Pastoring During a Crisis: Managing Transition
- Rev. Dr. Amanda Hecht
The book of Acts tells the story of an early church that was often in transition due to one crisis or another. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost led the first followers of Jesus to transition from a band of hurting people, unsure what on earth they would do now that Jesus had been taken up into heaven, to the kind of people who take the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth. We might say that the Holy Spirit (being the most mischievous member of the Trinity) often led the church into crisis, forcing them to transition to new ways of ministry and to imagine new ways of being a community.
I was asked to reflect on pastoral transition during crisis because I am one of “those” people who decided that during a once in a lifetime (Lord willing) global pandemic, I would leave the church where I was pastor for 9+ years and transition to being the pastor of a new church in a new city. During a pandemic we have bought a house (turns out that house shopping is something that my husband and I have never done together in over two decades of marriage); and begun to pack up, fix up, and sell the house that we have called home for 17+ years. My husband had to dust off his resume; my kids would be relocated to new schools. Since my husband’s job revolves around the school year, this transition has been a long one for our family. I began pastoring my new church nine months ago; and the official move is still ahead of us. We have been in this transition for a long time now, but at least the end is in sight.
The world has been in crisis, of course, for a lot longer. And it is possible the end is in sight, but, really, nobody knows. One difference between our situation and the situation of the early church is that “when the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1). Unfortunately, the global pandemic means that being together in one place is the one thing that we cannot do. This makes the transition of a pastor particularly hard. A good way to get to know people is to eat with them – but that has been something I have been completely unable to do at all since I arrived. Even the old Baptist standby – the potluck – has been impossible during my entire tenure at my new congregation. I am still awaiting the celebration of the “induction service” that is typical in our denomination when a pastor begins a new call. All these COVID restrictions mean that I met the bulk of my new congregants for the first time on the phone, or via Zoom. Some I have yet to meet in person. We give the COVID “elbow bump” when I greet them following a service, but I have not been able to give someone outside of my “bubble” a hug, or even a simple handshake.
But for all of the ways that being gathered together has seemed impossible during the time of the COVID crisis, the truth that I see at Pentecost is that the coming of the Holy Spirit brings people together. My favorite part of the startling Pentecost story is that every person gathered heard the message of Jesus in their mother tongue. Even though the Spirit refuses to behave in a predictable fashion (although, as we know, “well-behaved women seldom make history”), the Holy Spirit who brought people together still brings people together.
Early in the pandemic, a ministry colleague of mine shared with me the philosophy that he shared with his staff: during this crisis, we will step up ministry, not step back. Transitioning during a crisis has meant that I had to step up the communication in every way that I could find. One size does not fit all, and so, while a good email list has been invaluable, there are some people do not use email. I spent (and spend) time on the good old telephone, calling people to check in on them as well as calling them to introduce myself to them. Some people do not have access to a computer to watch a sermon or listen to a service, and so I print out the prayers and sermon every week and place them in the mail, along with a (very simple) handwritten note. I have used the church calendar to introduce projects over Advent and Easter designed to bring people together (while remaining a safe distance apart). I have even cherished committee meetings because they allow me to get to know people, and them to get to know me. The work of the Holy Spirit is to bring us together, and I have relied upon that work as we have transitioned during this global crisis.
This world-wide crisis that may-or-may-not be ending soon has also been accompanied by a personal crisis. Last fall, my 18-year-old son began to experience stomach discomfort. Things have progressed to a full-blown health crisis, involving 2 separate hospital stays (each over 2 weeks), multiple visits to emergency departments, and doctor upon doctor; and still there is no diagnosis for what is making him so sick. We are transitioning during a personal crisis inside of a world-wide crisis.
During this personal crisis I have had to lean on my (brand new) congregation more than I would like to. They have been gracious, offering the option of working from home at times so that I can have greater flexibility in my schedule for my son’s health needs. And they have been consistent in praying for him and in showing concern our entire family. I feel like they have had to pastor their (brand new) pastor – but they have done so with grace and care. Although I am hesitant to compare myself to Jesus, I look to his example. One day when he was going through Samaria and he was tired, he asked a woman that he met at a well for a drink.
“Now he had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’” John 4:4-7
This fascinating encounter began with Jesus assuming that this woman had something to offer him too. Transitioning during this crisis has meant that I had to accept the care my congregation offers me, even though I am their shepherd and leader. In some cases, this has even strengthened the bond that we are developing, allowing me to get to know people in a deeper capacity even as they offer prayer and support.
Intentional communication and accepting grace and help with gratitude have been the keys to pastoring throughout our transition during “unprecedented times.” Even as we look forward in hope to more “precedented” times, we rely on the Spirit to do what the Spirit has always done: draw us together.
Dr. Mandi Hecht is the pastor of First Baptist Church, Saskatoon, SK (a city nestled in the heart of the Canadian prairies). She earned a Doctor of Ministry in New Testament Context from Northern Seminary in 2018. She loves reading and writing just about anything, but especially theology. She has one husband, three kids, and two cats. And if you feel so moved, she would really appreciate prayer for her son, Caleb.