Thoughts on the “Easy Life” of the Pandemic Pastor

If you ever want to instantly piss off your pastor, the best way to do so is to make a quip about how they only work one day a week.  He or she might smile at you and laugh along with you, but inside they will most likely be seething and feeling very unappreciated.

Recently, I was part of a conversation with a family from my church.  It was a frank conversation in which we had a difference of opinion on how our church has handled the pandemic.  My experience of our chat was that it was gracious, honest and productive for us all.  We each got to say what we had to say.

One unexpected little surprise in this conversation was the part when I was told of some other conversations that have been taking place between this family and other church members who have also been disgruntled with the pandemic response I have led in our church.  I was told that one other church member has suggested that the reason I have been so cautious to bring things back in our church is that I have not been working nearly as hard and I am enjoying my current pace too much to bring things back.

I’ll not lie, as I heard them tell me this it felt like a hard punch to the gut. I was rendered speechless in the moment, and I am fairly sure my facial expressions were a dead give away of my own my levels of disbelief at what I was hearing.  

I eventually responded, explaining briefly that the year and a bit since March 2020 has been the hardest working, most stressful year of my working life so far, and that I had not taken all of my vacation or many of the spiritual days that I am given (one per month.) I also mentioned that this also applied to my pastoral colleagues.

I didn’t get into the details of it all with the family I was hearing it from, but the truth is that I have not been able to think about much else since.  

We taught more classes, made more phone calls, met with leaders, pivoted all our worship to online, re-pivoted back to outdoor, in-person worship (while keeping online going), re-pivoted again to indoor, in-person worship (while still keeping online going), hired a new Youth Director, conducted a successful capital campaign, managed our budget, paid all our bills, took in 35 new members, baptized children, conducted funerals, officiated at weddings, engaged in community ministries feeding hungry people and supporting those who are in financial distress, and supporting partner organizations with regular monetary distributions from our General Missions Fund.

We maintained our Conference responsibilities, serving on various boards and committees at both District and Conference level. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the ongoing denominational turmoil that persists in the UMC. Nor should I forget the fallout we had to deal with in the aftermath of the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol – the words chosen and published by our cabinet were less than helpful amidst the wider tension of our times (although I was not in disagreement with the points being made by them!)

On top of all this, I have spent countless hours with dozens of people throughout the duration of the pandemic, listening to their pain and struggle. And I have also spent hours listening to the people who felt they needed to come and tell me how I ought not to preach about matters of justice and righteousness in our world.

We have grieved the losses of people along the way – the losses of our people who felt they could not hang in there or be supportive of our church any longer. Some have moved on to other churches – I wish them well. Truly. Some just got out of the habit and rhythm of worship. I hope we will be able to welcome them back in the near future.

The above list is a full, but not exhaustive one. We have done all this and more, and we have done it with only two things in mind – our love for Jesus, and our desire to love and serve the people of the church to which we have been sent. My colleagues are the best in the business – they give of their time and talents, and they, like me, also give financial tithes to our church also. It should also be noted that none of what I have outlined here takes into consideration the fact that we, too, have personal lives and families, and therefore all the other things of life are going on in the background just like they do in all lives.

The people who said these things about me and my colleagues are just plain wrong. Hearing that these things have been thought and spoken behind our backs hurts. We have done nothing to deserve this kind of commentary, and I cannot let it pass without noting it here in this way.

So, if you are still reading this, and you are a member of a local church, can I say one more thing to you: reach out and see if your pastor or pastors are okay.  The chances are that they are tired, stressed, bereft of ideas, and really, really struggling with how to put it all back together on the other side of this pandemic.  They need you to step up and play your part.  They need your help. At the very least, they need to know you support them

So instead of critiquing, why not roll up your sleeves and ask what it is you can do to help build things back? Why not try offering a word of support and encouragement to build them up and remind that you are rooting for them?God knows there will be plenty of time for critique again in the future. 

On “Faith Over Fear.”

“Faith over Fear.”

These are words that I have heard a lot in the last year or so.  I spend most of my life in and around people of Christian faith.  By and large they are generous, faithful, caring, hopeful, and loving people to the very best of their abilities.  

During the pandemic, Christian communities have taken different approaches in terms of responding to the best advice of epidemiologists on how to deal most effectively with COVID-19.  Where I live, in Florida, our Statewide stay at home orders in March and April 2020 were never applied to churches or other religious groups.  We were free to meet if we wanted. Of course, in those earliest days most, but not all, churches did cease to gather for worship. However, since then different churches have taken different approaches to bringing their people back on to campuses to gatherings.

Many churches, including my own, have continued to adhere to the advice coming out of expert bodies such as the CDC.  Many other churches have chosen to go a different way and open up their gatherings at a much faster rate than what the CDC would have recommended.  These latter groups tend to be the ones who have used the phrase “Faith Over Fear.” 

Now let me say up front regarding this three word phrase – I get it. I do. The Scriptures are filled with stories in which God invites ordinary human beings to place their trust in God; to put their faith in God and trust that by God’s grace and power they will come through a testing time.  Noah, Moses and the Israelites, and Daniel – to name just a few.  In my own life, I, too, have known times in which I was invited to place my faith and trust in God to bring me through testing times. Scripture also uses the phrase “do not fear” (or phrases like it) approximately 120 times – it is a big theme throughout the bible!

So, I get it. Christians are invited to let go of fear in their lives and walk as fully as possible in faith.

