COVID-19, Church, and Contradictions

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Yesterday in my rural church in NW Iowa, I opened an anonymous card from New York, New York.

On the cover was an idyllic scene of Central Park. On the inside, in crisp, black ink courteously addressed “Dear Pastor Lee…” was a series of admonitions. Beginning with a call to “teach what Christian values really mean,” it closed, “Finally, reinforce mask wearing. It is your duty as Iowans to reduce the spread. The nation is watching what happens in Iowa.”

I added it to the pile.

Pastoring a church has never been for the faint of heart. Serving among a community that bears the stench of a crude field hospital for sinners and yet also refracts the glory of a company “spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners,” pastoring is a dance of contradictions.

COVID-19 has deepened those contradictions.

Since March, I have seen my nearly century-old congregation nimbly adapt to deep changes in rhythms of worship, ministry, and fellowship. I’ve also seen it struggle to live with even minor adaptations, including members threatening to leave because we no longer provide post-service coffee. I’ve witnessed the church gather food from local ag producers for a community food distribution, support local food pantries, and give regular sacrificial offerings for benevolence.

I’ve also seen it turn inward, seeking to reserve cherished in-person seats for members only while pondering how to limit guests. I’ve watched our elders, deacons, and lay leaders step up to reach out to each member of the congregation, especially the vulnerable and isolated. I’ve also listened in on conversations extoling herd immunity, blind to the reality that such a strategy means life for the strong and death for the weak.

Self-giving and self-protective. Adaptable and anti-change. Gracious and grumbling. This is the church in 2020. Perhaps this has always been so.

As my congregation’s leadership seeks to chart a course amidst these contradictions, we are discovering some Gospel-shaped ways of adaptively walking together by the Spirit. Here is a sampling of that work-in-progress:

  • Avoid the ditches: A guiding metaphor on this journey has been of a road. Every roadway has a variety of lanes flanked by a ditch on either side. The same is true with COVID-19. On the left, there is a ditch filled with disproportionate fear, an overabundance of physical caution insufficiently troubled by its collateral damage (spiritual, economic, and emotional), a simplistic idolatry of science, and a desire for collectivist control and conformity. On the right is another ditch filled with an impatient desire to return to normalcy whatever the cost, an insufficient concern for physical health, a fatalistic approach to God’s sovereignty, a simplistic denial of science, and an individualistic understanding of freedom as rights without responsibilities. Regardless of what lane we choose, we should steer clear of inhabiting spaces dominated by either fear or frustration. Our call is to avoid the ditches and stay on the road together.
  • Ask the right questions: COVID-19 confronts the church with complex realities, incomplete data sets, and new challenges. As leaders, we should not presume to know all the answers. Rather, we should guide the congregation to ask the right questions. The decisions we make often flow from the questions we are (or are not) asking.
  • Work from principles, not practices: As leaders (and anonymous letter writers), we often fixate on practices (to wear or not wear a mask) while neglecting clarity on underlying principles. When my council was developing a reopening plan, we laid area church reopening practices along a spectrum from neighboring congregations meeting in-person without social distancing or masks on one end to prominent churches closing all in-person worship until 2021 on the other. As we discerned where to fall on that broad spectrum, we began with a list of ten guiding principles. Such shared principles do not guarantee unanimous agreement on application, but they do provide a shared grammar for healthy dialogue and direction for collective discernment.
  • Empathetically engage polarities: Faith communities need to manage polarities between competing goods: spiritual health and physical health, personal freedom and community welfare, our call to love God and our call to love neighbor. These are not either/or but both/and realities. My council engaged in a polarity mapping exercise as a structured way to name the upside and downside aspects of the conflicting positions we hold. Such an opportunity for self-reflection on the limitations of our own positions and the strengths of others’ perspectives was a salutary invitation into two virtues often lacking today: humility and empathy.
  • Name the lament: One of my seminary professors taught that all pain will be dealt with either consciously and constructively or unconsciously and destructively. COVID-19 has been kenotic for most of us—emptying us emotionally, financially, relationally, vocationally, and spiritually. We need to name and grieve what we have lost before we can constructively engage what now is and embrace what might be. If we don’t, our unacknowledged pain will often find ugly manifestations, including increased addictive behaviors, chronic anxiety and depressionsuicidal ideation, diminished emotional reserves increasing reactive interactions, and high levels of burnout. Those are all potential symptoms of unprocessed grief.
  • Engaging a community well involves both listening and speaking carefully: Leaders need to listen well to the congregation—while also acknowledging that disease cannot be collectively voted out of our lives by SurveyMonkey. We seek subjective feedback on an objective reality. At the same time, in a season of strong opinions, rampant disinformation, low trust, and deep polarizations, leaders need to manage with clear communication, a shared commitment to seek out and act on the best information available, and a transparent acknowledgement that we will not please everyone (even ourselves).
  • Look to the past to navigate an uncertain present: COVID-19 is a ‘novel coronavirus’ but not a ‘novel challenge’. The church has weathered pandemics before (and with less technological and medical tools to adapt). Written in the same region where a plague killed Martin Luther’s daughter Elisabeth in 1528, the Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 offers timeless wisdom: “What is God’s will for you in the sixth commandment?…I am not to harm or recklessly endanger myself…God tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to be patient and peace-loving, gentle, merciful, and friendly to them, to protect them from harm as much as we can…” (Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 40).
  • Find unity in shared identity, not shared behavior. As a pastor, I have never experienced greater division either within or between churches than the present. In a year that began with a polarizing impeachment process and will end with a polarizing election, it is an unsurprising tragedy that this globally shared but socially isolating pandemic has become divisive. I often find congregants talking past one another, as we do not even agree on the basic facts (are masks effective or dangerous? Are COVID-19 deaths over or undercounted? Is this virus a uniquely deadly disease or more on par with the common flu?). Often our answers to such questions reveal more about the cable news we watch, the algorithms of our social media feeds, and our political identities than they do of our shared Christian identity. Reclaiming that shared identity is the church’s first task: “Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus…” (Philippians 2:4). Kenotic times call for kenotic Christianity.

In such an environment, I find myself opening up another letter besides the anonymous note from New York. Together my congregation is gathering around the Epistle to the Ephesians this fall. It begins with reminders of our common identity in Christ and moves on to the application of that identity in community. It is God’s Word to us: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:1-3).

Living into those words in the midst of contradictions, we are invited into a larger reality. God is watching what happens in Iowa.

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Thank you for a well written and thought provoking blog. I pray for my pastor and all pastors as you/we all try to navigate this anxious time. What we as congregates should NOT do is berate, demand, and make threats to our pastors and council leaders. They are doing the best they can.