Pastoring During the Pandemic—Some of What I Have Learned
Among the many words that are used to identify clergy, the term “pastor” is one that I have struggled to wear comfortably. Earlier in my career, I most often used the words minister or preacher to describe my ordination. My friends outside the church often call me “Rev,” a nickname that I adore. But the word “pastor,” which draws upon imagery of a shepherd in a field, is not immediately how I have understood my sense of calling. A shepherd’s hook seemed like a blunt instrument and carrying it, a heavy burden. Making sure that all members of the flock remained safely within the sheepfold seemed a risky venture, fraught with the dangers of coercion, manipulation, or simple myopia.
To the contrary, I have seen my vocation as extending an invitation to explore—explore scriptures, explore the Christian tradition, explore how your faith leads you to engage the world. In new members classes, I emphasize that our tradition understands creeds as mile markers left by past generations on their own journeys of faith. They should not be seen as fences that define acceptable beliefs and practices. They should not serve as barriers defining insiders and outsiders.
While I appreciate the meaning that comes with tradition, I value innovation and prefer the words, “Can we try something different” to “That’s the way we have always done it.” I grounded this sense of clerical identity in the dual commitments of Congregational Christianity: individual conscience and covenant. In our branch of the Christian family tree, we encourage each person to wrestle with the meaning of faith and practice and we invite people into community with other people who are wrestling with questions. Authority is horizontal, not vertical.
All of that changed with the pandemic.
With the emergence of a novel, and potentially deadly, corona virus, priorities shifted and everything took on new urgency. The most pressing questions that I asked myself were no longer about worship practices, interpretation of scripture, or the meaning of theology. For more than a year, my first question has been, “How will we stay safe?” Public health issues pushed themselves into the center of every conversation related to the life of the church. All of those conversations were made more difficult because none of us had experience with pandemic disease, information was often contradictory as medical professionals and the media were expanding their base of knowledge and expertise, and responses to the pandemic quickly became signals for larger cultural and political issues and commitments.
In that environment, I adopted a new approach to ministry, sometimes consciously but often intuitively. I picked up the shepherd’s hook to guide this flock in the way that I believed would lead to greater safety.
Concern for the health and well-being of our congregation led all of us into new ways of doing familiar things—from Sunday morning worship to the Saturday night meal. We were forced into dramatic innovation when “the ways we have always done it” ceased to be available.
At times, I felt that my role had shifted from clergy to public health officer or TV show director or some other profession. At other times, I tried to shepherd a process of adaptation, sometimes stumbling, relying heavily on support from lay leaders and the staff of the congregation. In both cases, I felt the shepherd’s hook in my hand in a new way and I am grateful beyond measure for the countless ways that leadership has been shared among staff and members of the church who also stepped into roles that they could not have imagined.
The pandemic is still with us, but a post-pandemic world is visible on the horizon. This seems like an important time to reflect on how we have changed as a result of pandemic adaptations and what lessons we will take with us from the last year. Writing this essay has given me an opportunity to reflect on those questions. I hope that these words will encourage you to find similar opportunities for your own reflection as well.
Grace and Peace,