Moving from Coronavirus Anxiety to Missional Action

white and blue textile on brown wooden table

Macua Photo Agency; unsplash.com

By Joe LaGuardia

As a pastor, I take note of what other pastors and churches are doing. Its a great way to get good ideas and to spot bad ones. In the wake of the Coronavirus and church closures, I’ve seen some great, creative ideas out there, as well as burdensome solutions that hurt congregations more than help.

In seeing both, I imagine that some of our social media and technological solutions to church closures are fostering a sense of anxiety rather than gospel-centered action. Take one church I know of, for instance: The church is producing a video every day, a pastor’s podcast of sorts.

I understand the need to stay in touch with parishioners during this crazy time. After all, pastors, as local leaders, feel the need to assuage the fears or concerns of their flock. But, under normal circumstances, would that pastor really communicate with the church daily? Probably not.

Live-streaming services is a great idea, but is it necessary for everyone at home to gather around their screens at the same time on Sunday for something to be “church”? Have we inquired whether God wants us to use these resources in this manner, or are we over-communicating with our congregations?

I have felt the need to connect with my parishioners too, so questions about anxiety vs. action are very personal. I know– and its been on my mind constantly!– that we won’t have church this Sunday. I know we won’t have the same connection–which means loss of intimacy in the body and loss of revenues from the offertory.

That kind of anxiety makes me want to keep in touch with my church more. I feel pressure to connect through videos, social media, and emails. I want to get in front of people and on their screens because I want people to remember the church in prayer and in support.

We pastors want people to stay connected because congregational connection is what drives us. So let me say this with confidence and clarity: Pastor, fear not.

You do not need to connect with parishioners every day for them to remember the church in prayer and support. People know this season is temporary, one of social distancing; but people are patient and look forward to getting back into the routine of church as quickly as you do.

Chances are that people are not thinking about the church as often (and daily) as you are anyway, so stay faithful and rest in the Lord. Do what you do, but do not go out of your way to do what you would not ordinarily do. People are more concerned right now about getting toilet paper than getting a call from their pastor. People need your prayers, not a podcast that takes them away from their family.

Psalm 91 says,

You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the plague that stalks in the darkness…”

The psalm affirms that God is our refuge and strength. We have no reason to fear, although the reality of not making ends meet are heavy burdens to bear. But don’t concern yourself with every creative social media connection that grabs your attention. You can just as easily record a worship service on your phone and upload it to YouTube than live-stream. You can put in the time to make phone calls and go old-school by writing letters; they are as good as visits!

And don’t worry about making sure people know how busy you are during the week. People know we’re busy–now more than ever. People know we’re on the forefront of prayer, support, and community engagement.

Make sure your communication strategy is born out of a gospel-centered missional strategy rather than deep-seated anxiety.

I write this not because I have all the answers, but because of all the anxiety I have lived with this past week. I’ve been tempted to make a video every day for the church, to pursue live-streaming, and come up with some fancy, creative way to stay connected. But with every thought, the Spirit has met me with comfort and hope that all will be well.

Do what you can do. Produce good social media content. Produce quality videos and, if you can, live stream. But let your families in church do some of the work too. Encourage them to use this time to find new ways to be the church to one another. Let people have permission to take off on the weekends–to pursue other ways to connect with God: rediscovering spiritual disciplines; re-imagining the rigors and importance of Lent in this time of social scarcity; and taking some time to delve into some spiritual reading.

Hang in there, Pastor. You’re not alone. Everybody’s in the same boat, so don’t fret. Do what you can to bring life to your congregation through meaningful connections. Don’t worry about the rest, let tomorrow worry about itself.

And don’t feel the need to drown your congregation in your anxiety. We are the church — God will take care of us!

The Coronavirus Blues

By Joe LaGuardia

I think I have what I am officially calling the “Coronavirus Blues.” Here I am, without having to quarantine myself or miss out on too many gatherings (since our county does not have any cases of the virus), and I have been depressed for the last week of what surely will be a loss of community and human interaction.

As a pastor, I believe that most people in the ministry (I’m willing to take a poll) thrive on community, human interaction, and routine. We value community because its what we ministers do: gather people, guide people, encourage people, inspire people, anticipate the Spirit’s empowerment of people. Ours is a Gospel of disciple-making, not detachment.

Although I have not neglected community, I can see it waning around me. Our church was half-full last Sunday. I don’t blame anyone; we have an older population, the most vulnerable to the virus. People have reached out to me to let me know they won’t be coming, so I wasn’t surprised. And, yet, I feel a pang of loneliness. “Welcome,” writes Jamie Metzl, “to our disembodied future.”

People mean a lot to us when we shepherd a congregation. Its all so depressing!

