By Kevin Smith
Pastoring a church in a post-COVID-19 world will require some adaptation, some creativity, and some intentionality, as we think about how we shall shepherd the sheep of God and love our people and provide pastoral and congregational leadership during this time.
Remember that on the one hand, pastoral ministry and congregational life are always shifting. On the other hand, pastoral ministry and congregational life are the same because we are rooting our efforts and our ministry in the Scripture, the Word of God.
Certainly, this is a time of pastoral tenderness and sensibility. Economic upheaval and disturbance and health concerns have affected people and have given some anxiety and fear. They have altered our regular rhythms and lifestyles and put pressure on marital and parental dynamics within the home for some people.
There are many things that a shepherd who loves his sheep will need to consider as we come out of this COIVD-19 lockdown situation.
The reality of death
People have died and will die from this virus. With the effect of quarantines and lockdowns, many congregations and Christians have not been able to mourn and grieve as they’re used to in the context of a funeral, a viewing time, the traditional fellowship with one another, and shared meals.
I want to encourage you to do something that is not always characteristic of American Christianity. Immediately coming out of this, I think we need to provide opportunities for people to grieve – to grieve the real and actual losses that have taken place during this pandemic. There are people who have not been able to be in nursing homes with loved ones as they have died. They haven’t been able to be in the hospital with loved ones as they have died. There are those who have had other complicated issues that the coronavirus has aggravated. There has been death, and I think with the awkwardness of the moment, the quarantine and social distancing, it would be helpful if congregations and maybe even groups of congregations, in associations or regional expressions of the state convention, would provide some opportunities for people to grieve and lament. We can think of this in two ways – in a discipleship sense and in a congregational sense of loving our neighbors and rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep. Some are new widows or widowers, children without parents, or spouses without their loved ones. We can think of loving the people of God.
In an evangelistic and missions sense, we can do this as a way to invite people in our communities into the setting of the church — first responders, medical professionals, people who may not be followers of Jesus. We can realize the reality of grief in their lives and take the opportunities to speak of life and death and the hope of eternal life and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
As shepherds of the Lord, as those who carry the message of eternal life, we can be prepared to come out of this and help people think about death, to help people grieve if they’ve experienced death in their family or extended family and have not had the opportunity to have funerals. We can help people who have been overwhelmed because of the way they have been interacting with death, whether it be first responders, medical professionals, or others. I pray that you may think about ways, as pastors, to facilitate the healthy grieving and bereavement that people will naturally walkthrough.
Changing economic dynamics
In an overall sense, many of the changing dynamics will involve economics, meaning church offerings will be affected and church members will be affected. Some church members will feel the effect of layoffs. Some will feel the effects in positive ways as they create new economic opportunities – whether they becoming entrepreneurs or their business pivots in response to activities.
Regardless of the way changing dynamics affect members of your congregations, I would encourage you as a shepherd to be ready to pastor and to lead and encourage those brothers and sisters in the things of God. There is no rich man’s Christianity and there’s no poor man’s Christianity … we are all one in Christ.
Think of salvation – the message we offer and share is free to men and women of every kindred, tribe, tongue, and nation, and men and women of every economic status.
As we come out of this, I hope we will not go to in a situation where men and women define themselves by economic categories. And if they are in that situation, I hope we who share and preach the Word of God will clearly remind people that they are created in the image and the likeness of God and that their economic status does not give them value. Their value, their worth, and their dignity is rooted in being created in the image of God and I pray that this will be a steady post-COVID-19 proclamation of the Christian church.
I know that news articles and people’s cultural analysis of things will have sharp economic stratification implications in a lot of communication. We want to be clear that John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” … the world, all kinds of people anywhere, anybody — anybody in any economic status.
Coming out of COVID-19, let us makes sure we have a big, broad Gospel where the love of God is shed abroad upon all types of men and women and all types of economic situations and that economics is not a defining issue for who is blessed by God or who is loved by God, or who can be blessed by God, or who can be blessed by God. We will be declaring in a sharp voice that “whosoever shall call upon the name of God will be saved” (Romans 10:13). I think this will be a vital message for pastors and church leaders to declare after COVID-19. Salvation is for anyone regardless of economic status, regardless of some shift in their stories. As a matter of fact, as people have shifts in their lifestyle and shifts in their stories, it would be a wonderful opportunity for them to consider some of the essential weighty matters of life. No one has a word from the Lord about these matters like the person who has trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ and is willing to share the Scripture, the Word of God, with men and women in trying times.
There’s a second category I want you to think about and that category is discipleship. Not only is salvation the same coming out of COVID-19, the essence of discipleship is the same coming out of COVID-19. It’s not as though before this global pandemic there was a certain way to be a follower of Jesus Christ and now after this global pandemic there’s another way to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Being a follower of Jesus Christ is based in the Word of God, regardless of where we are with global calamities and economic disruptions. Certainly, we would start with the Great Command: “Thou shalt love the Lord [thy] God with all thy heart, … soul, … mind, … and … strength” (Mark 12:30). And the second command is like unto it in Matthew 22 when Jesus is questioned by the lawyers, “[Thou shalt] love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39). And He says in Matthew 22:40, “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” That discipleship principle does not change.
