I was chatting with the guys about our mutual enemy COVID and what is happening with it across the nation. My doctor says it is an ever-present reality now, and isn’t going away. My anecdotal evidence tells me that it is not yet time to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner. There may be some new variations ready to throw curve balls at us. Several of us in that group either have COVID or have had it recently, and at least three of us are members of the “long COVID” club, one you never want to join. After you recover from the acute symptoms of the disease, annoying effects linger, like extreme fatigue, brain fog, and other debilitating “blessings.” My first date with COVID came in September of 2020 – it was actually a birthday present. Dad and I watched our last Yankees game together and the next day we both started feeling a little punk. We both ended up incarcerated in hospitals (Dad in a hospice facility). He recovered, but was weakened and graduated to heaven a couple of weeks later. I struggled with long-COVID symptoms for most of the next year. I returned to preaching and trying to pastor, but frankly, I did not have the physical or emotional resources to handle my job. Ministry in a pandemic was a new challenge I’d never faced and with long-COVID, I just wasn’t up to it.
I’ve been hearing about the threats the church faces since my youngest days. Those smelly hippies were going to bring our culture crashing down with their free love and rock music if the godless communists didn’t nuke us all and destroy everything first. The Moral Majority rose up in the late 70s to fight the culture war and we spent 4 decades fearing that the whirlwinds of liberalism, feminism, socialism, and all the other isms would wreak havoc on our nation and churches. More recently, new threats like social justice, CRT, and cultural Marxism have been identified as the death angels hovering over the church. While I speak lightly, I’m not discounting any of these threats.
My point is simple: after 41 years of full-time ministry, and about 45 total, it appears to me that the most widespread path of devastation on average churches has been COVID-19 and the maelstrom – medical, social, political, and ecclesiological – that came along with it.
1. It presented challenges none of us had ever faced and were not prepared to face.
I attended a Baptist College and two seminaries and cannot remember ever seeing a course listing – “Ministry in a Pandemic.” I am a “seasoned” pastor and perhaps it was hubris in me to think I’d seen everything and knew what to do when faced with challenges. I had never had the government order us to shut down. (Technically, in Iowa, churches were not ordered to shut down, but it was suggested, encouraged. We did). Who could have imagined that pastors taking positions on wearing masks or getting vaccinated could become issues over which people would leave the church?
In my church, we handled our first shutdown pretty well. Then I got sick in September of 2020, was hospitalized, and nearly half our church also got the virus. We shut down for the month of October and started up again the first Sunday in November of 2020. We recovered well after our March-May shutdown but never really came back after the second one. Part of that was that I was damaged goods. I was preaching and coming to the office, but I had brain fog (it’s a real thing) and it’s hard to describe the COVID exhaustion if you haven’t had it. Part of it was that our elderly folks were scared to return to church.
2. It is a legitimate argument as to whether COVID caused problems or just revealed them. I suspect it might be the latter.
- Many people just stopped coming to church after COVID shutdowns. Passionate believers longed to return to fellowship with believers. Many others preferred watching a service in their living room, or just not going at all. These are heart problems. COVID didn’t cause them, it highlighted them.
- People got isolated, disconnected, separated. We can preach over the interwebs and do some ministry, but humans need connection. Shut down, socially distanced, and isolated, we lost something. Some churches handled this better than others.
- This whole mess showed just how politically polarized the church has become. Discussions about whether it was best to encourage masks or vaccines or anything else were lost in national political warfare. It was clear that for a lot of people (on both sides, I’d venture), it was not just about being the church or reaching people, but scoring political points and winning certain battles. The toxic level of political polarization in the American church became clear. COVID didn’t cause that, but it sure showed that.
3. Ultimately, COVID wore us down over time.
We did great at first. The second shutdown really wounded our fellowship. The long slog of COVID restrictions just wore us down. Some of you did much better – different regions of the country handled things differently, with different social cultures, and different church styles. Our church had an odd mixture of elderly folks who were terrified of COVID and political partisans who seemed to get upset if you acknowledged the reality of the disease.
If this virus had come and done its worst, then gone away, I think we’d have handled it better. It stuck around. Wave 1. Wave 2. Wave 3. Delta. Omicron. Whatever is coming next. It just keeps pounding us.
