Pastoring during the pandemic has been a challenge. And pastors have responded to this challenge in different ways.
There have been well-publicized examples of pastors who, under the guise of “freedom” have refused to do anything about mitigating the spread of CoVid-19. When I’m being charitable I think maybe these pastors are just scared. The pandemic seems so big and out of control, so they refuse to alter worship just to feel like there is something they can control 1. When I’m less-than-charitable, I think these folks are really just looking at their budgets and need to have in-person worship so they can take the offering. This is all presented as “faith,” of course–but faith which doesn’t give a crap about the well-being of neighbors is nothing of the sort.
I want to offer another image of pastoring, which the “freedom” people label as “fear” but I consider to be faithful. This example, I believe, better images what actual faith communities are doing across the country and the world.
I pastor in New Jersey, where the government has strong mitigation policies in place. Even with these, however, there has been an attempt to balance the need for strong public health policy while also protecting free speech. Faith communities aren’t given a free pass, but the restrictions are somewhat more lax than for other situations 2. Churches have used these slightly different restrictions to “remain open 3” during the pandemic, and offer in person worship. They still have a reduced capacity, but the numbers are higher than they are for other establishments 4. Outdoor religious and political gatherings, in particular, have much more lax restrictions placed on them.
Given the current virus situation, many churches in my area had already decided to cancel in-person Christmas Eve worship in 2020 as early as September–before the second wave really got under way. And yet, we knew we needed something for folks to look forward to. Holiday parties weren’t going to happen, holiday travel wouldn’t be possible 5, and local events were being canceled. In Palmyra, for example, our Winter Night market isn’t going to be run and, over the last few years, that’s become a highpoint of December for a lot of people.
Because of this need several churches got together and proposed doing a single outdoor Christmas Eve celebration at a local park. One pastor worked on getting approval through October and into November, an order of service was created, promotional materials were made, and I was getting ready to figure out the sound system. Then the second wave hit. Restrictions were increased and gatherings like the one we were planning were being discouraged. Even then, under state guidelines, we’d be within our rights to plow ahead and hold our Christmas Eve celebration as planned. Masks and distancing would be required, and it would be as safe as we could make it.
But the questions the pastors all asked is, “What about our responsibilities?”
The point is sometimes overlooked, but faith communities are supposed to be servants. Servants to the Lord of a kingdom that is not of this world, and demonstrated in the way we love both God and our Neighbor. There has been a great deal of confusion as to what this looks like over the years and, when we are at our worst, Christians have succumbed to the notion that “loving our neighbor” is really demonstrated when we fight for a society in which we are both comfortable and unchallenged. At our best, however, Christians have made ourselves uncomfortable and stood with those in society who are are most at risk–summarized in Scripture with two different phrases. First is “widows an orphans,” who represented the lowest rung of the social ladder in a culture. The second is “aliens,” who are not part of the cultural norm and are therefor so low on the ladder they don’t even register. At our best Christians have recognized that our responsibility to our Savior mandates that we love, with word and deed, the most vulnerable among us.
During a pandemic, when a virus is running through our communities, takes on a new emphasis. Because, while we can all get this virus, it’s still the most vulnerable among us who are most at risk for succumbing to CoVid-19 6. And churches have a responsibility to care for those folks. Sure, maybe none of the most vulnerable would show up at our celebration 7, but their neighbors and family might. And if they got the virus at our celebration, and then passed it on to the vulnerable around them, could we really say we’re loving our neighbors? And even if no one got the virus at our celebration, there is a distinct possibility that some obstinate fool would see that celebration and say, “See, if they’re ok why can’t we get together with family in our home. This is unfair!”
And so, because we are devoted our Lord and have a deep love for our neighbors, the celebration was canceled. To me, this is a good example of what pastoring during the pandemic looks like. It doesn’t feel great, it means depriving ourselves of something we love, and it puts us in the unenviable position of withholding something that is normally good from people who are desperate for the experience. And we do this all while trying to forge new paths to connection and faithfulness–so our whole community can remain devoted to Jesus and demonstrate and active love for our neighbors.
- And those who are drawn to these churches are similarly overwhelmed. ↩
- I think is a bad idea from a practical standpoint, but they also don’t want to get mitigation orders tossed out in court. Why a church would take the government to court for being told to love their neighbors is beyond me. ↩
- We were never closed. Ever. ↩
- Again, I think this is unnecessary. But that’s just me. ↩
- Or shouldn’t be. We’re going to be paying the price for Thanksgiving, I’m afraid. ↩
- Though, not exclusively. People who say, “I’m healthy, I’ll be fine” are vulnerable though their own foolishness. ↩
- Though it is unlikely. ↩