The loneliness of the long distance Pastor

At the moment it seems like everything is interim. The decisions that we were agonising over a fortnight ago about public events and human contact seem like the naive deliberations of an earlier age, such has been the spread of coronavirus and the protective measures seeking to shore up our defences. The United Kingdom and Ireland are now effectively in lockdown, with all vestiges of normality in abeyance. The surreality of our circumstances is now finally setting in, living as we are in the debris caused by a hurricane which has yet to make landfall.

In this environment elders and pastors in local churches have been working hard to keep up. Church services are cancelled, member visitation is impossible, baptisms are banned, funerals (should they be needed) will be of an utterly different order than ever before. Added to this is the creeping sense of isolation that ministers know is at work in the hearts and minds of members whom they love. At the beginning of 2020 none of us foresaw coronavirus or the disruption it would bring, and none of us have had any training or forewarning of what might be expected of us.

Out of this maelstrom I want to share some observations and lessons learned thus far, in the full knowledge that everything shared here might be obsolete by the morning.

The word ‘unprecedented’ has begun to suffer from overuse – fraying around the edges, slurring its speech somewhat – but we really are living through unusual times. In all of this we can bless God for his grace in terms of the incredible array of communication tools we have at our disposal. Few among the generations presently alive have faced the stringent measures now in place to keep us apart from one another, and no generation in history has had such tools to surmount this problem. We can still see and hear one another and we can communicate from an al a carte menu of options.

Pastorally this is simultaneously helpful and bewildering. Choosing which tools to use, and when, are co-ordinates on a curve which we are struggling to climb. So far, in our own context in Millisle Baptist, there has been some trial and error in terms of what works best. The following are some thoughts on different problems we are facing, and varied media we are employing to different ends:

Long distance preaching

Jeremy Walker has shared some helpful reflections and insights on this theme here. Preaching to the void of one’s own study walls, or the unblinking eye of a video camera lens, has to be experienced to be believed in terms of emotional energy spend. The debate for us in the lead up to last weekend was whether we should opt for Facebook Live, or a pre-recorded sermon.

The advantage of Facebook Live is its immediacy and interactivity, and those are also its drawbacks. The idea of being permanently engaged with while one preaches might be attractive in a physical setting, but the steady flow of upturned thumbs, hearts, or (perish the thought) angry and sad faces, could be a little overwhelming. Marry this to the risk of committing a serious blunder live on air for all of social media to see, and it is no wonder that many of us left that road to remain less travelled.

The advantage of a YouTube sermon is the ability to pre-record, and reshoot if something goes drastically wrong, but that is also its drawback. I am a perfectionist by personality and so ten takes and two hours later on Saturday afternoon saw me in a state of exasperation. Facebook Live might give ‘warts and all’, but YouTube leads one down the never ending road of performing minor surgery on every single one of those warts. Even with this, however, YouTube seemed the best option for me, and once I dismissed my inner arbiter and allowed myself to find some flow the ‘stop’ button began to become less relevant.

A problem in common with both of these approaches is preaching notes. I am semi-extemporary in my normal delivery in preaching, but recording over the weekend showed me how hard notes are to maintain in front of a camera. The problem is the lens’ lack of grace and forgiveness. A mild averting of the eyes makes one quickly look like a conman in a courtroom, and the most surreptitious of glances at one’s notes gives the impression of a deep Casaubon-esque bow. I ultimately opted to work with no notes, but this feels like a limit on verbal precision. I have really struggled with this, but am having to conclude that just as the context for the sermon outside of the gathered people of God is different, so will be its content. Clarity and depth are hard to maintain in the normal tension of ministry, but they become extremely vexed when one is in isolation, in front a camera, without the merest prompts.

Long distance praying

This is another issue which has raised concerns and questions for many of us in light of our new circumstances. Our tension has been working out how much we can pray for publicly (on Facebook Live for example) and how we might facilitate our members praying privately. Seeing the problems with an either/or approach in this regard, we have opted for both.

We are now using Facebook Live as a place where we can be publicly led in prayer. This is decidedly non-interactive and monologist in format, but there is an important benefit attached – non-Christians can witness how we pray and what we pray about. The danger here could be a mere performative service, or a concern to be polished in speech, but the nervous energy of praying live on social media quickly kicks these mixed motives firmly into touch. Our Facebook prayer gathering last week saw people from our village engage with prayer who would never darken our doors – our prayer is that prayer might not just pray them into kingdom when they can’t hear us, but also when they can.

Zoom has been a revelation for us in terms of private prayer for our church members. This forum allows us to gather members into a common environment where each can pray in turn, where needs can be shared, where adoration of our God can be enjoyed together. We are learning about how best to use the ‘mute’ function on our microphones to hold off chaos and feedback, and we are also exploring how feasible it might be for older members without internet to dial into our prayer times by landline. Every part of me resists the idea of Communion away from the physical gathering of God’s people, but our recent experiment in using Zoom in this regard was a blessing. I would rather break bread via this deficient medium, than not at all for months.

Long distance pastoring

This is one of the most difficult issues for me at present – not being able to physically visit with our members, especially in the midst of adversity and anxiety. Even writing these words brings a lump to my throat, and yet in light of lockdown we have no other option. To mitigate the consequences of this we are phoning our members on a weekly basis, engaging with some of them on Zoom, and encouraging them let us know of needs as they arise. I have always believed that prayer offered into the ear of another believer over the telephone can be an immediate and surprisingly powerful way of helping in tight spots, and that will be a more regular feature in coming days. We are also researching the feasibility of one-to-one and group Bible study via this format.

We have also been seeking to open channels of communication between us as elders, our members, and intercommunication between members themselves. WhatsApp has proved its worth in this regard, although we are learning that two channels are needed. One is a chat environment where members can interact at will, and the other is an announcement channel which permits no replies and can only be posted to by elders acting as ‘admins’. These two channels facilitate free conversation and clear communication – two things which can easily be at odds on this platform.

Tentative conclusions

We are learning and we are probably unconsciously erring in all of these areas. Days seem to be filled with communication and the alteration of previous certainties. Among all of these contingencies I am certain that God it at work among us and through us. The church history written of this second decade of the 21st century will be fascinating in terms of the long-term lessons we will learn, and the amount of people swept into the kingdom of Christ through such crisis. No doubt we will look back with affection and regret at some of the choices we have made, but in the absence of that crippling hindsight we must press on, using every opportunity, exploring every technology, for the glory of Christ, the good of his people, and the salvation of souls.

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