Wednesday, May 6, 2020

What's Scaring Your Pastor?

Dear Friends,

According to pastors throughout our Country, what disturbs their sleep and keeps them awake are the night terrors of the “new normal” in their church. What we pastors and priests love about our church are the practices, the rituals, the traditions – the unchanging sameness – and the fear is that church will never be the same again. We trust in God that the church will survive but we are being told to be prepared for a new normal that may change nearly everything that a pastor loves about his/her church. Some government and denominational guidelines are even eliminating singing in church because it’s been proven that’s a particularly effective and deadly way to spread the virus. I know my description last week of the church service of the future is hard to believe, but a few days ago the state of Texas issued an executive order with church guidelines so stringent that some pastors believe that it may be easier to just keep their church closed until COVID-19 goes away. Here are some of the challenges your church is facing...

To achieve the required social distancing, new guidelines are specifying a seating area of 500 square feet (about the size of a two car garage) to accommodate ten people and most of our denominational churches in our area have a seating area of about 1,000 square feet. That limits each service to twenty people. A very small church of twenty will be just fine. But the church of thirty will now need to have two services. The church of 100 will need to have five services instead of just the one and that creates impossible logistics if they rent space for their services. And any church that must split up into multiple services on Sunday will find that most people just don't want to go to church at three in the afternoon. But the worst news for pastors is that Texas guidelines, expected to be adopted by other states, also specify that no one over the age of 65 or who has underlying medical conditions (obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart or lung conditions) should attend an in-person service. The CDC guidelines for churches also state that age 65+ and those medically vulnerable not attend services even in Phase 3, when the churches are opened to the public with social distancing in place. Ironically that directive makes it easier for churches to achieve social distancing because it just eliminated over half of nearly every church congregation in our Nation. Once you see these challenges through the eyes of the pastors, it’s easy to understand why they are losing sleep at night.

What is being encouraged by government and denominational guidelines is continuing online services but that’s not working out well for many churches. The main reasons we attend the church that we do are the location, the friends we enjoying seeing on Sunday, and because it’s the denomination or the tradition with which we are most familiar and comfortable. We put up with Sally’s screechy solos and our pastor’s rambling sermons because Sally is a friend and we’re fond of Pastor Dave. But online services have changed the dynamic. Location doesn’t matter and we don’t see our friends on Sundays anymore. We’ve been interested in that church across town and their services are now a mouse click away. People who would have never considered checking out another church are now doing so online. Our warm feelings for Pastor Dave have not changed, it’s just that we now prefer to hear Pastor Megan or Joel Osteen on Sunday morning. Megachurches are reporting huge increases in viewership while our smaller churches are losing viewers every week. When pastors wake up in the middle of the night and try “counting sheep” to fall back asleep, they are finding fewer sheep to count.

Some states, including California, have said that churches will not be allowed to reopen until Stage 3 which may be many months from now or may not even be until next year. Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, presiding bishop of the ELCA (Lutheran) church said that her denomination is not ready to reopen. She said, “Many churchgoers are elderly, which puts them at risk and nearly 42% of ELCA clergy, too, are at least 60 years old.” She said “The body of Christ is right now COVID-19 positive. So inviting more of the body of Christ to put itself in harm's way – with the possibility of becoming infected or taking the infection home to someone else, spreading it further – that is just not faithful.” She said that her churches will follow CDC guidelines for physical distancing and wearing masks when they do open and said that, “We'll certainly not be having potlucks any time soon!” For many people, church has simply become what we do on a Sunday and it’s been more of a lifestyle habit than a religious commitment. As the closures continue, church leaders fear that for those without a strong spiritual connection to their church, habits will change and people will find other things fulfilling to do on a Sunday morning. This is what’s causing your pastor to have those stress-filled and sleepless nights.

If you believe that God is leading you to change churches for the right reasons -- read Should I Leave My Church -- then perhaps this really is your opportunity to do your online church shopping. 

But if you believe that God is calling you to a renewed commitment to your church and your pastor, this is an opportunity to support and encourage him or her and I’m not talking about ten seconds to send a text with a thumbs-up emoji. Please consider spending some time to hand-write a note or a card and mail it to them – or at the very least, perhaps send an email. Let them know of your commitment to the church and that they can count on you to be there when it reopens. Let them know what it is that you appreciate about them. A friend of mine just wrote to the pastor of his church and told him he had a wonderful smile and how it makes everyone feel good to see it! Let your pastor know what you appreciate about your church. Be specific about what is meaningful to you during the church service and what it is that brings you closer to God. When you’re at the grocery store, consider buying a gift card to enclose with your note or card and bless your pastor with your thoughtfulness. In the best of times, most pastors rarely or never hear anything complimentary and pastors today report they have never been more discouraged than they are right now. This is the time for you to step up and be an encourager! Help him or her to sleep well at night! Amen?

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Note: The last paragraph might be viewed as "self-serving" if I was the current pastor of those who read this AMEN Corner. I'm not. Our church service is held in a retirement home. The pastor I would like to see you lift up and encourage during this unsettling time in the church is your pastor!

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