As the barriers erected by Covid 19 in the UK and Ireland start to lift a little, the prospect of being able to gather for public worship is beginning to glimmer on the horizon. Governmental sanction for regathering is simply affirmative of what many church leaders have been feeling – we are almost at the point where public worship will once again be a part of our personal, congregational, and national life. This, logistical complexities notwithstanding, is to be welcomed.
In the mix of emotions and the flurry of activity that surround this, stand your pastors and elders. For them, Covid 19 has presented particular challenges, and fundamental changes to the rhythms and realities of weekly ministry. Now, they have the task of seeking to understand and apply biblical judgement to public health issues, and they most likely feel a sense of personal and pastoral uncertainty about how things might progress.
In this post I want to address Pastors, Covid, and criticism. Criticism is one of the main things which could damage your elders’ and pastors’ capacity to lead at this very moment, and that could imperil their tranquility of mind. Criticism could significantly throw their sense of direction, and dent their confidence as they try, under God, to lead into territory where no one has gone before.
There are two main areas of criticism which are likely to rear their heads in coming days, and in this post I want to analyse why these might be a temptation for church members to indulge and engage with, and why these represent a hammer blow to the predicament that elderships find themselves in. I also want to suggest a way in which criticism might be offered in a caring and beneficial way.
For the sake of transparency, this post is written from the vantage point of not facing personal criticism at the present time. I am not venting here, but am seeking to write from a position of fraternal ministry, rather than out of a desire for personal therapy.
One of the unusual and disconcerting elements of Covid 19 and pastoral leadership is that it has forced elders and pastors to make decisions in a forum and to a timetable which is foreign to them.
Events are developing quickly, and so pastors are expected to move at the same pace as scrolling 24 hour news. This is not how church life is normally run, and it has created significant stress around decision making. Pre-Covid 19, the manoeuvrability of a church fellowship could best be compared to turning a supertanker. Wise leadership meant that movement, challenge, and change were incremental, often heavily thought through and consulted on. The view from the bridge was combined with reference to the engineering and payload of the whole vessel, and the chart room of mutual Bible study and prayer among leaders and members allowed for a safe and managed change of course. Covid 19, without consent, traded in the supertanker for a speed boat, and then dropped it into an obstacle course in deep waters. Churches were closed with the speed of a press release, and adjustments had to be made quickly and decisively, without the consolation of consultation.
When this is combined with the forum in which decisions are made, the pressure only intensifies. Every twitch of the rudder, every slight change in RPM, was immediately observable by everyone within the range and remit of the local church your eldership serve in. Nothing about the Covid 19 response was bench tested in the cut and thrust of a members’ meeting, nor in the wise fraternity of fellow ministers from other fellowships. Instead the autonomous decisions of local churches (I really am a big ‘B’ Baptist!) were projected on to the screen for everyone to see. A mistake, a mis-steer, the slightest mismanagement, was vulnerable to the critical eye of friends and strangers alike.
This public forum for decision making continues as we begin to exit lockdown, and it is a space in which criticism will be easy to levy at those in leadership. Not only can you see what your leadership are thinking, but you can also compare it favourably or unfavourably to what others are doing. From the command room of your own conscience, you can opt to zone in on First Baptist and First Presbyterian and cooly decide who has handled the return better. If you are conservative you can evince evidence from the slow movement of the other church that your leaders are moving too quickly; if you are impatient to return to worship, you can evince evidence from the fellowship who seem to have pressed reset and are powering ahead. In this analysis, vital human and ministerial concerns will go unnoticed, the differences in demography, theology, liturgy, and meeting place, do not necessarily need to cloud your judgement. A straight line (favourable or unfavourable) need only be drawn between ‘them’ and ‘us’.
