Pastor’s Friday Comments (07.10.20)

This past week a noted Baptist ethicist wrote an opinion piece for Baptist News Global, offering five reasons why it is time to think about reopening churches. Whether or not he regrets writing the article, I’m fairly certain he regrets the level of backlash he got, especially from pastors who are trying to lead their congregations to make wise decisions. Some of the response was unnecessarily vitriolic and uncivil.

Because the article’s author is widely read, some of us in the Atlanta peer learning group felt compelled to submit a response, albeit one that we hoped was more measured and civil than some of the others. I drafted the statement that was signed by five other pastors. At this point I don’t know if it will be published, but we sent it to BNG yesterday.

I am including it in this Friday Comments not so much as a response to anyone else, but as a message to you about the thought process, not just of me but of other church leaders, as we contemplate, under God’s guidance, how we might come to the point to which we all aspire, in-person worship and fellowship. I would be glad to entertain any thoughts you might have.

Pastors are charged with nurturing the spiritual well-being of the members of their congregations. However, that task presupposes a concern for their physical health as well. In this time of global pandemic, that latter concern has moved to the forefront of our job descriptions. 

Following the advice of health care professionals and epidemiologists, and desiring to mitigate the suffering not only of our congregants but of every member of our communities, that has meant reluctantly, but prudently, refraining from face-to-face worship and almost every other church activity. The time of doing this has gone on longer than any of us anticipated.

No one is more eager to return to in-person worship than we ministers are. Despite expending all of the energy and creativity at our disposal to produce virtual worship services with the help of staff and laypeople, we are keenly aware that they are a poor substitute for the experiences that we probably took for granted just a few months ago. Nevertheless, we have resisted calls for a premature return to public worship, knowing that to do so would only prolong the suffering, and could even lead to the death of some congregants.

We are aware of all the precautions recommended by medical professionals and are planning, again along with staff and laypeople, for all the steps necessary for mitigating the threat to health and safety posed by large assemblies, and are carefully monitoring the objective data in our own communities to determine when it might be safe to return. However, a significant trait of leadership is resisting making decisions that may be popular but dangerous. We have watched politicians, against the judgment of their medical advisers, reopen businesses and places of assembly either because they were afraid of the political repercussions if they did not give in or because they naively believed that most people would follow the recommendations on their own. Unfortunately, this process had led to countless illnesses and an untold number of unnecessary deaths.

We have been warned many times during this pandemic that indoor assemblies of more than ten people, particularly of older people and those with underlying health conditions, are the kinds of circumstances that could make the spread of infection more likely. This description fits almost all of our congregations exactly. We know that, as the number of cases of infection, and the incidence of hospitalization and death, decline, and all possible health protocols are in place, the likelihood of spreading the disease lessens considerably. Unfortunately, in the communities that many of us serve, the numbers are going up, not down, largely due to premature reopening of society and the unwillingness of segments of the population to show concern for others by social distancing and wearing masks.

As pastors, we are also keenly aware of the potential negative effects on our congregations of a long period of absence from one another. We know that some fragile churches may indeed not survive this pandemic. More importantly, however, we are aware that returning to public worship too soon could cause the deaths of specific individuals whom we know and love.

We are confident that the Church of Jesus Christ will survive this challenge, as she has every other challenge she has faced over the past two millennia. We are also confident that the reliance of all of us, clergy and laypeople, on the Holy Spirit will result in a continuing strong relationship with God and with each other, despite the unusual means we are currently using to maintain our connections. What we ask of our congregants is your prayers and your patience as we all together, with the help of God, sail the ship of the Church through these troubled waters.