Written by Dr. John E. Marshall: March 25th, 2020
At age 68, with 53 years of ministry behind me, I should have wise words to help younger ministers, but COVID-19 has everyone, even the wisest among us, baffled. Experience can help us only if we have previously gone through the current experience.
Our churches are in choppy, uncharted waters, but however difficult our situation becomes, we must not despair. We say with Paul, we are “perplexed, but not despairing” (2 Cor. 4:8b NAS). As Christ-followers, we fully realize Jesus is still in the “hope” business. We have to believe our current difficulty will present the Church a prime opportunity to share this hope with others.
No one is 100% sure what we should be doing now, or what is next. Fortunately, helpful resources are available online and through many ministries: Lifeway, NAMB, Missouri Baptist Foundation, cutting-edge churches, missions organizations, and others. Pastors themselves can be a helpful resource. This rare moment in time could energize creative, innovative Pastors into brainstorming about how to do ministry differently, in ways that could draw church leaders and laypeople closer than ever before to each other. Pastors should be sharing ideas with one another. If you have a helpful one, let it be known. You could be a huge blessing to other church leaders.
I am following with interest and concern the insights and thoughts Pastors are posting on social media. Many are very tense right now. I have no specific solutions to offer, but have made observations I think can help us clarify what we are up against. Maybe by defining our challenges, we can dismantle them one at a time, rather than seek to fix them as a large unit. I see six major hardships pressing against Pastors.
One, pastoral ministry. In this time of social distancing, how can we adequately care for our sheep? True shepherds are now asking themselves this question a lot. Being unable to leave home and touch the hurting is hard on preachers who have a shepherd’s heart. As an extroverted Pastor, I kid about wanting to go out and hug a flagpole so I can have a meaningful embrace with something.
Pastors are having to come up with creative ways to minister to their congregants. There is no playbook for how to do this. This may sound easy to many, but it is hard to take on another persona, a totally different way of fulfilling in a new paradigm a vital part of our calling. Ministers hurt for their people and must find ways to express this hurt in ways that bless the hurting.
Some Pastors are telephoning the oldest members of their church to pray with them and check on how they are faring. Some church staffs are dividing among themselves all the church membership so that every member will receive a personal call from a church leader. One church broadcast a church member’s funeral, using Facebook live; only six were in actual attendance, but many others, including family members, were able to be a part.
We may have to chat with people over Zoom, Skype, Facebook Live, or whatever else we can think of. They need to hear our voices, and we need to hear people’s hearts and fears. We cannot talk to everyone, but we can talk to enough people to know what our church members are feeling and going through.
Two, preaching. It’s tough to preach to empty pews. I did it last Sunday; it reminded me of when I was a teenage preacher in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I had a weekly radio broadcast. (It interrupted a local DJ’s rock and roll program—his name was Rusty Sharp, now known as Rush Limbaugh.) All these years later, I still remember how hard it was to speak solely to a microphone. Video cameras and empty pews aren’t any more appealing.
We now live in a video-driven world. Young Pastors already don’t mind preaching from behind their desk, or with a computer propped up in front of them. We older preachers are going to have to try it. You never know; we might actually grow to like it.
Again, we need ideas. Some churches are doing drive-in church, using their PS system outside to broadcast the sermon and songs to listeners in open-windowed cars on the parking lot.
Three, AWOL church members. It seems inevitable that physical church attendance will suffer. I think most of us know, or at least fear, some of our people will get used to virtual church, and never return to the real thing. A good number of our members will begin listening to the broadcasts of nationally known churches or ministries that have pulpiteers most of us cannot match in preaching ability, and music more polished than ours. Better sermons and singing, no jobs to have to volunteer for, no needing to get dressed up on Sunday morning—it makes for an artificial, yet very comfortable, religious experience.
If there is not an intentional effort to keep our people connected in community (remotely/digitally), this danger of members not returning is a real threat. Sunday School leaders and other leaders need to be challenged to keep in close contact with members of their groups.
Four, money drain. We are just beginning the pandemic shutdowns, yet many churches are already starting to lag behind financially. I fear some staff members are going to lose jobs; Pastors may have to take reductions in pay; some churches may never re-open. This could be a death blow to some congregations. I have already heard reports of at least three churches in my region that will probably go out of existence. These possibilities break my heart to consider.
