“No one has ever done this before,” says the Rev. John Harnish. He offers a prayer for pastors struggling with the complexities of church in a pandemic.
JOHN E. HARNISH
Retired pastor, Michigan Conference
I said to a friend the other day, “It seems every conversation begins and ends with COVID.” He laughed, but he agreed. The pandemic affects every area of our lives, and no matter what conversation you have, they all seem to begin and end at the same place.
I thought about that as I talked with clergy colleagues recently. Those who are actively involved in guiding congregations realize no one has ever done this before. Those of us who are retired say, “Wow. I’m glad I’m not a pastor right now.” The COVID congregational complexities can be overwhelming.
First, every congregation has been focused on returning to worship in the sanctuary, and more importantly, how to do that safely. Of course, everyone will wear masks, but what about singing? And since fellowship is so much a part of the gathering, how do we keep people at a safe social distance when they are anxious to greet each other? How do we celebrate the sacraments? Isn’t the necessity of registering in advance contrary to the very notion of the church as a welcoming community? Then there are the practical matters like the impact on donations, paying the bills, providing pastoral care, etc.
Underneath, there are deeper issues at work. From its very beginning, the church has always been called together as a gathered community. What happens to that foundational identity when it isn’t safe to gather? Some folks, especially those who live alone, are genuinely lonely and long for gathering with their friends in the faith. Others are uncomfortable with the idea of going back, then feel guilty because they don’t desire it and think they should. Some will not return until there is a vaccine, and others simply can’t wait that long regardless of the risk. Overlay that with our current overheated political environment, conflicting views on racism, the economic stress caused by the virus, and you can see the cauldron of congregational complexities confronting every pastor.
I don’t have any simple answers to these complex questions, but it reminds me that the church has always dealt with congregational complexities. In my first appointment with three little rural churches, you would have thought everyone was the same. But I knew there was a closeted professional who was worried someone would discover his sexual orientation. A mother was struggling with what to do about her teenage daughter’s unexpected and unwanted pregnancy, and a farmer who was concealing the fact that he was just about to lose his farm. On my first Sunday in those little churches, immediately after my first worship service, I was told of the death of a 28-year-old alcoholic diabetic who basically drank himself to death. It was my first of 19 funerals in two years.
In another church, a woman came to see me after my first Sunday and said, “I notice you like to hug. I need to tell you I was abused as a child. Please don’t touch me.” In another church, I learned belatedly that a woman misinterpreted a friendly, caring hug as something else entirely. I had die-hard Democrats and rock-ribbed Republicans in every congregation, and I was called to be the pastor to both. I was constantly aware that the gathered congregation was a wonderful, mysterious, joy-filled, and pain-filled mix of emotions.
Frankly, I was never crazy about the artificial focus in October as “clergy appreciation month” since I think clergy need to be appreciated every month. I was blessed to experience that kind of support in all the congregations I served. But in the midst of this pandemic, with all the challenges of congregational complexities, I want to offer a prayer for the women and men who serve our churches as they lead us through this wilderness time.
This prayer for the church comes from Walter Rauschenbusch, the father of the Social Gospel movement. It was written for a different day of “perplexities of a changing order,” but it could have been written for today.
O God of all times and places, we pray for your Church, which is set today amid the perplexities of a changing order, and face to face with new tasks. Baptize her afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus. Bestow upon her a great responsiveness to duty, a swifter compassion with suffering, and an utter loyalty to your will. Help her to proclaim boldly the coming of your kingdom. Put upon her lips the ancient gospel of her Lord. Fill her with the prophets’ scorn of tyranny and with a Christlike tenderness for the heavy-laden and downtrodden. Bid her cease from seeking her own life, lest she lose it. Make her valiant to give up her life to humanity, that, like her crucified Lord, she may mount by the path of the cross to a higher glory through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
~ Rev. John E. Harnish served for 43 years as the pastor of nine congregations in five appointments and as a denominational executive for the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry. He is Pastor Emeritus at First United Methodist Church, Birmingham, MI and now resides in Benzie County.