Pastoral Discouragement in the Time of COVID

Kenton Anderson, President of Northwest Baptist Seminary and Professor of Homiletics at ACTS Seminaries of Trinity Western University.

It’s seldom been harder to be a pastor than today. Sure, we’re not engaged in physical warfare, we’re not in a Great Depression (yet), and outright persecution of the church is muted (at least in North America), but the challenge of shepherding God’s flock is more difficult right now than any imagined when we accepted our call.

For years we said that the church had to be about more than just the Sunday morning gathering, but take away that gathering and we discover just how much the Sunday Service matters. We know that the church can live out it’s calling in all kinds of creative ways, and many of us are doing just that. I am deeply heartened by the varied ways that pastors are creating to keep their congregations relevant and engaged. Yet, the truth remains that our witness and missional effectiveness are blunted when we have no means to be physically present to one another. I thank God every day for the technologies that support us, but we have always known that online worship is a pale facsimile of the real thing.

So, pastor, if you’re having trouble summoning courageous and hopeful emotions in these days, I’m with you. I take great comfort in God’s promise to build his church, knowing that COVID-19 is no more able to prevail against the church than are the gates of hell. Yet still, the longer these days continue – as the nights get longer and the days get colder, basic optimism is getting harder to find. Yes, many of us are finding socially distanced and responsible ways to re-gather, albeit in very small numbers. But I’m thinking that this might not end well. Just this morning I read of a nearby church that is experiencing an outbreak, despite meeting every precautionary standard. It will not be surprising if within weeks we must reverse our course again.

Through it all, we worry for our people. How are they holding up? Will they return when all this is over? What will we have left when all this past? This is testing our confidence in the Lord’s promise to preserve his church and to shepherd his people. Or maybe we still believe that the church will be fine in a global sense, by God’s grace. But what about my church? What about the local expression of the church that we love and have committed to?

It’s time that we accept our situation. This is bad – evil, even. Pandemics, like thorns and thistles are aspects of a cursed world, the consequence of sin, and counter to the nature and ultimate purpose and nature of God’s Kingdom. We won’t have COVID in heaven, but we are not in heaven yet. For now, we struggle. For now, we have to deal with this.

It’s going to be a while. The most credible voices are telling us that it will be at least next summer before we could imagine widely disseminated vaccines that make a substantial difference such that we can worship in a normal fashion. Even then there is no guarantee. By all means, let’s pray for a quicker solution. Our God knows how to work miracles and I have full confidence in his capacity to deliver us in remarkable fashion. I also believe in a God that can give us what we need to persevere.

We need to appreciate that there is no persecution at play. As long as the standards restrict symphonies and football teams, there is no grounds for our complaint.

That said, I understand that churches need to gather. We cannot be who we are called to be unless we can be physically present with each other, to touch one another, to break bread together, and to express the love of Christ in physical ways. Right now, we are barely permitted even to sing!

We are feeling these things to various degrees. Some of us are coping well. Others among us are barely holding on. We need each other more than ever in these days. Let’s commit to be available to each other. Let’s be calling one another, supporting each one in prayer and encouragement. Let no pastor be left behind. Call me if you want to. We can be honest with each other. We must be so if we can lead the church effectively.

As for me, I am praying now for patience – that I might learn to wait on the Lord, that he would renew our strength and mount us on wings like eagles, perhaps not today, but in the time of his choosing.

I am praying for purity – that God will use this experience to restore his church in ways that will be truer to the Word and to the gospel than we had become, a church less consumerist, less nationalist, and less obsessed with its own power and privilege.

I am praying for protection – that the people we cannot shepherd as we once did will be protected by the Good Shepherd.

I am an optimist by nature, but a realist by circumstance. This moment is challenging me theologically, testing the quality of my faith in the God who promised he would build his church. It’s his church. We are just under shepherds. COVID is teaching me to be at peace with that.

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