For When the Saints Come Marching in

Now is the time for pastors and elders to be thinking about how to pastor the flock as we all emerge from lockdown. We discussed what lies ahead at a Pastors’ Academy team meeting and thought it might be useful to lay out for your consideration some of the issues that we identified, perhaps with a view to an eldership discussing them. This post is a description of the issues that we see ahead, not an attempt to say how we should respond to them, because identifying the issues is the necessary prelude to addressing them. In the coming weeks we hope to put out more blogposts and podcasts (here) that will begin to suggest ways to address them. Doubtless there are many more issues that we have missed but we hope that this will be a useful start. If as you read you think of others do write in and we will consider adding them.

As you read it may help to have two thoughts in place:

First, the upheaval in the life of the churches with the pandemic and lockdowns has been an extraordinary period in our lives. As such, we should expect it to create significant challenges and we should anticipate that our enemy will seek to use it against us. But we know that the Lord brings good out of the greatest evil, so in his kind providence he will also turn it to be an opportunity for our individual and corporate growth.

Second, while there are many problems to foresee, we should greet the passing of the virus and the easing of lockdowns as a wonderful blessing. For all the diagnosis of difficulty our basic stance should be one of rejoicing, even if we do that amid tears for what has been lost.

Here is what we see ahead, in no particular order:

1. The last year has confronted everyone with challenges and some with tragedy. Since it is these that may be foremost in our minds, it is important to remember to give thanks. There are always things for which we can give thanks. Some may find it hard to add to the simple fact of the Lord’s faithfulness in the midst of the difficulties, but others will be conscious of more extensive and possibly unique blessings. How can we lead the church in giving thanks to God for the ways in which he has blessed us?

2. One of the deepest wounds to the life of the church has been the suspension of hospitality in one another’s homes. Many will have been feeling this deeply. If we have, and perhaps even more if we have not, now is an excellent time to pause to consider afresh the place of hospitality in the Bible and in our lives, both among believers and with neighbours.

3. The last year has had a dramatic impact on us in every way, physically, psychologically, and emotionally, but most importantly spiritually, for good and for ill. We will have learnt new things about ourselves, our loved ones, and the Lord himself.  We will have sinned in new or more egregious ways. We will have been wounded and we will have grown. How can we step back to take stock, to examine ourselves with a view to repenting and to preserving some of the lessons we have learned?

4. In particular, the lockdowns have magnified difficulties in marriages and families. Husbands have struggled to love their wives, wives to submit to their husbands. Fathers have exasperated their children, children dishonoured their parents. New household habits will have been formed, some of them unhealthy. All this will need to be addressed with repentance. How can such repentance be expressed in the church?

5. It will be very important for pastors, their elders, and their congregations to realize that the pastor himself is not an immune superman who has passed through the last year unscathed. He may be limping along himself rather than standing ready to address all the problems that have come upon his people. Ministers of the gospel will themselves be depleted. Their own homes have been under pressure just the same as everyone else’s, and perhaps more so because Satan often attacks the pastor first, seeking to damage the people through damaging him. Pastors, like many others, have lived through a complete reconfiguring of their working lives that has deprived them of many of its usual joys. While churches will rightly look to their leaders to lead, it is very important that they do not heap unreasonable expectations on them, and that pastors do not do so to themselves. How can elders and churches support their pastors as they themselves live with the effects of the last year? And how can pastors be careful to look after themselves properly?

6. Even a pastor who has not been particularly wounded by the last year will still be strangely out of shape. Even those who have suffered little and have responded in godly ways have been doing so within an oddly shaped mould, a restrictive straitjacket. Living in your home all day and night apart from a little exercise and essential shopping is not the normal shape of a pastor’s life. It is like carrying a heavy bag of shopping a long way: even if you manage to do it without dropping it and breaking anything, you will still feel lopsided by the end of the journey and the plastic handle will have imprinted itself on your hand. Every pastor will need to ask himself how he has been misshaped by this experience.

7. Wounds can take a long time to heal and we grow slowly. No one should expect things to be back to normal in their inner life immediately. Just as traumatic events can suddenly return to one’s mind decades after they happened, so an upheaval like the one we have experienced will have long-term and sometimes unexpected effects. How can we help people not to be surprised by their struggles?

8. Having been cooped up for so long and with so many of the regular activities suspended, pastors may now feel like horses in the starting gates. Or even if they do not feel like horses raring to go (because they are themselves worn out) they may think they should be like them. As soon as the gate opens they must accelerate as quickly as possible to a gallop around the course of church life, laying on as much activity as they can as quickly as possible. How can we gauge how quickly to move in resuming activities, avoiding an unhealthy or unsustainable acceleration?

