Pastoring People You Can’t See

Ministry in a time of coronavirus

In the light of the current pandemic, on Monday 16th March PM Boris Johnson gave instruction at a news conference which in effect meant that we should close all our church gatherings if we are going to be good citizens.

Apart from frequent and thorough washing of hands, and staying home for a week if you have a fever or persistent cough, we have been told to avoid all non-essential contact with others, work from home if we possibly can, avoid social spaces like pubs and theatres (and by implication churches) and to stop all unnecessary travel. For all over-70s these measures are not simply advised but strongly advised.

There will be a terrible sadness about seeing churches and chapels closed. Buildings which saw Sunday services keep going all through two World Wars will fall silent. The public worship of God should be precious to us. However, it would not be a helpful witness to non-Christians to see Christians rocking up to church as usual, uncaring as to whether we break guidelines for not spreading the virus. This would not be loving our neighbours.

So for some time to come pastors will find themselves having to try to shepherd a flock which they cannot see. How do you do that? How do you do that especially when the government advice precludes not only Sunday services, but fellowship groups, house meetings, and any kind of gathering regardless it seem of size? Thankfully we have digital technology to aid us. But we might need a bit more than that.

Prayer opportunity

When I stepped down from pastoring our church a young dad came to me and said how sad his little daughter was that I would no longer be the pastor. I found myself replying, ‘You can assure her that although I will no longer be the pastor, I will still be the pastor in prayer.’ Of course, I have continued to pray for the flock daily.

Surely this is the place to start when we have to pastor people from a distance. We may not be able to see our people but the Lord can. So let’s pray to him.

Working through the membership list of the church with thorough prayer for each one would be an excellent way to spend a good slice of your time in coming weeks. The Lord watches over them when you cannot.

It is also worth remembering that all those fantastic pastoral prayers which we find at the beginning of Paul’s epistles are prayed by the apostle from a distance, for those he could not see. For the saints presently invisible to him at Philippi he was praying that their love may abound in knowledge and depth of insight (Philippians 1:9-11). For those in Colossae it was impossible to visit he prayed that they would be filled with a knowledge of God’s will so as to walk worthy of the Lord (Colossians 1.9-10). A study of such wonderful verses in the NT letters will of course help you to know how to pray.

Not least, you can give God thanks for every born-again soul and for all the years of fellowship and worship you have enjoyed together.

Preaching opportunity

Digital technology can allow us to have a virtual Sunday service. You can still preach to the flock through online streaming. Perhaps you have already used this to help the sick and the shut-ins who have been unable to attend church in the past. Now it can be made available more widely. There are some things to say here.

First, if your church has online streaming facilities, do make sure an easy to follow email goes out to all which explains how to connect. This might all be very simple for the millennials in your congregation, but not so obvious for those getting on in years. Perhaps a piece of paper will be clearer than an email for some who may not find it easy to both look at an email and negotiate the screen of the laptop at the same time. Perhaps some will require a phone call from a tech-savy deacon or equivalent to talk them through things. The video conferencing App called Zoom is a very handy tool which can be downloaded onto most machines. It seems fairly straightforward to use. The free version can handle up to 50 screens and gives a 40 minute slot.

Second, there may be other churches which do not have such technology. Maybe they have recording equipment and a pastor could produce a sermon and get it transferred onto good old-fashioned CDs to be played on Sunday morning or Sunday evening. Some older members might be able to cope with a CD much easier than negotiate live streaming. And the CD may be more reliable. Live streaming can often be rather hit and miss and break down in the middle of things.

Third, a small church with none of these facilities might like to link up with a larger church which is adept at all these things and get their congregations to listen in. In such circumstances, it would be fragrant of Christ if the big church did not act like ‘the big cheese’ but purposely mention and welcome those from the smaller congregation linking in online. It might also be very brotherly if perhaps the larger church invited the minister of the smaller congregation to preach one Sunday.

Fourth, where none of this is possible there is still recourse to the good old pastoral letter. You could type out your sermon and either deliver it through the door or put it in the post. A hand-written accompanying note from the pastor would be a real joy to many older saints!

Even when we are not able to meet there are still ways of feeding the flock. And with the virus causing such anxiety, it might be good if our messages were particularly flavoured with encouragement. Maybe at this time of crisis the Lord is saying, ‘Tell my people I love them.’

Family opportunity

The shutting of churches will mean that our spiritual health depends a little more than usual on the quality of our people’s personal devotions and family worship. Besides people living alone needing to pay more attention to their quiet times of prayer and Bible reading this throws a greater responsibility on parents and fathers in particular to up their game concerning the spiritual health of their family (Genesis 18.19; Joshua 24.15; Ephesians 6.4).

From talking with pastors I get the impression that this is something which has been in a state disrepair generally across the evangelical churches. We can see the time of comparative isolation required by the virus crisis opening a helpful door here into many homes.

This as an opportunity to emphasize the importance of investing in the spiritual life of our homes. We can be creative. Perhaps pastors can send out an extra online presentation giving some directions and recommending material to encourage families in family devotions. We are not sure how long this situation will last and so spiritual leadership within the home becomes even more important.

Caring opportunity

While the programmes of the church may be stopping, the life of the church does not, because the church is people. We can encourage greater care for one another through home groups etc. Yes, maybe home groups can’t meet, but those groups can still keep in touch and show the church’s care – especially for those who may have to isolate themselves because of the virus. It’s time to mobilize small group leaders. The government and medical officers are very aware that loneliness and being cooped up for weeks on end without seeing anyone can have devastating effects on people. We need to pick up on this.

I was speaking to a young woman recently who said that she felt that the devil must be rubbing his hands with glee at the sight of so many human beings, made for love and to be loved by others, being shut away from each other for such a long period. What a field day he can have whispering to the isolated ‘No one cares about you, you know.’ What possibilities there are for darkness and depression to take hold of individuals. Let’s not let this happen.

Even if we can’t visit we can set up a WhatsApp group across our fellowship group’s mobile phones. And if the elderly don’t have such devices there is still the landline. BT have packages these days with unlimited calls.

Practical pastoring

Practicality is of the essence. This time of coronavirus is the time to show our faith by good works – by shopping for others or collecting prescriptions or whatever.

And there will be pastoral crises in this time. Sadly there will be bereavements. We will have to be creative about how to show love and sensitivity. Personal visits may be out of the question when the virus is in a home. How can the pastor ‘be there’ for people when he can’t be there? Emails and texts won’t do. Phone calls are the thing – maybe even FaceTime if that is possible.

There are bound to be financial difficulties for some in the church as they are laid off work. Some airlines have asked their staff to take 8 weeks unpaid leave. The pastor may need to set up a special fund for helping brothers and sisters in need. May the churches be generous and kind in such a situation.

And other common pastoral crises, which have nothing to do with the virus, may rear their ugly heads. With both husbands and wives being encouraged to work from home, it is more than possible that marriage tensions might emerge. Even the best husband and wife are not used to being with each other all day every day!

Stay in touch. Don’t see this period pastor as an opportunity to take a long holiday. Keep as close as you can to the flock.

It is often times of crisis like these which bring a church together and bring the best out of people. Pastor, may you lead the way.