As the COVID-19 crisis drags on, many church leaders find themselves tired, discouraged, and anxious regarding the long-term implications of this pandemic. Pastors are wondering how they can apply biblical roles and goals for pastoral ministry in such a radically altered context. Such work requires savvy shepherds—those who take responsibility for their task in its new and present form.
While the goals and definitions of pastoral ministry haven’t changed, the context surrounding shepherding has shifted dramatically, morphing in ways that are impossible to see while we’re still in the midst of it. As the pandemic took hold, church leaders were faced with an unfamiliar task: pastoring people from a distance. The work, which seemingly demands personal presence, now must occur in cyberspace. Dinner invitations and hospital visits are replaced with an endless stream of videos, emails, texts, and phone calls. Work that was once shoulder to shoulder is now device to device. And pastors are expected to adapt quickly and continue indefinitely.
To better see and meet their congregations’ unique needs, pastors and lay leaders have embraced social media, creatively cared for their members, led countless Zoom meetings, and taught to video cameras in empty rooms. But serving an entire congregation can be extremely challenging, and the long-term effects on congregational shepherds are still unclear.
The Weekly People Check-in is a five-minute assessment from Gloo and Barna that lets people share their experiences with church leadership, providing pastors with a status report on how their congregants are doing with their health, relationships, job, finances, and faith in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. Alongside temperature-taking tools like this, pastors are leaning on wise counsel and firm boundaries to serve people while maintaining some level of personal sanity.
Care through a mobilized church
At the outset of the shutdown in North America, many pastors’ first goal was to ensure their people felt embraced with loving care. Of course, the need for hope has always been there. Forms of suffering that long predated the onslaught of COVID-19 have not stopped. People still have cancer. Marriages still collapse. Sin still crushes.
The pandemic has brought new causes for despair all its own: more parishioners facing physical illness, more of them grieving lost loved ones, more of them teetering on economic destruction, more of them burdened with anxiety and depression. The need to care for others, then and now, has always been the same.
But pastor burnout is a predictable outcome, particularly for those running at a sprinter’s pace for what is likely a marathon. According to Gloo’s data, church leaders are desperate to pass on a message of faith and hope, but the means of communicating that message are difficult to determine. The responsibility to care well from afar for a hurting congregation weighs heavily, draining emotional and spiritual reserves. When pastors can’t access the tools people find most reassuring—eye contact, bedside prayers, and physical presence—bridging that physical divide when comfort is sorely needed feels like a daunting, demanding task they are doomed to fail.
How are pastors to combat such a fate? The answer, at least in part, lies in a mobilized church. A singular pastor or program won’t do—we need every member tasked to care for one another, whether that be through prayer, communication, encouraging notes, or acts of service. Dwayne Milioni, pastor of Open Door Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, and chair of the board of The Pillar Church Planting Network, has experienced the positive effects of his church’s intentionality: “We have actually found ourselves connecting with our members more during the quarantine.” Pastors are pouring out themselves for members, and these members are following suit by caring for others. Sanity comes in leaning on the saints.
Many churches have rallied to the crisis, finding even more ways to empower members. Clint Darst, pastor of King’s Cross Church in Greensboro, North Carolina, has hope for his congregation’s involvement. “I’ve been encouraged by the creativity of our people to come up with ways to minister to each other,” he says. “Carpool lines in front of houses to say happy anniversary, college students offering to grocery shop for the elderly, older saints modeling gratitude and faith to the younger saints via online platforms they’ve never used before, generosity in giving to our benevolence fund, phone calls to saints in retirement homes. I could go on and on.”
This member-to-member focus protects pastors from shouldering the sole weight of care during crisis. The endurance of pastors increases when they depend less on themselves and programmatic forms of care and begin to entrust God’s people to the care of mobilized church members who are finding strategic ways to bear the burdens around them.