There is a reason why this might be particularly damning of, and damaging to, your pastor at this precise moment. For a quarter of 2020 they have been subjected to public comparison to a degree that they have never experienced before. Bible teaching is ordinarily (and mercifully) exercised in the intimacy of a local church family, whose connection with one another in Christ unites them around the local church family, and a flawed man’s ministry, in a cohesive bond which is transgressed only by the most staunch consumer Christians. Lockdown has removed this sense of intimacy and security for your pastor, so that his preaching has not been just to members, but in a marketplace. Most Christians will have (or ought to have) stuck with their own online ministry, but in the back of his mind and the depths of his heart there lurks a fear in your Pastor that comparison with other churches or preachers has not been helpful or healthful to him or to you. To then face public comparative criticism, is injurious and detrimental not only to his peace of mind, but his certainty of purpose, and his dignity of service. To use pastoral responses to public health guidance as a metric for his merit might just be the final nail in the lid of an already well secured coffin.
If the public gathered ministry of your pastors and elders might seem like fair game at this time of crisis, their pastoral work might also prove to be a happy hunting ground. In a way untasted by any of our leadership forbears, pastors have been unhappily cut off from the normal channels of pastoral care which they fulfil and enjoy. The telephone and social media have proved to be poor surrogates for the face to face blessing of discipling and caring for other Christians. During lockdown your Pastor may have had to allow church members to pass away alone in hospital with barely any conversation with those under their care. Any pastor worth their salt will bristle, burn, and weep at this experience, feeling a ministerial impotence which is disheartening and depressing. The impulses to care for the flock have remained over these months, but their expression has been different and difficult. Added to this has been a burden of recording sermons, perhaps even editing and uploading their contents, with tools which are unfamiliar, and with time which seems to shrink and recede at an alarming rate. There is a high chance, at this stage of things, that your pastor is bearing the dual burdens of guilt and exhaustion.
At a time like this, criticisms over compassion will be particularly difficult for him to handle. He can do little to assuage his malaise at having been physically isolated from church members for a protracted period, and elders will have hard decisions to make about how to balance the varied needs of their members at church life returns. When is it truly safe to return to public worship? Are the health guidelines sufficiently clear? Is the accommodation of the church building suitable for social distancing? How will the membership cope when it is newly divided into significant groups of ‘can-meets’ and ‘cannot-meets’? How will physical gatherings be combined with continued online provisioning? These, and many other burdens, will weigh down on the shoulders of church leadership teams, and for some of them no easy answers will be forthcoming. For these reasons, casual swipes about a lack of compassion if the church isn’t meeting, or a lack of compassion if needs aren’t being met will be hard to hear.
All of the foregoing is not to suggest that your leadership don’t need feedback, and guidance from the members of the church. It is not to deflect those who have worthwhile suggestions to make or reflections to share from coming forward with them. In many ways vocal criticism will speak more kindly to the hearts of your leaders than the imagined voices of non-existent critics whose harshness festers in the silence of your pastors’ own hearts. Your leadership need brothers and sisters in Christ who will perhaps see areas and issues which are in their blindspot, who can identify needs that have been masked by Covid 19, and who can give some advice on what might be done better.
Being a constructive critic at the present time might mean a more intentional approach, than is usually the case in normal church life. Oftentimes, a quick conversation at the door after a service can communicate effectively, but the absence of meeting has removed that channel. Perhaps consider addressing the whole eldership of your church, rather than just your Pastor; consider framing your concerns in a context where you can affirm love and support and sensitivity to the challenges that have been faced; give thought to having some suggested solutions to issues arising, rather than just presenting the problem.
Above all, pray for your leaders every day. Pray that they will walk in holiness and humility before their God, and that they will take the fellowship forwards with faith and fidelity, with grace and tenacity. Pray for their emotional, spiritual, and psychological welfare. Pray that they will have the good grace to row back on early decisions if they are not practicable, and give them a culture of good grace where that is eminently and transparently possible. Pray that their own families will be fortified as they support a gospel worker who is worried and wearied. Pray that soon the contextual issue of Covid 19 will go into abeyance, and that the normal pressures and problems of ministry would become more singular and regular once again.
These are difficult days for everyone. Your fuse may be shorter than normal, your perspective skewed by weeks or months of enforced isolation – and so might your pastor’s. If you love them, support them. Pray for them, share with them in a context of mutual commitment, and with them ask that Christ might be glorified in these angular and anguished days.