9. The question actually goes deeper than this. Having stopped so much, we now have the perfect opportunity to decide whether or not we should resume it all. Church life naturally snowballs because there is always a good reason to do more and there are often people with the vision and energy to do it. But even when the time has clearly come to stop an activity it is hard to do so because stopping feels like a step backwards. It may be that something undoubtedly good in itself ought not to be happening because it is the wrong good thing or one good thing too many. Have people felt that they are limited in their involvement with their neighbours or community because they are so busy at church? Have they been free to do their own labour six days a week? The break presents us with a unique opportunity not to restart activities that have been forcibly suspended. Before restarting anything it will be worth asking: why does our church do this?

10. Sometimes the right restarting of ministries will present particular challenges. It will in effect be like starting from nothing. Continuities will have been lost, at different levels. Whereas there may have been a seamless passing on of the baton from one generation of leaders to another, now there will be a gap in which leaders have not been identified or trained, or at least their training has been diminished by the circumstances. Continuities of attendance may also have suffered as children and young people opted out of online meetings because they couldn’t face another hour on the screen. Where have the continuities been broken? How do we resume activities where there are such gaps?

11. There are wonderful examples of people being converted or applying for membership of churches while they have not been meeting. Watching online can be a lot more comfortable for someone who finds entering a room full of people daunting. How do we introduce them, helping them to transition to the in-person life of the congregation?

12. People will have aged since we saw them last. Babies will have become toddlers, children will have sprouted, teens turned into adults, skin wrinkled, hair greyed and fallen out, memories begun to break down. With the extra stresses some will have changed more than they would have done in the same period of time under normal circumstances. The constrained and static patterns of life will have slowed some down almost to a halt and they may never return to their former strength. How can we help people relate to others in godly ways as they now find them?

13. Some will have suffered wounds that will mark them for the rest of their lives, particularly those who have lost loved ones or who have gone through the trauma of intensive care. They may have had to endure their loss in isolation and without the usual supportive frameworks and processes of mourning. How can we support those who have suffered most?

14. The ending of lockdown will bring people together face-to-face who have had very different experiences of it. While some of us quite enjoyed the first lockdown (good weather, family time, &c), I don’t think I know anyone who still feels like that a year later. But the experiences will still vary greatly. Some have lost a husband or wife or mother or father, some are now unemployed, while others do not know anyone close who has died from COVID so it remains more distant. And yet when one part of the body suffers so does the whole.  People will have different views on both the seriousness of the virus and the way it has been handled. Some will have been terrified, some blasé. Some will think the restrictions vital for our health, others see in them the harbinger of a coming tyranny. And yet, without agreeing on every issue, we are called to have one mind in Christ. How do we help people with such different experiences and views live out their unity as one body by loving and bearing with one another?

15. What should we do with the online ministries that have developed under lockdown? John Benton has already written on this issue here. There have been different developments, the main one being the online streaming or posting of services on the Lord’s day. Should this continue? It has the wonderful advantage of giving online access to services for those who are unable to join in person, for example because of a permanent disability or vulnerability. They have also been watched by some who might not start by coming in person. Can these benefits be preserved without encouraging absenteeism among those who have no good reason to stay away? When many choose sport over gathering with the Lord’s people on his day, do we want to put temptation in their way in the form of an always accessible online flexi-service that creates the illusion of faithful attendance but is ultimately impersonal?

16. Should we mark our return to church, or at least to fully functioning church, in some way? If we have not been celebrating the Lord’s supper, how might we mark the first occasion? And is it simply a case of celebration as we return? Might there be room for lamenting what has been lost through COVID and the lockdowns (most obviously loved ones and jobs), and even for acts of corporate repentance for how we have conducted ourselves through it?

17. Presuming that some have wandered from the fellowship, perhaps particularly those who were already on the fringes of its life, how can we find them and draw them back?

18. As we ask these questions we should recognize the goodness, sufficiency, and centrality of the ordinary means of grace. Think Ephesians 4: we don’t need endless programmes and gimmicks, we simply need the faithful preaching of the word and administration of the sacraments by the pastors and teachers Christ has given, together with the mutually edifying fellowship of the body. What would it mean for pastors and churches to embrace afresh and to rest in the sufficiency of the ordinary means?

Our discussion produced a longer and more challenging list of issues than I had anticipated. As we face them we do well to remember with gratitude that the care of the flock is the Lord’s work, that it does not depend on our own sufficiency but on his, and that he is the one who has promised that no one can snatch them from their Father’s hand.

You can download a pdf version of this post with the questions for reflection highlighted and listed separately at the end here. Many thanks to Steve Scrivener for producing this