Discipleship through equipped leaders
As this pandemic has required more intentionality to connect, it’s clear that person-to-person ministry from leaders to congregation members, be it face-to-face or virtual, is the necessary means of discipling today. All too often, however, the definition of leader is synonymous with the office of pastor, which again contributes to an oppressive, overwhelming responsibility for those in that role. In order for pastors to have sustainable, healthy relationships with their congregations, more lay leaders—not pastors—must take spiritual responsibility for the growth and maturation of others.
In this moment, the work of pastors is largely the task of equipping these leaders to foster discipleship via technology or one-on-one conversations with fellow members. This work lies squarely within the purview of the pastoral responsibility to “equip [Christ’s] people for the work of service” (Eph. 4:11–12). Ultimately, those who have ecclesial bottlenecks that relegate ministry function to only a few select leaders are struggling, while those who equip and empower a greater number of leaders are thriving. Preexisting structures providing care and connection for members, such as small study groups or Sunday school environments, have allowed leaders to leverage those already-existing relationships as they take on higher levels of responsibility.
Yes, it will require more effort to train leaders how to teach and train others than it does to write a clear, expositional sermon, but this effort will multiply influence in the long-run. In order to avoid burning out later, as pastors we must extend ourselves now as we talk with potential leaders and disciple and pray with those we can influence. Once these leaders are equipped, we can be confident that our leaders are echoing truth to one another through Zoom calls, text messages, and walks around the neighborhood, even when the church can’t gather in person.
As social distancing restrictions phase out, these empowered leaders also provide hope through multiple, smaller gatherings, perhaps in homes, until allowance is made for larger, communal gatherings. For this to happen, pastors must encourage leaders to foster nourishing, spiritual relationships—a task that will require great humility and wisdom from the average pastor who is often at the center of much of the disciple-formation that takes place in the church. Yet, such steps are vital for pastoral sustainability. Delegation is difficult, but without an abundance of leaders, the weight of this next season of ministry will be too much too bear. And finding creative ways to train an army of members to carry the weight of church life together will surely aid in the health of the church long after the pandemic passes.
Training through reproducible tools
Finally, consider the value of new formats and reproducible tools. The weekly sermon format must adjust to meet our current moment. By necessity, most churches are putting their services online—a daunting task for many. But without the feedback loop of in-service responses and post-service conversations, preaching to an iPhone leaves many wondering how to discern whether the message, or the medium, is effective. Such a void can leave pastors dismayed.
More difficult questions come as pastors wrestle with the challenge of what form this online presence should take long-term: Should it seek to embody the weekly gathering as much as possible, or should it act as a filler to bide time until the church can gather together physically once again? The longer the potential time until the church can wholly regather, the more likely that pastors will choose to offer suitable substitutes for various elements, such as live question and answer time before or after the sermon, online webinars about topics like depression and anxiety, daily or weekly devotional excerpts from pastoral leaders, drive-in services, or even live sermons by pastors or lay leaders to smaller home gatherings. Each church, and the pastors entrusted with its care, will have to determine to what degree these online presentations or home gatherings continue when society reopens.
By God’s grace, however, the conversation will move far beyond whether to retain or heighten one’s online presence as a church. This season of disorientation can foster ingenuity and creativity surrounding how we train disciples—one common theme of successful, thriving churches is a desire to find simple means of distilling truth. Small groups are gathering around basic themes of gospel truth and connecting those truths to their church community, current context, and their mission in the world. Some of the best tools for training people are those that are easy to understand, apply, and duplicate. Once again, this is a hopeful note for the future of the church. Producing simple, reproducible content that the average member can understand and share with others will surely enhance the culture of discipleship.
The task of a shepherd is never easy. But we need not despair, nor should we attempt to shoulder the weight ourselves. Our theology is our greatest comfort. We do not shepherd alone. Our Good Shepherd—the one who gave his life for his sheep—loves his church far more than we do, and he is, at this very moment, leading his church and beckoning us to have faith and follow wherever he might lead.
Matt Rogers, PhD is a pastor in Greenville, SC who also serves as an Assistant Professor of North America Church Planting at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and Church Health Strategist with The Pillar Network. He is also the author of a number of reproducible tools for disciple-making such as the Seven Arrows for Bible Reading.