Tom Berlin says that two years of global pandemic have revealed some key truths about the nature of ministry. Serving in this difficult time has raised the challenge of embracing new skill sets, forced a renewed reliance on the Spirit’s sustenance, brought the centrality of Christ-filled relationships to the fore, and magnified the importance of our foundational callings.
I took our dog Mudge for a walk in the woods this afternoon because it snowed. I notice more when it snows. Cover the complicated background of trees, shrubs, and vines in that cold blanket, and it is easier to notice things. When we startle a herd of deer, I observe that when they stop running, the largest deer stand between us and the smaller members of their herd. I have no idea if this always happens, but it did today, and I admired it. On the path, Mudge’s back paws always land exactly next to the track left from his front paws. It appears that he made his way through the wood by hopping on two legs.
In the same way, a global pandemic has revealed things that I probably would not have seen otherwise. I would bet that you are observing a lot right now, too. Here are four things a couple of years of COVID have shown me:
1. There is renewed energy in seeking fresh ways of serving Jesus.
Much of my ministry has been in the time when weekly church attendance was normal and even expected in many places in the United States. Those were good days to be a pastor. But they are now officially over. Churches not on a mission to share the gospel and tangibly demonstrate the love of Christ to people in their community will cease to exist. Maybe in one year. It may be 10 years. But I doubt it will be much longer.
Here is what excites me about that. In the fourth quarter of my vocational ministry and the third quarter of my life, I’m having to learn a whole new skill set. Hybrid worship is here to stay. We will have to pursue Fresh Expressions of church. It is a time to learn from each other, share ideas, and work as teams. You might even be feeling a little desperate to figure out what is next. But that feeling of desperation can fuel a sense of curiosity and animation as we learn new skills and look for new pathways to ministry.
For years I have observed how pastors cross the line of retirement. Some finish with a deeper love of Christ and greater community with others. For others, there is burnout, boredom, and loneliness. Feeling less competent makes me feel fresher. It drives me to a renewed search for ways to serve Jesus in a new time. And while the world has changed, Jesus continues to be the same yesterday, today, and forever. The routine undependability of circumstances enables me to experience how steadfast the love and grace of Christ is in our lives.
2. The Holy Spirit meets us in new and fresh ways even amid the stress of the pandemic.
For years, I attended self-care seminars, took notes, but never claimed days off. The pandemic taught me that this system simply will not work. I hit a wall this summer. I put up a white flag and took two three-week periods of time to be with family and friends, read books, take walks, pursue hobbies, and take naps. I bought a rowing machine and I use it. I leave work in time to walk the dog. I still put in my hours, but I pay attention to what my body and spirit are telling me. I remind myself that God meets us in Sabbath.
I have learned to experience the Holy Spirit in new and fresh ways. I have found that pandemic stress has led me to value silence and stillness. I feel God saying, “Talk less, listen more.” I look for beauty. I find ways to take in Christian contemplatives, past and present. I think more about what scripture is saying rather than trying to cover several chapters at a time. I am not where I hope to be, but I experience all this as a fresh wind of God’s Spirit.
3. Christ-filled, loving relationships are more important than ideological conformity.
The past years of politics in America and failed efforts to help members of the United Methodist Church live under one denominational roof have taught me that I am more interested in Christ-filled, loving relationships than ideological conformity. I can hold loving relationships with people I don’t agree with on all issues. I am not offended if I do not pass someone’s litmus test or when people tell me they are incompatible with a person I hold dear. I need friends who have insight into how the church can do its best ministry in a time of significant change. Caring, collaboration, joy, and encouragement matter in my relationships with others now more than ever.
4. The importance of our callings is magnified when the work is harder.
The work of ministry is harder right now. I have thought of many escape plans — early retirement, a new vocation, a deserted island, just to name a few. The problem with these alternatives is that God has not relaxed the sense of ongoing calling I experience. Years ago, I was with a group talking about their call to ministry. One said, “I only do this because God makes me!” Another said, “Really? I feel so fortunate. For years I had to do electrical work to afford to be a pastor. Now I am paid a full-time salary. I can’t believe that I get to do this and I get paid for it.”
I try to hold that kind of calling. I am confident in the good the church brings when it makes disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. People need hope. They need to know Christ. Their lives are improved and their spirits are lifted when they learn our spiritual practices. They find new life when they realize that the Holy Spirit wants to be their companion and guide. People find God’s presence in the sacraments, even when Holy Communion is offered in those terrible sealed cups. And we need the blessed community that occurs when we care, learn from, and commit to one another. I am more confident than ever that people need the process of sanctification that God often unfolds through the ministry of the local church. And so, the work continues.