We pastors yearn for human interaction. If you were to talk to most ministers, you’d likely learn that the reason why we got into this business was (1) God’s calling and (2) we enjoy experiencing the relationships that make ministry tick. We like journeying with people in faith, supporting people through the rigors and rites of passages of life, and edifying those who are in need and hurting.

Its not as if we like the attention we get from helping people. We sincerely like cheerleading and encouraging people along the highways and byways of growing together in Christ. We long for experiences, not accolades. We worship God for miracles in the lives of others, not seek men’s praise.

And I’m sure that pastors like me like routine. We depend on a very intentional rhythm that moves from Sunday to Sunday: Sunday, we preach our hearts out; Monday we rest and visit; Tuesday, we prepare for mid-week ministry; Wednesday, we meet with staff and cheer on our fellow ministers who do youth and children’s ministry; Thursday and Friday are days dedicated to writing that sermon; and then, Sunday, it starts all over again.

This rhythm is our life-blood. The exhausted pastor says, “Sunday comes every week, and we have to have a sermon for every one of them!” But the pastor also says, “Sunday comes every week, and it brings order to my life!”

This virus has ultimately interrupted my routine. Meetings are cancelled. I don’t see the people I normally see through the week. I miss hugs from seasoned saints who have hugged their pastors for over 70 years; and I feel lost now that Sunday won’t see the advent of the next worship service (we are closed this Sunday…).

A long time ago, my wife and I noticed that I get the blues whenever I went on vacation or an extended trip. We asked what my problem was: Was I that restless that I got depressed whenever I wasn’t “working”?

No, I get down when my routine goes awry. This virus has interrupted everything, and I can’t even get a package of paper towels (its our routine to buy a package once a month, and we just ran out at home!!). You know how annoying that is? To go to the store and deal with people buying things that we are not likely to run out of in a week or two? I’m just glad I have enough toilet paper for the next week. I swear….

So here I am, World! Please tell me I’m not alone, because I know I’m not. This is the coronavirus blues, and I ain’t the only one singing them! Comment below and share your woes. We have the time.

Jack of all trades, master of none

pastors

By Joe LaGuardia

An advertisement from a church looking for a new pastor read:

“Wanted: Pastor for small church.  Must excel in preaching, teaching, pastoral care, administration, leadership, vision setting, missions,  ministry, church growth.  Also, ten years experience a must.”

A satirical ad, similar in tone, added: “Pastor must know politics, how to dry tearful eyes, handle every major life crisis, and have the answer to life’s hardest questions.”

All kidding aside, I know churches that expect all of this — and more — from their pastors.

I am convinced that full-time pastoral ministry is one of the last professions in the world in which a person has to practice multiple skill sets for a salary well below that of other professional occupations.

And I have heard stories from pastors in which they have not lived up to these expectations and experienced depression and anxiety.  So, why do thousands still take this job?

Leading a church is exciting and fulfilling.  We preach even if it means having to administrate sometimes, and we like to be present during life’s greatest challenges and celebrations even if we can’t answer all of life’s questions.

Yet, we pastors must be clear when things get out of hand.  I knew a pastor in Atlanta who had his secretary schedule everything for him.  That way, the pastor never had to tell anyone “no” when a request was made.

If there was a death, however, the pastor did everything to be present.  He would cut vacations short or fly home.  He would cancel seminars in which he was key-note speaker.

“The only time you are excused from being with family during a death is if you’re on a cruise in the middle of the ocean,” he stated.

Times have changed since that pastor led a church.  Now, pastors are not the first people called during crises.  In fact, many pastors find out about life transitions or hospital stays from second- or third-parties, or even social media.

Gone are the days when the pastor came immediately to the hospital in an emergency because many pastors have to negotiate their time with co-rearing children or holding another job to make ends meet.

Expectations still linger nevertheless, and I have a personal anecdote that still bothers me to this day.

Years ago, I got an email from a grandparent whose grandchild was in critical condition.  This was before smartphones, so I didn’t intercept the email until mid-afternoon.

Also, I was busy all day caring for my son who had a high fever while my wife was at work.  I checked the email right before we left for the doctor.

My plan was to check in with the family as soon as we got back home, but when I checked again I found that the grandparent left an irate email.

He was hurt.  He felt abandoned.  He asked where I was in their family’s greatest time of need.

Then: “Never talk to me or speak to me again.  You are no longer my pastor.”

My church knows my persistence when it comes to relationships, so I didn’t give up.  I tried to reach the family all week.

Despite my efforts, I haven’t heard from them since.

Although many pastors are now trained to set boundaries, give clear expectations, and adhere to well-developed human resource handbooks that establish contact protocols, we still try to be all that we can be.

Other times, we simply fail to meet expectations.

When most of us come to a new church, the first thing we do is find ways to make our church have more realistic expectations.  It’s better for a church to have a pastor that sets boundaries than to be a church who gets stuck with all of the pastor’s therapy bills.  Boundaries benefit all of us.