick up. So, you remind staff and members to like the video and share it with others. You have to keep reminding people to do that because if you don’t they won’t do it. You wonder if you are doing something wrong. I know I should just not look at the analytics on YouTube, but it’s hard not to and wonder what I am doing wrong.

I’ve learned how lonely it can be as a pastor. This is something I’ve known in my head for a long time, but it was made crystal clear during the pandemic. People don’t check in on you, not other pastors, not the members, no one. You sometimes want to know if the preaching is clear or learn what I’m not doing that needs to be done. Sometimes you ask for people’s opinions and help via email and you get silence. You are trying to do ministry and worry that all of your actions are going out into the ether. None of this is intentional; it’s just that when we aren’t in contact with each other, people aren’t as close or helpful as they used to be and that can be isolating.

I’ve learned how hard it is to maintain community. As people become separated by computer screens, it becomes easier to not be as involved or even think what needs to be done. Jobs that people used to do during worship service were no longer being done. People just couldn’t shift to doing something different let alone asking how to help. In some cases, I had to remind people to do certain things in worship. Sometimes people would remember, but sometimes they wouldn’t and I would have to learn how to improvise. Again, this is the nature of the beast at this moment. But it’s hard not to feel a sense of frustration in having something else dumped in your lap.

I’ve learned that the church isn’t necessary and it is necessary. In hearing from other pastors, I can see that the time away gave people to the impression that they could just take time away. It didn’t help when the media and health professionals were telling people that church isn’t essential. Of course, it wasn’t essential and there are good reasons for churches to stop gathering in-person. But the way it was said, told people that spiritual matters are optional. It gave people permission to play hooky. Maybe that’s a good thing since many of these people were going to leave anyway. But there is some sadness about what has been revealed.

Our church missed opportunities. This time away was a time when we could have done more mission, done more to get involved in the local community. I don’t feel that I really pushed that as hard as I could. I really wanted to do more, but I didn’t know how to best persuade people. Reading about how some churches rode out the pandemic makes me feel we missed a great opportunity:

Pastors Dood and Krygsheld in California decided early on they wanted this moment to be one of radical generosity. They purchased around 1,500 meals from struggling local restaurants and distributed them to families in their city, adding about $40,000 to the local economy. Their good deed even got picked up by “Good Day Sacramento.” Then they put together a grant program with other local pastors and non-profits to provide small businesses with up to $5,000 to keep their doors open.

We are a very small congregation, but there’s nothing that says we couldn’t do something similar if we believed that God could work with us.

Is it time for the church to end? One of the many things I noticed is how the pandemic pushed struggling and fragile churches past the breaking point and they ended up closing. Ours has not closed, but this revealing moment makes me wonder. That is not an option I want to entertain. We have a mixture of good and bad characteristics that will decide how our church will continue. All I can do is pray for a miracle.

Speaking the truth. What I’ve learned as a pastor is that I need to learn to speak the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable, even if people get upset. I loathe conflict and will avoid it like the plague. But if I don’t say when things are going wrong, if I don’t exhibit a hope that the church won’t just survive, but thrive. This time has revealed that I need to be willing to be prophetic in that I have to be willing to say things that might make people feel uncomfortable. But if you feel called by God and know what it means to be church, you might need to challenge people.

The coronavirus pandemic was an apocalyptic event for me in so many ways. I’m still figuring out what I have learned. How will this change me? How will it change my community? I don’t know. I think I have been changed. I’m curious where that change will lead.

A middle-aged pastor living in Minneapolis. I write about politics, religion, sexuality, and autism. https://www.dennislsanders.net/

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