A couple of years after finishing seminary, I returned to the hallowed halls of the McAfee School of Theology. I ran into Dr. Larry McSwain, from whom I took a class in church leadership and who had become a good friend. With the characteristic twinkle in his eye, he asked me, “Well, how are things going at First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon?” “Well, truth be told, I’m pretty upset with you,” I replied, “because there is so much that you didn’t teach me about working at a church.” And with a large belly laugh, Dr. McSwain replied, “Son, if we had told you everything, you wouldn’t have gone into church work!”
I remember that story fondly and well, especially in these challenging days. To say that seminary didn’t prepare me – or any other minister, ever – for living out our callings during a pandemic would be a gross understatement.
To be fair, none of us, no matter our vocation, were truly prepared for the tectonic shifts in our jobs or life over the past two and half months. Ministers, like people in most caring professions, were particularly caught off guard. Our calling is to be in the midst of the people of our congregations; to shake hands and hug necks as a way of offering the sacrament of touch; to hold heavy-hearted souls during their moments of grief and to shout with celebration for lives who have seen unspeakable joy. We hold the hands of children and adults as we lead them into the waters of baptism, confessing that they are now truly salt and light in the world. We hold the same hands in blessing as we pronounce them married in the eyes of God. We are blessed to hold newborn babies in hospitals and to hold older, wrinkled hands in nursing facilities. It’s hard to do this or any number of pastoral tasks sitting in front of computer screens or television cameras.
This week I ran across a blog post by John Dobbs, “The Coming Pastoral Crash,” in which he lays out how this pandemic season is most likely affecting your pastor in ways they would never tell you. They are exhausted, unwilling or unable to ask for help; they are worried and perhaps unhealthy. In a word, they’re not unlike a good number of us who aren’t serving in ministry.
Pastors and ministers, I commend the article for your reading. You must take care of yourselves. There are no short cuts to be had. Your congregations need a healthy, hope-filled presence to lead them through this time.
And congregants, I commend this article for your reading. You must take care of your ministers. Encourage them to keep their regularly scheduled off days and any vacation time that they have planned for the summer. You need a healthy, hope-filled presence to lead your congregation during this time.
My professors and mentors didn’t teach me (or, most likely, your ministers either) how to minister during a pandemic. They knew nothing about ZOOM or Facebook or wearing masks out in public or how to decipher health department recommendations. They didn’t teach us about video production or applying for payroll loans to cover giving shortfalls. They didn’t prepare us to plan for worship without passing an offering plate or singing congregationally or shaking hands or giving hugs.
In his letter to the church at Colossae, the Apostle Paul offers this exhortation:
For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, and I rejoice to see your morale and the firmness of your faith in Christ (Colossians 2:5).
I know that is the prayer of all our ministers, and I hope that is your prayer for them, too. They’re learning and living their way through this pandemic alongside you, in hopes that one day soon we’ll be able to gather together as the body of Christ. That’s what we were taught in seminary and it’s that teaching and that hope that is fueling our work these days.