Pastoring in a Pandemic

Pastors often talk about the things they didn’t learn in seminary.  Even a three- or four-year master-level intense academic program, designed with an “in the church” contextual component cannot fully prepare one for what will be encountered pastoring in the day-to-day setting of the church.  In fact, there is an acronym, WIDLIS, to explain it and many online groups dedicated to pastors sharing their stories of what they didn’t learn in seminary (WIDLIS).  Certainly, pastoring in a pandemic ranks high in the “what I didn’t learn in seminary” experience category.

No pastor, regardless of when or where they went to seminary was trained for this moment.  Even those who pastored through such times as an economic depression or recession, wars, devastating natural disasters, or horrific national or global events cannot say this moment is like anything they have experienced. There are certain aspects which are similar, such as the shared fears, doubts, anxieties, and grief, as well as the deep faith, resolve, resiliency, and hopeful spirit.

Yet, there is one aspect of this moment that is different than any other moment. That is the inability for people to gather in one common physical space to be in literal touch with one another through simple acts such as giving a hug, a pat on the shoulder, wiping a tear or holding each other’s hands as we pray together. Pastors were not trained for a moment such as this in which safe physical distancing also means not being able to do what we often do in times of crisis to be present with and comfort one another.

Yet, although they were not trained for it, as I have borne witness to the beautiful acts of authentic ministry and pastoral care by our pastors in the Illinois South Conference, I am moved beyond words at the ways they are fully prepared for this moment.

Even though they were not trained for it, our pastors are prepared for this moment. Why? Well, not because they recently took courses such as “Pastoring in a Pandemic 101,” “Video Editing and Worship Production” or “Making use of online platforms for worship, Christian education, administration and pastoral care.” Not because they received state of the art training in using all forms of technology and devices. And not even because they have pastoral mentors, counselors, or spiritual directors who have been here before and can offer specific tips about how to make use of such technology and online platforms.

Our pastors are prepared for this unique time of life we all find ourselves in, because they are reminding themselves of their “call.”  They are standing tall in the assurance that God has called them for such a time as this.  God is calling them to show up faithfully, authentically, willing to figure it, and ready to serve with an open heart, mind, and spirit.

This does not however mean it is easy or it even comes naturally to them. It also does not mean those who are not doing the work will understand the time, effort, and courage it takes to minister in this time. For those of us who are viewing online worship services, watching video Facebook posts or participating in Zoom calls, we do not know the stories behind these beautiful offerings of ministry.

We don’t know how many times the pastor thought the service was recording, only to find out, after the benediction, that they had to do the service all over again.  We don’t know how much time and practice it took to upload that video. We don’t know how many hours the pastor spent learning how to do “Zoom,” or how to get just the right settings on their smartphones for recording.  We don’t know how much it hurts when people criticize the chosen “background of the video, “production of the video,” or the “sound quality,” when the pastor was so proud and relieved they were able to offer something to connect and communicate with the people they love and have been called to serve. We also don’t know how difficult it was to get in front of the camera and offer a Gospel word of encouragement, hope, and joy, when they were struggling with their own discouragement, despair, and sadness.

Pastoring in a pandemic was not something they learned about in seminary.  It is also something no pastor ever imagined would be a part of their ministry.  It was something they were not trained for, but as our Illinois South Conference pastors are proving every day, it is something for which they are fully prepared.

I am deeply grateful and inspired by the pastors who are showing up, figuring it out and faithfully serving to the best of their ability in this moment.  I know you are too. This week I encourage you to pray for our pastors and offer them the encouragement, appreciation, and grace they need as they continue to faithfully serve all of us and answer the call of God to minister in such a time as this.

Blessings, Rev. Shana Johnson, ISC Conference Minister