Whether one is at the poor end of the scale or the wealthy end of the scale, this is a great time to remember that discipleship at the principal level does not change. Discipleship is how we submit to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and follow Him in our daily lives.
In a world where things are shaking and changing and we’re speaking about creativity and speaking about innovation, it is very helpful for the disciples of Jesus Christ to have a clear word about that which does not change. In a world where things are changing rapidly, it is very helpful for Bible-believing Baptists to clearly articulate what does not change. And one of those things is “what does it mean to be a disciple, a follower, of the Lord Jesus Christ?” It means that we have the ultimate desire, comprehensively, in our lives to obey the Great Command. “Thou shalt love the Lord [thy] God with all your heart, … soul, … mind, and … strength” (Mark 12:30). It means that, comprehensively, in our lives, we have the Luke 9:23 understanding of what it means to follow God. “If [any man will] come after me, let him deny himself, [and] take up his cross daily, and follow Me.” So, I pray that coming out of COVID-19, we would be steady in our understanding of what it means to be saved and of who salvation is available to, and also that we would be steady in our understandings of discipleship. Those foundational principles do not change.
What are our dynamics of interactions within the body? Whether the body is the immediate local congregation, this local expression of the embassy of the Lord Jesus Christ, or whether we’re talking about a group of churches that are ministering in a certain region of the world or of the country, what does it look like when those dynamics feel the effects of COVID-19?
Consider Acts 2:44, “Now all the believers were together and held all things in common” (HCSB).
This situation with COVID-19 and the disruption that it has caused will be a great time for us to evaluate the body, fellowship, and community dynamics of our local congregations. As a shepherd of God’s people, I always encourage pastors to be mindful of the spirit and the tone and the fellowship of the congregations that they lead. So how do I lead and advance and encourage the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace when there are people in our congregation who are doing well and there are people in our congregation who are hurting when there are people in our congregation who are grieving and people in our congregation who are not familiar with that kind of grief? There are people in our congregations who are parts of large families and people in our congregations who are widows or widowers and people in our congregations who are single or who are students or in town and away from family. How do we think about the unity in the family dynamic of those relationships, especially after a time of death and economic disruption?
Acts 2 says that there were all types of believers, Jews from all kinds of nations under the heavens. They were together and beginning to gather in groups and congregations in different places. Ultimately, we begin to see letters written to congregations in different cities — like Galatia and Corinth and Ephesus. How do we think about the Acts 2 dynamics regarding economics in a post-COVID-19 setting? One thing I would encourage you to think about is what is the value or what is the worth of the healthiness of the “us” quotient within our congregation? Does your congregation, whether it’s fifty members or five hundred members or five thousand members, have any “us” there? How are you focusing on strengthening the “us” dynamics of your congregation? Those relational dynamics matter so much. It is very important and has been important, that pastors are organizational leaders and visionary leaders, that pastors give insight and vision for God’s people to do ministry as we collaborate together in local congregations.
I want to suggest to you that, coming out of this COVID-19 situation, some of the most valuable skills for pastors will be those soft skills, those relational IQ skills, rather than merely those hard systems and organizational-type skills. I really want to encourage you to tune in to where people are, because people will be in many different situations. And maybe some congregations are being pushed to some places they haven’t been in a while or places they haven’t been in your tenure. For example, in some congregations, there is a jovial, kind of upbeat tone and the members think things are always supposed to be that way. Well, some congregations and some cities and some communities are going to come out of COVID-19 and it will be a time like the book of Lamentations. And so, as a pastoral leader, are you able to lead people through times of lament — which is not even really a popular word? In Americanized Christianity, we have elements that are very prosperity-driven, success-driven, power-driven, happy-driven — driven by a lot of things, rather than being very sensitive to the common plight of God’s people and realizing that sometimes we rejoice and sometimes we weep. So, when you’re thinking about the dynamics of your congregation, what is the “us” quotient within your congregation? Do the “haves” and “have-nots” feel like they’re in fellowship and community with one another? Do the people in the suburban areas feel like they’re in contact and fellowship with the people in the urban areas of your congregation? Please measure the “us” content of the people in your congregation. It will be so valuable and so important coming out of this COVID-19 era.
The Bible says “they had all things together” (Acts 2:44). Some people had a lot and some people had a little. Can you have harmonious and Spirit-empowered congregational fellowship in the middle of those types of dynamics? I want to challenge you in that way. One thing you might find yourself needing to emphasize as a pastor is just helping brothers and sisters understand the biblical goodness and nobility of work. This is a day when people are finding themselves in some scenarios that they have not been in before, and as a pastor you sometimes have to encourage people that “work is good,” whether it’s the type of job that they desire or whether it is needed work that they have to do in order to provide for their family. As a pastor right now, in a spiritual sense, you can encourage brothers and sisters to not be prideful about taking certain jobs because they need that job right now to get through a tough season or you can encourage them not to be prideful about seeking work and asking for assistance from other brothers and sisters in the congregation. This is a beautiful time for the body to be the body.
