Pastoring in a pandemic

One of the most read, most quoted, most promoted books amongst Christian leaders is “The Reformed Pastor” by Richard Baxter.   Baxter was a minister who served in Kidderminster at the time of the English Civil War.  The book describes his methods in seeking to care spiritually for his parish.

It is also one of the least applied books.  For all the lip service we pay to his methods, if we are honest then we rarely put them into practice.  Baxter’s approach included visiting each house in his parish. There, he would see to disciple the family. He would lead, model and observe family devotions. He would share the Gospel and he would encourage families to be in church on Sunday.

Now, times have changed, the parson’s role in the community is not what it was and secularisation means that we are unlikely to be invited into most houses to catechise families as we go round door to door.  However, if we narrow it down to church families can we expect any changes in the results. If we are honest, then the answer is “no”.

Why is this? Well, I think the answer lies in three areas.

First of all, is this something we would seriously commit to as pastors? This is timely, costly work. It is also not that visible.  We enjoy preparing sermons and we enjoy preaching.  Do we feel that we could sustain this?

Secondly, is this something that churches in terms of their leadership, and the wider national and international church scene expect of their pastors and elders? Is it something that theological colleges prepare and equip pastors for?  Do we free up time for this? How much time do we expect all of our elders to be in meetings? To what extent do we see pastors as fulfilling administrative roles. How much priority has been given to developing strategies and visions?  How often have pastors learnt that when they do bring God’s word to bear and congregation members don’t like it then this will lead to a backlash and the pastor will have to give so much time to defending themselves? How many pastors are mainly involved to provide social visits to the elderly and to hospitals? Let’s be clear about this, the pastor should be visiting those people just as every church member should be.

Thirdly, is this something we actually want from our pastors as church members.  If one of the elders showed up at your door or tried to make an appointment with you in order to read the Bible and pray with you and your family would you readily welcome the opportunity?  Again, I suspect most of us would prefer to keep a level of spiritual distance. We would be happy to be invited round for Sunday dinner if the conversation is kept polite.  Mainly though we want to see our pastors in the pulpit, not at the porch door unless we are facing a crisis and have invited them round.

Which leads me to what is happening during Coronavirus. One of the questions church leaders are wrestling with is how to spend their time in order to best serve The Gospel. This has led to much discussion about the time spent on line providing live stream events and pre-recorded videos.  Some caution has been expressed that we could end up being so busy that we miss the opportunity for stillness and reflection, that it could become all about the production of content for consumption and that we could develop a new form of consumer dependency.

Those are good warning signs and challenges. However, I want to suggest that something else may be going on. If it is, then it is encouraging but also raises major challenges.  I think that what we are seeing is a level of openness to get to the direct spiritual questions.  In many respects, pastors are now finding that they can do the Baxter thing but using methods relevant to our social media age and to lockdown. In a world where we cannot physically enter homes, being allowed to enter social media space is the nearest equivalent. Conversely, when we sit at the breakfast table and start a live stream, we are inviting our congregations into our own homes.  These are opportunities for discipleship.  From my perspective, what I am able to do on a daily basis is to invite people to join with me as I seek to model something of my own devotional life so that we read Scripture and pray together.

This should help us think about what we do and how we do it.  For example, if we attempt to carefully prepare and craft a talk each day then that is unlikely to be sustainable.  However, we don’t need to. In our morning prayers and our afternoon tea discussions I speak spontaneously -responding to the text of the Psalm or the comments/conversation that come up.  Secondly, it means we shouldn’t be worrying too much about the production, technology and image. Of course we want to do everything well. We don’t want to distract from  God’s word. But these are not mean to be professional productions, they are meant to be pastoral conversations. The less that people feel like they are watching the show and the more that they are participating in a conversation, the better.

It means that we should be using the opportunity to train and equip others in the congregation. Baxter’s model still looks to one man to do the work. Churches function better with plural leadership and when the whole church family is seeking to care spiritually for each other.  Alongside the daily discipleship contact points and the gathered worship on Sundays, I am looking to build in training and teaching opportunities. That’s one reason why we have rebooted Faithroots and it is why we are providing Faithroots Live on Wednesdays.

Alongside the zoom chats and the Facebook livestreams we are also making lots of calls to people. Those phone calls could simply be social calls to check that people are safe during the crisis and that their emotional well-being is okay. However, they too can be discipleship opportunities. Consider including the following questions in the conversation.

  • Are you managing to access the Sunday livestream?
  • Have you been receiving the children’s materials? Have they been useful?
  • What is causing you anxiety?
  • How is your prayer life?
  • Do you know God’s peace and assurance?
  • Have you testimony to share – how is God encouraging you?
  • How can I pray for you?
  • Will you pray for me?
  • Can we pray together now?

Finally, there is a challenge in all of this. Will this be a temporary fad during a lockdown? Or will this new/renewed/reformed approach to pastoring be something that becomes part of how we do things longer term?  If it is going to be sustainable, then we need to be thinking and talking about how we make it sustainable.

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