I may have ripped that headline from a novel/movie, but the truth is, I know nothing about that novel/movie… just as I know nothing about leading a church in a time of a worldwide pandemic.
I have a confession to make: I have no idea what I’m doing.
To be fair, neither do most of my colleagues, even if we pretend that we do. The fact of the matter is that none of us have ever served as a pastor during a time when the world was basically shut down and put on hold for several weeks due to the presence of a highly infectious disease.
As I write this, we are getting ready for our seventh Sunday without an in-person worship service. Even our irregulars are starting to miss coming to church!
So, how do we do it? How do we pastor our churches in a time when people are not supposed to leave the house, or gather in groups of more than 10 people? That’s what we are figuring out.
Many churches immediately made the shift to Facebook or YouTube to live stream their services. Both are great means of getting the message out on the internet, and even allowing for some interaction along the way.
One problem, which immediately became clear for some churches, is that technology is not always reliable. Whether it is a weak internet connection, a sudden camera problem, or an issue with the hosting sites, the last thing I wanted to deal with was a Sunday morning technological glitch.
The other problem that some churches were going to have when it came to live streaming is that you are gathering your people together to lead worship. For some churches, it’s not that big of a deal. You have three or four people. In other location, though, it could mean quite a bit more.
On a typical Sunday in my church, we have four individuals and the choir that lead worship on a weekly basis (as well as greeters and ushers). Obviously, the choir was going to be out of the question. I think we’ve all heard by now about the choir that practiced together before COVID went widespread, and more than half of them ended up sick. It’s just not feasible to pull that many people together right now. In our context, that meant the liturgist, organist, children’s director and pastor were left, and, if you aren’t leading worship in person, there’s not much need for a liturgist at this moment; we’re down to three.
To make it easier to have a safe environment, we opted to pre-record all our services. Any technical glitches can be handled ahead of time, and you get multiple chances to put together a smoother service — something that doesn’t always happen on Sunday morning!
The problem most pastors are facing right now, however, is that we didn’t exactly have classes on church in the digital age. Don’t get me wrong, my systematic theology has been super relevant in these times, but how does that help me edit together a meaningful worship experience via video? It doesn’t.
What is the best editing software to use? How do you set up effective lighting? What camera angles are the best? How do we transfer videos from the camera to the editing software when one is an iPhone and the other is a PC?
These are all issues that pastors are having to deal with right now. Do you know what doesn’t address these matters? Anything that pastors learn in seminary.
And then there are other theological issues that pastors are wrestling with. How do we handle communion/Lord’s Supper/Eucharist? What about membership and baptism? When it comes to reporting to the denomination, what do those numbers look like? Average worship attendance is easy when you can count heads. When you’re looking at Facebook video metrics, things get a little more complicated.
Truth be told, I’ve been considering for a while what it will look like to launch an “online campus” for our church. While this would be an ideal time to figure it out, the global stress that people are experiencing makes it a little more complicated. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m struggling just trying to keep my head above water right now.
One thing I have never been very good at as a pastor is the personal contacts with people. Those issues are only exacerbated because this should be a time of regular personal contact. The truth of the matter is, I make 5 phone calls, and I feel wiped out.
We are starting a new ministry at my church where volunteers are making 6–7 phone calls a week to members of the congregation. I think a lot of people are already doing a good job of staying in touch, but this is a time when something informal like that can leave a lot of people to slip between the cracks. So, we are trying to formalize it a little bit more.
Some pastors are thriving right now. Some pastors love the personal touches, and are great at making phone calls and driving conversations. I’m not one of those. I would much rather talk to people in person than over the phone. It’s a hangup that I know I need to get over, but I’ve been dealing with it for my entire time in ministry.
Writing the Book
Somewhere, there is a high functioning pastor who is literally writing the book on how to minister during a global pandemic. Not me. I’m literally just trying to get through the day with two little kids at home, who just want to go somewhere and play.
If there’s anything I have to offer at this time to my colleagues in ministry, and to those who miss sitting in the pews, it’s this: we will get through this. For years, we have been talking about the importance of the community. We have been talking about how the church is not the building. And now, we are living it. When we come out on the other side, let’s come together like never before.