Pastoring in a Pandemic: Of Grey Hair and Glory
Having been unable to see my friend, who lives just across the border from me, for roughly two years during Covid-19, I was a little startled when we met and he immediately said to me, “you got grey.” I had, in fact, developed a lot of grey hair, no doubt because of the amount of stress caused by pastoring hundreds of people with different opinions on what the church should or should not be doing. There is a silver lining (no pun intended), of course: I now have glory and splendour (Prov. 16:31; 20:29).
Depending on your circles, you may have heard there were a few pastors in Canada who were heroically faithful during the pandemic. They were the ones in the news who disobeyed the Provincial health orders and continued to worship corporately without imposing certain restrictions upon their flock. But what of those, like myself, who, in the eyes of some, “bowed the knee to Baal,” by adhering to the restrictions placed upon the churches by the governing authorities? Were we lacking in courage and faithfulness? Perhaps. But it may be a bit more complicated than that.
As a bit of a hypochondriac, I typically should have been a bit fearful of getting Covid. But I never did quite buy into the hysteria. The masks, I felt, were useless, especially the way most people wore them – and even those who wore them well probably were not helping themselves as much as they believed. The Great Barrington Declaration made a lot of intuitive sense to me; and, given I had been reading a lot of articles during this time, I was a bit of a medical expert on these issues along with the rest of my congregation. Many hard-earned PhD’s were privately awarded during the pandemic! All of this is to say, I lacked belief that the measures being imposed upon us were overall helpful, and the cocksure approach of some public Christian commentators on what true love looked like (e.g., wearing masks, getting vaccinated) was a tad annoying. I’d like to think my instincts were correct, but that’s not really the point of this article. I simply want to say that though I was never a fan of many of the measures, I nevertheless also had to pastor a church through a difficult time.
In one respect, simply defying the authorities and telling my congregation we were going to worship seemed to be a relatively simple option. Open the church and let the faithful come to worship! What was more difficult, however, was trying to keep our church unified as we sought to be obedient to Christ and his Word. We had people all over the spectrum, including medical professionals, all with very strong opinions about what we should do. People, some of whom were dear friends of mine, held views I privately disagreed with, but I did not doubt they were sincere and, of course, wrong!
It seems to me there was, therefore, another type of faithful pastor during the pandemic: not necessarily the one getting the headlines in the news, but the pastor who had to spend hundreds of hours discussing with his fellow elders and speaking privately with families with the goal of patiently instructing them to display the fruit of the Spirit as we tried our best to honor God. I witnessed such faithfulness among my pastoral colleagues in Canada and especially on my own session where my associate and elders showed great courage and love to the flock under their care. True, we did not get arrested, but knowing some of your flock lovingly but firmly disagree with your pastoral wisdom can be very taxing on the soul over the period of roughly two years.
Now, I know there were things I could have done differently. But I thank God that I was ministering in a context where I had already spent 13 years pastoring people who, even if they disagreed with my approach, still had enough honor, respect, and love to trust the decisions being made by the session. Without those years in the bank, I think the church would have split, to some extent. We certainly had some lively and vigorous debate at times, even with tears. It was a salient reminder to me that ministries that last more than a few years tend to have certain benefits that can be extremely helpful in a context like a global pandemic.
In addition, for some periods during the pandemic, the Provincial health officer would allow churches to meet outside and worship. During a time of the year that was not particularly warm, I witnessed amazing devotion by so many who set up outdoor tents/tarps, brought blankets, and put heaters on so that we could worship more comfortably. People put in hours and hours of work to make this happen each Lord’s Day. My calf still feels warm from the heater that a certain deacon placed right behind my right leg while the rest of my body froze as we led several services on a Lord’s Day.
People from the neighbourhood walked past our church and witnessed Christians outdoors worshipping God. Many started coming from other churches that simply closed altogether. And when we were allowed to gather indoors, with up to 50 people, we were prepared to hold as many services each Sunday to accommodate anyone who wanted to worship. Again, it isn’t easy doing several services in a row, but there was no doubt we had an obligation to do as much as we could while being obedient to the civil magistrate.
Never has Charles Dickens’ famous quote seemed more pertinent than during this time of our church life: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Our church leaders, and many others in Canada, may not be in the news for their decision to disobey the governing authorities, but courage and faithfulness can come in many forms. I am not against those who decided to defy the government. They were, I believe, seeking to honor God. Many times I wanted to just say enough is enough. But I hope those (in America) who promoted their faithfulness can also appreciate that there was another type of faithfulness happening that was perhaps even more challenging in certain respects: ministering to people when those people queried whether you were a false shepherd or not because of what they were being told by some (online) who thought the matter was so obviously straightforward.
In the end, we managed to get through the pandemic. We still have people who have not recovered from the virus (e.g., one young lady – a nurse – is practically bed-ridden) and others who have not fully recovered from the harmful actions of the government towards them (e.g., being unjustly denied the chance to work for refusing to be vaccinated). Overall, as horrible as it was at times, I saw the fruit of the Spirit at work in ways that may not have been so easily perceived had the pandemic never happened. In those who especially suffered during the pandemic, I have witnessed already God’s care and grace in their lives and think I can say that while some meant to do harm, God meant to do good!
Moving forward, even today, where the wounds have not fully healed, will only be possible if we can all try to admit we may have made mistakes, acted with self-righteousness at times, and failed to adequately appreciate that certain contexts were fraught with problems we cannot fully understand or appreciate. Love believes all things, and I’d like to believe that while my brothers who defied were acting in love, the same was also true of us who did not defy but did so out of love as well.
Mark Jones (Ph.D., Leiden) has been the minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), Canada since 2007.