Sometimes I’ve heard church people say, in times of death, “I’m so thankful my church family walked through this with me. I don’t know how people who don’t have a church family get through some of the stuff they have to go through.” Obviously, when we look around the world and even when we look in our own friendships and relationships and network of family, we realize that some people don’t get through circumstances in life that are trying without turning to things like alcohol or drugs or sinful comforts to try to ease the pain of a bad season of life. The body of Christ ought to be a wonderful place where brothers and sisters can be built up and edified and loved when going through challenging times. And so, one thing that we need to do in a post-COVID-19 time is to remove any shame about brothers and sisters who are going through times of financial challenge. We know that people have been laid off. We know that businesses have closed. We know that many people are in all manner of financial disruption in many ways. And we also know that there are others who have not been affected, or who have been affected but had provided for a rainy day. Wherever someone is along that spectrum in this post-COVID-19 setting, I want to encourage you as a pastor or a spiritual leader to remember that in Galatians 3:28, the body is not defined by economic characteristics.
Right now, if a single mother in our congregation is laid off, does she feel like deacons and other brothers and sisters in the body can see her and love her and that there is no shame in being in a challenging economic system coming out of this pandemic? If there is an older brother or sister who thought they had their retirement settled, that they were in a relaxed situation, and their accounts took a hit in the stock market, and maybe they made some choices and they find themselves in a bad economic situation — can they be in the midst of the congregation without feeling shame in expressing that? Many times, when people resort to destructive or pathological or sinful reactions to sin or anxiety or stress, it’s because they’ve had no healthy outlet in which to share those things, whether it be their family or whether it be other people who will love them unconditionally. This is something that should certainly characterize local congregational life.
I would encourage you, coming out of COVID-19, determine if there is an “us” to our congregation that is defined by being salvation through the Lord Jesus Christ, His finished work on the cross, and now a common commitment to being disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, and obeying the Great Commandment and denying ourselves daily, and taking up our cross and following the Lord. Is there an “us” there, is there a commonality there that can overcome the challenges of this present day? And I pray that for many of you that the answer is, “Yes, praise the Lord, yes! These believers were together, and they had all things common and they sold their possessions and properties and distributed proceeds to all as any had need.” So, the pastor of a local congregation should be able to shepherd and engage those who have had need and economic disruption, and a pastor would also need to be able to love and serve and engage those who have not had such interruption. The Bible says some people were selling property, some people were giving in, putting in. So, a pastor will need to be able to give leadership to those in a time of need and shortfall and to those who are not in a time of need and shortfall and can be a blessing to other brothers and sisters within the body.
I certainly want to encourage pastors to be organizational and visionary leaders, but in this post-COVID-19 situation, I’m going to also encourage you to be a shepherding and loving leader, sensitive and mindful of the hurts, pains, and realities of your brothers and sisters that you love, Christ’s sheep who you serve. There should to be a needed humility among congregational members that we might freely offer to help one another, that we might freely express need to one another. Certainly pray that, in the congregational structures of your deacon ministry or your benevolence ministry or whatever is set up in such a way, you can love people and help people in a way that is dignified, in a way that people can maintain their dignity, but also that brothers and sisters in need can humbly recognize the blessing of the broader body in the Acts 2 sense — “I’m in a situation of need and part of the body; let me see if the body might be able to bless me.” Certainly, I would encourage pastors to teach biblical approaches to benevolence and giving and financial need. The Bible says, for example, if one has a need, to start in their own household with members of their own blood and then to go out from there to other opportunities. Certainly one of those opportunities is the congregation in which one is a brother or sister and where one shares in the stewardship of that local congregation.
Coming out of COVID-19, our message of salvation does not change and the people to whom our message is directed does not change. Regardless of economic stratification, whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved. Our message of salvation does not change, our evangelistic thrust and outlook does not change. We’re looking to share the Gospel with anybody. We’re not just looking to share the Gospel with those who came through COVID-19 OK. Again, we don’t have a rich Gospel or a poor Gospel; we have a Gospel for anyone of any tribe, tongue, kindred, and nation. And secondly, discipleship does not change, so how you lead the members of your congregation does not change.
The last element then is the intimate pastoral element of leadership within a congregation, pastoral leaders, deacon leaders, deacon ministry, small group leaders, Sunday school leaders, whoever in your congregation touches people. Please make sure you are being touched and touching people in the context of those Acts 2 dynamics, where economic distinctions are not hard defining lines within the body.
The church has always gone through challenging times and this is one of those challenges, but the Word of God does not change and our Lord Jesus Christ does not change.
When things are shaking all around us, it’s a good reminder for us to consider and be mindful of the unshakable foundations upon which we ourselves stand.
This article is adapted from “Is There a Rich Christianity and a Poor Christianity?” Dr. Smith gave this talk during “Discipling the Unemployed,” a webinar hosted by ONE HOPE and 20schemes.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the King James Version.