Amen to that!

But inasmuch as there is great truth contained in these three words, there is also some serious difficulty with using them the way they are being employed by many in the context of the global COVID 19 pandemic.

First, while the encouragement to live by faith instead of living in fear is a central part of the Christian faith, it rarely, if ever, invites us to disregard helps or solutions to a problem that are right there in front of us.  For example, I am sure all readers of this blog entry will have heard a sermon illustration about the guy sitting on top of his house after some serious flooding had impacted his community.  He was waiting up there to be rescued and he had faith that God would perform this rescue.  The search party pulled up to his house on their boat and told him to jump aboard.  He didn’t because he believed God was coming to rescue him.  Then a search helicopter flew overhead and winched down a helper for the man, but still he refused, saying that God was going to rescue him from this predicament.  The man was ignoring the very means by which God’s rescue was going to take place.  He had faith over fear, but he had also been completely blinded by it, to the point that he could not see the help that was right there in front of him.

The second, and perhaps most harmful difficulty with this phrase is that it has been weaponized by many who are using it. I have been in the room and heard people say that they believe that more cautious approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic have been based on fear and not faith.  Of course, this could not be further from the truth. My own local church has taken such a cautious approach. Our response has been consistent, and based primarily on the desire to do no harm, to love our neighbors, and to serve our community.  When expert voices state that the best help we can be to our community in times like this is to wash our hands, wear our masks, and avoid crowds, we are going to do our best to adhere to that advice, and even though we don’t like it we are going to choose it for the good of our community and the vulnerable within it, and we are going to do our best to remember that relatively speaking we really have not been asked to sacrifice that much.  

Using the language of faith over fear in this weaponized way is a means of speaking down to the other.  It is a way of accusing another of giving in to fear and of not having faith. I reject this.  And I recognize instead that those who are willing to act in ways that are protective of their neighbors and community are those who are acting not out of fear, but instead out of a great love that is willing to make small sacrifices for the good of the whole.  They are actually placing their faith in God: the God who calls God’s people to embody love for one another.  Fear has literally nothing to do with it.

My third issue with the use of this phrase has been the way it centers entirely on the individual.  Often, the folks I hear saying “Faith over Fear” are the some of the same folks that tell me they have had the virus and have come through it.  They wonder what all the fuss is about; why things are not returning to normal faster. 

While I don’t doubt that these experiences are true, and while I am thankful that COVID did not harm these folks any more than it did, I have a deep frustration with those who seem to diminish the experiences of others, or deem them not as important as their own. I get frustrated by the unwillingness of these same people to remain vigilant on behalf of others. This individualistic, “I’m alright Jack!” approach to faith is anathema to the call of God as it is found consistently in Scripture: the call to willingly and sacrificially love and serve one another. The Law and the Prophets state this often. Jesus himself said that in order to become great in the Kingdom of God we must be come servants of one another (Matthew 20:26, Mark 10:43, Luke 22:26.)

Make no mistake, I get the phrase and I understand entirely that it is most often used very innocently. But as happens so often with clichés, it is being used without much thought. I really do love this phrase, but I do not love how it has been used and is being used by many these days because it unmasks an underlying individuality and an unwillingness to make small sacrifices on behalf of the vulnerable.  

So please, dear reader, please be careful how you use these three little words in the days ahead.  Before using them, ask yourself what it is that you are really trying to say. If you are using them as an expression of frustration or accusation then maybe they would be better left unsaid.

When Saints Pass

In my first years out of seminary I was thrown into the deep end in terms of funerals and bereavement care. In my first year alone I conducted 23 funeral services in the Greater Shankill community and in all my time there (three years) I conducted more than 50 in total. I am thankful to say that since my move to America in 2013 that rate has not kept up. I have learned over the years that there are just some seasons in which communities experience more frequent occurrences of loss. I would say that I am in the middle of one of those seasons right now. I have just this afternoon conducted my third funeral/Memorial/committal service in less than a week.

Not all funeral services are the same, of course. How could they be? We are all so very different from one another after all. But there are stories I get to tell from time to time that are simply wonderful human stories of faith, endurance, simplicity, joy, and peace in the face of death.

We live in an age in which everyone is fighting to be heard and listened to. People are trying to create platforms from which to speak and influence. You can be a “Social Media Influencer” and speak to thousands of people worldwide – if you know how to build your platform. The Church is no different. Christian celebrities vie for attention and influence on their social media outlets. And even in local church dynamics we all know that there are always those who want to shout loud in defense of their particular theological understanding, and woe betide anyone that might think or say anything contrary to it (including the preacher!) I mean who hasn’t seen their church family duke it out on social media over something rather unimportant?

What has this got to do with the death of saints or the services I conducted this week?

I’m glad you asked.

You see, the services I have conducted this week have been for three ordinary people who had no interest in shouting loud, being seen or heard, or in defending any thought position. They did not have to be noticed in life to experience it well. All three of them simply showed up each day with a quiet sense of faith and a willingness to get on with loving people and serving their community.

No drama.
No debate.
No desire to take center stage.
No need to try and control or take charge.
No tantrums when things aren’t going as they want.

They just showed up in life, gave of themselves quietly and faithfully, and lived well with those around them. And in this age in which so many are vying for attention, on social media platforms or even in local communities, it was refreshing to stop and celebrate the lives of three people who had chosen to live a different, and dare I say better way.

May they rest in peace and rise in glory.