When the schedule for our EDA bloggers came out, being assigned the middle of March seemed harmless enough. Now that it’s here, I have the simple task of writing a little something to encourage pastors and church leaders in the middle of a worldwide pandemic that is bringing everyone’s life to a screeching halt and causing a measure of international panic and economic devastation not seen in our lifetime.
I could write something youth-ministry oriented, like “How to Maintain a Sense of Belonging Even When You Can’t Meet Face to Face.” I could pen something practical for the church office, like “3 Ways to Engage over Facebook,” or “5 Ways to Create Great Online Content.” Heck, I could write something for all the preachers out there, dropping a quote from Martin Luther or Charles Spurgeon about how to calm the masses and stay the course as a shepherd during a plague. But I’d be a poser, to be honest. I have no idea how to do these things. I know how to do a Zoom call and I have a couple Instagram accounts, but let’s not kid ourselves – online meetings are not the same as a three-hour bus ride to camp or sitting in the stands at a high school basketball game. Life has come to a stop. Social distancing is the antithesis of ministry and community. Plus, there are a ton of posts already from millennials with iMacs for brains who were born pre-wired to survive the apocalypse.
They can figure out how to stream a service, but I doubt they understand what’s happening any better than I do.
That’s not to say I’m not trying. I’m working harder than ever. I’m putting on a strong face.
Our church staff stepped up to shepherd our now-virtual congregation. I’ve buoyed my volunteers with inspiring words and rallied my young team to face the reality of these days with grit and optimism. We’ve made a great plan to keep our youth ministry mojo flowing. We’re doing a daily Instagram show for students called The Bunker (never let it be said we’ve lost our sense of humor). We’ll do Zoom Bible studies and online youth group. We’re creating resources for families and connection points for our volunteers to interact with their small groups.
Of course, it could all change in a moment. Just yesterday, Pennsylvania announced that all non-essential businesses must close, and everyone is encouraged to stay home and self-isolate. I’m in Maryland – by the time you read this, I imagine we’ll be next. The wind is gone from my sails faster than pizza at a junior high lock-in.
Yesterday I woke up determined to do everything I can to be an effective pastor. Today, I’m just tired. I’m sitting over here in a corner with my chin in my hand, staring at the screen, wondering which part of the master plan I just typed will be rendered obsolete by the governor’s next press conference.
I’ve got nothing, people.
I’m beginning to think that’s what I need to learn from this mess.
No, really. I’ve got nothing. I thought I could handle this, but I don’t know where to start, let alone where to go from here. I can’t keep up with the changes. How can I lead when I don’t know where I’m going? And don’t tell me, “Lead them to Jesus.” Yes, I know that, and I’m trying. But I’ve never experienced anything like this before. None of us have. I always thought of myself as capable, creative, flexible, somewhat effective–maybe even good–at what I do, but this crisis is proving that I was deceiving myself. Seminary didn’t train me for a pandemic, and ministry experience didn’t prepare me to be a pastor from a social distance. This is not how we’ve always done things. As the world shrinks, I’m realizing I’ve got nothing.
I’m guessing I’m not the only one who thought I could manage this. Judging by the heavy stream of social media posts lavishing advice, positivity and encouragement–all well-meaning I’m sure—we church leaders appear to be a confident lot. We think we can carve our way through this crisis with sheer moxie and determination–with God’s help of course—I mean, we are praying! But it has been less than a week and my adrenaline is already gone. I’m afraid of tomorrow’s news.
So it’s time to be honest with each other.
I’ve got nothing. You’ve got nothing. We’ve all got nothing.
I don’t have the Corona virus (that I know of), but I am sick. These times are revealing a deeper, more insidious plague in me – an infection of pride, self-reliance, and self-importance. It’s contagious. We all have it. I remember saying in a sermon one time, “The enemy of faith is self-reliance.” I guess I wasn’t listening to myself preach. My first response to this crisis was to respond to this crisis. To figure it out. To make a plan.
Sure, I tipped my cap to prayer and pledged my trust in God, but my mind was already racing towards a solution.
But there isn’t one. No matter how many blog posts we’ve read, how many seminary courses we’ve had, or how many leadership conferences we’ve attended—there is no solution to this. We aren’t wise enough. We aren’t tech-savvy enough. We aren’t creative enough. We aren’t organized enough. We aren’t prepared enough. We aren’t smart enough. We aren’t gifted enough. We aren’t good enough.
And good heavens, we aren’t photogenic enough! We’re a bunch of preachers with faces for radio and a knack for bad camera angles.
So let’s give up thinking “We’ve got this.” Because we don’t. We’re lucky to shepherd a few measly sheep to safety on a calm day, let alone a whole flock when the sky is falling.
Seriously, have you thought of this? How would our wonderful “online church” work if the power went out?
We don’t have what it takes, my friends. The exterior threat has revealed our true condition—infected with pride, self-reliance, self-importance. Who’s going to find a cure for that?
I’m not suggesting we don’t do anything. Being sick doesn’t mean we don’t act. I still care. I’m going to do my best to be professional and pastoral and work as hard as I can. But I need to give up my pride, my obsession with getting this right, my perfectionism about the “product,” and the sense of self-worth I gain when it looks like I know what I’m doing. I need to give up control and comparison. And good heavens, I need to give up thinking it all depends on me, because, you know, “The church really needs me right now.” Do they?
Instead, this is what I think I need to do.
I need to sit in ashes. I need to ponder the greatness of God, the vastness of the universe, the fragility of life, the brevity of our time here, the expanse of history, the generations before and after me, the powerlessness of governments, the intricacy of biology, the blessings of family, the beauty of human contact, the imminence of death, the complexity of science, the microscopic precision of a virus that can mutate to survive, and the smallness of my own enterprise.
Maybe what we’ll learn, should we survive all this, isn’t “7 Fresh Ways to Engage Non-believers,” but how little you and I matter to the history of the world and to what God is doing with it. The cure is humility, through and through.
Maybe the virus is the cure.
I found this prayer in a recent devotion from Skye Jethani. It’s from Thomas a Kempis (1380-1471). It seems appropriate.
I will presume to speak to you, Lord, though I am mere dust and ashes. If I imagined myself to be anything more, you would confront me with my sins, which bear witness against me. But if I humble and acknowledge my nothingness, then your grace will come to me, and your light will enter my heart. So let the last trace of my pride be swallowed up in my own nothingness and perish forever. Let me see myself for what I am and what I have been, as mere nothingness.
Let’s keep on doing our best. But let’s not kid ourselves, either.
I’ve got nothing. You’ve got nothing. We’ve all got nothing.
Lord, have mercy.
Unless a seed dies…