By Joel Rainey
Our church is blessed to be in an area where COVID-19 hasn’t spread widely, and our state’s governor lifted restrictions a month ago that allowed us to begin gathering in person for worship again.
After a couple of weeks of “phased in” worship with our officers, staff, and volunteers, we’ll open to the public on May 31.
So why did it take me six weeks beyond the governor’s order before we welcome folks back? Because I didn’t study epidemiology, virology, biostatistics, or community spread mitigation best practices during seminary.
Over the past six weeks, I’ve needed to be educated and equipped to make our facility safe.
Thanks to some wise people in my church and staff who’ve bent over backward to do what’s right by our people, we now have what experts deems a “low risk” environment for transmission.
I’m thankful. I’m also very, very tired!
I’d imagine I’m far from the only pastor feeling a bit inadequate and unprepared lately.
But here’s the good news, pastor: if you’re doing your job well—your role in your church, and your city, has never been more relevant than right now.
What you have done to this point and what you’re about to do is more important than you think. Your people are watching you.
They aren’t just listening to your sermons online; they’re reading your social media posts and blogs. They’re observing how you’re relating to the community God has called your church to love and serve.
I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. What do I want our people to learn from me during this time? What traits do I want them to carry through—and beyond—this current crisis?
Here are four that I hope, by God’s grace, they’re learning by watching their pastor.
Scripture reminds us that God exalts the humble, but humiliates the proud. Pride is ugly on a normal day, but during a pandemic, it’s disgusting.
Are you one of those people whose irrational fear has come out in anger and judgment toward others who aren’t as careful as you think they should be?
Are you that person decrying this whole thing as a political hoax? Remember that your people see what you post, hear what you say, and read what you write.
Humility in a pandemic means I admit if the epidemiologists don’t have all the answers, I have less than they do.
Humility seeks best practices and makes decisions that treat this virus as a legitimate threat and finds the right approach that balances caution with hope.
Different churches are going to come to different decisions regarding what that looks like. Humility understands this.
Moreover, humility will help you model the rare kind of conversation necessary to keep your church and your city together in a time when political polarization has increased dramatically. Lead well.
Have I mentioned that I’m not an epidemiologist?
Thankfully, I’m blessed to have multiple medical professionals in my church who’ve been more than happy to serve their spiritual family by lending their expertise to our plan.
Centuries ago, in most areas like mine, the pastor was, literally, the smartest man in town. He would’ve been one of the few literate ones.
People came to him for almost everything; 150 years later, we should probably be thankful this is no longer the case.
Each Sunday, I preach to people who are exponentially more intelligent than me in so many areas. Where the medical field is concerned, I need them.
Moreover, the rest of my church knows I need them. Are they learning from me that dependence isn’t a weakness, but a way for us all to be strong together?
One of the liabilities of the western Protestant model of ministry is that it tends to make pastors think they should be autonomous knowers.
This is counter to the New Testament.
Paul’s letters bear out the mutual blessing and benefit he received from churches he planted, and the people he learned from who were members of those churches.
Pastors can’t receive that blessing if they’re not teachable.
In the past eight weeks, there’ve been a few bona fide threats to religious liberty, and those shouldn’t be ignored. But how we respond to government overreach matters.
This isn’t only because we’re commanded by God’s Word to have a general posture of submission to governing authorities (though that should be reason enough).
It’s also because our people will eventually replicate what they see in their leader.
If someone disagrees with a decision you make, do you want their first reaction to be calling for your termination? How about a nasty email? Or would you prefer a subtweet or passive-aggressive Facebook posts?
If you behave in such ways toward the government, you’re encouraging your people to act in the same way toward you.
Have you ever been attacked during a time when the pressures of ministry were unbelievable? That’s what most state governors and county boards of health are enduring right now.
I’m not saying you should roll over when they violate religious freedom, but instead show grace, pray for them, and think of redemptive ways to address perceived overreach or bad decisions.
Wouldn’t it be great if your people learned from an example like that? Pastor, what are your people learning from you right now?
JOEL RAINEY (@joelrainey) is Lead Pastor of Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He’s husband to Amy, father of three, serves on the adjunct faculty of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, is the author of four books, and blogs at Themelios.