The financial strain on churches will not quickly end after this time of shutdowns. People will take financial hits due to job losses, salary reductions, increased health care costs, and so on. Many church members will need several months to recover any savings they used up.
Churches should expect giving to be lower for several months, since a large number of our people see giving to their church as non-essential, only about a tithe of our people tithe, and many give only if they are physically present. What should we do about this? We can for sure learn a good lesson from the business community right now. There is a lot of social media emphasis on supporting local businesses, stores, restaurants, and other hometown operations that do not have the financial backing of a franchisee or national chain. Many of these businesses have bluntly asked their customers to continue supporting them. Local establishments plainly state the fact that without customer help, workers will have to be laid off, and businesses will die.
The same sort of straightforward emphasis is needed for local churches. If our people want to watch a nationally known religious broadcast, that’s fine, but they must be reminded they are part of a local church that will suffer without their involvement. Our church members must be reminded their local church needs their support now more than ever.
Pastors must make an appeal for money every time the church gathers virtually. When we are physically together, we always take an offering. The time we set aside in our regular weekly worship service for the offering must now be used to encourage the people to give. Pastors need to do this every Sunday. In a Bible-believing church, the person who puts the Holy Book on the sacred desk each week is the people’s spiritual leader. Only this person can make an effective, authoritative appeal for money. The salaries of others, and the ministries for people, depend on Pastors to raise money. Pastors, don’t be bashful. You are the voice of a church that might be hanging on by only a thread. Speak up now.
Tell people they have options on how to give. Online giving is one option. This method is making headway, but the older generations, the ones who give the most to our churches, have not embraced it en masse. We must change this as quickly as possible. Churches are going to have to teach their members, old as well as young, how to give online. The Missouri Baptist Foundation can help any church with this. Once a church registers with the Foundation, members can online give their offerings directly to their church by way of the Foundation.
Some churches are asking people who can afford it to write a check to cover their next month of offerings. Some churches are asking people to mail in checks, and are taking to them self-addressed stamped envelopes.
Five, exhaustion. I sense mental and physical weariness in many Pastors. They are having to maintain their normal responsibilities of studying/ teaching God’s Word every week, and of overseeing church staff duties. These are in and of themselves hard tasks.
As Pastors try to traverse this brewing storm, their tendency will often be to grasp at any straws nearby to try to see what works. This will be compounded as Pastors see what other churches are doing that’s working. Pastors too often assume that what works in another church will work in their church. The result is; most Pastors try to implement too many things. Thus they end up too busy and exhausted.
I know this seems to contradict what I have written earlier about Pastors sharing ideas with each other. We do need ideas, but please don’t do new things just because they worked for someone else. Spend your time wisely selecting ideas that you feel will truly work well for your own people. Don’t wear yourself out. Don’t ask your people to do things just for the sake of doing them. Do seek ways to continue ministry, but only use those that are appropriate to your people and your church’s identity.
Six, not enough praying. Busy-ness and worry and tiredness team up to rob Pastors of much-needed prayer time. Maybe more than at any other time in our history, we need to seek God’s face, and cry out to Him. Dependence on Him is our only hope. When people panic, fearing things will never get back to normal, we must assure them God is on His throne, and this pandemic is not a surprise to Him. We must remind them God’s people have been through hard times before, and have survived and thrived. The same can happen again. They must sense bedrock confidence in us; this can only happen as we saturate our lives with prayer.
Pray without ceasing. Plead with God for Him to help you make sure the sheep are tended to well. Beg the Lord to make your preaching effective, whatever form it may take. Pray that after this pandemic threat is over, people will flood our local churches again. Earnestly cry out for God to open the windows of Heaven, to shower down financial blessings on His churches. Ask Jesus to keep you from exhaustion, to help you rest in Him spiritually, and for Him physically. Pray for victory in all these matters. Think of the stories our people could share for years, about how God used them and their churches during this crisis. Now is the perfect time for Pastors to pray for themselves, church staff members, and their congregations.
(In writing this article, I requested and received input from several friends in the Springfield, Missouri, area, including Nathan and Rebekah Williams, John Marshall II, Ty Harmon, Bob Roberts, Randy Moore, Rich Miller, Jay Hughes, and Mike Haynes.)