I got worn down, physically and in every way. If you asked me what one of my strengths in ministry is, until COVID I’d have said endurance. I kept going even when things got hard. I endured. My previous ministries had been seen by most as successful in one way or another – not “build a megachurch” successful, but good ministries. I feel like this COVID thing kinda whooped me.
I know some of you are judging me, but I also know, from talking to several other pastors, that I am not alone here. I am saying publicly what others have said to me privately. This season of ministry beat me down as no other has in 45 years, like the Yankees beat down the Red Sox last weekend.
For the record, I have lost most of 100 pounds, gotten myself back into shape physically, and feel better than I have in a decade or more. I’m ready to go, ready to serve. It is just not going to be here in Sioux City.
4. COVID has been divisive in the church.
I was speaking at a men’s conference early last year, during the worst of the shutdowns (the conference itself was delayed several months). I mentioned a leadership meeting where we were discussing how to reopen, some months earlier. Some folks in the church were saying that if we forced people to wear masks, they would not return. Others were equally forcefully saying that unless everyone wore masks, they wouldn’t be back. There seemed to be no Solomonic middle ground – a ministerial Kobayashi Maru.
It was also one of the most passionate discussions we’d ever had among our leaders. We went years able to discuss things, even hard things, without anger. This meeting got kinda snippy. We worked through things, but people were on edge, hurting.
5. When the Pastor is confused…
Ultimately, I think, as I look back on all that has happened and try to figure things, what I should have done, I think I’ve identified one specific failure on my part. I was not an expert on ministry in a pandemic. I was not an epidemiologist. I was physically ill and emotionally wrung out (dealing with long-COVID and the death of both my parents, among some other things). My church needed me to be the kind of strong leader I’d normally been (overbearing?) and most of the time I was telling them, “I really don’t know what we should do.” I tried to give them biblical perspectives – love and honor one another, be kind, honor God, etc – but I didn’t pretend I had all the answers on the pandemic and shutdowns and reopening and such matters. When they needed me to be decisive, I was tentative. When they needed me to take the bull by the horns, I scratched my head. I think maybe they lost a little confidence in me.
Part of my problem was that I read widely, trying to figure this thing out, and EVERYONE gave a different perspective. If I’d just listened to one side, I could have followed that agenda. If I’d just listened to the other, I could have followed that agenda. I tried to listen to both sides, all sides, and they spun me right round, like a record right round.
I’m wrapping up my ministry here in Sioux City at the end of August, after 17 years. There’s a lot that went into that decision – more than I care to share, and it ain’t yo’ doggone business anyway, right? But as I thought about all of this and tried to figure out what happened, I realized that this COVID thing was devastating – worse than anything else I’ve faced in all my years of ministry. Those of you with tremendously healthy churches, you probably had a brief lull, and boom, all was well. Those of us whose churches were already facing challenges found this pandemic’s greatest challenge to be spiritual, not physical.
I realize how foolish it is to write something like this. There are a lot of people out there who don’t like me and will rejoice to hear what I’m going through. Putting it out there gives those who dislike me ammunition to use against me. I think we need to stop the ministerial bragging and admit when things are hard. I know, because you’ve said it to me quietly, that I am not alone in my COVID struggles. Some of you skated through and others recovered better and more quickly. But I know some of you are dying in a heap and I hope you will take encouragement. I think God still loves us, even when things aren’t going great. Be faithful. If you failed, admit it to God and maybe to a few close friends. We aren’t Superman, though I sometimes like to think I am. I thought after 40 years I was able to handle anything and this microscopic virus blew my world up and reminded me I’m still much in need of Christ.
I hope you will forgive me for using you as my sounding board and letting me work out all my issues here. My wife says I shouldn’t share everything with everybody, but that’s what I tend to do. I have two purposes. First, it is my process. I think through things as I write. Second, I KNOW there are other guys like me and I want you to know you aren’t alone. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to chat. It isn’t easy to be suffering in ministry when you keep hearing everyone else talk about how heaven is coming down and glory is filling their souls. You are not alone!
In the final analysis, here’s my conclusion:
COVID stinks, but God is good.