To meet or not to meet. That seems to be the big question.
In all my years of education and pastoral conferences, workshops and seminars, we never once covered “What to do in a Pandemic.” And while there are suddenly heaps of resources I can buy right now and online seminars I can pay to attend, the answers continue to be elusive. Information continues to be contradictory.
As I try to tune in to my colleagues, listen to what others are thinking, feeling and doing, it seems that pastoral ministry world is as divided over what to do in a pandemic as we are about nearly every other issues that comes along. It doesn’t seem to be influenced – necessarily – by the COVID numbers in their local area, County or State. It seems to follow more ideological or philosophical lines when my pastor friends are deciding what to do next.
Here are some of the categories of response I’ve observed so far:
1) We’re Christians. God told us to meet every Sunday. It’s what we do and we’ll keep doing it.
There are two sub-categories of faith here:
a) God will magically protect us from the COVID as he does all who are true believers.
b) We may die but at least we will die being faithful to Jesus.
2) We’re Americans. Nobody gets to tell us we can’t meet, especially not the government. Are you going to bow to Babel or Jesus. Your true colors are showing.
3) We can’t afford to not meet anymore. No “in person” meetings are translating into no “in the bank” deposits. We need the money to cometh because the bills always do.
4) We’re fed up with not being able to be together and even if the infection numbers are going up we’re going to meet for those willing to risk it and stream to those who aren’t.
5) We will meet outside, keep our distance, encourage people to use masks, hand sanitizer and take all the precautions recommended by the CDC.
6) Not being with our friends is wearing us down but we feel like the infection numbers make it too risky for us to meet face to face – especially for our most vulnerable members. We’d be devastated if even one person became infected as a result of our meeting together.
Try to imagine that between every one of these ‘types’ you can also find 4.1, 4.2, 4.3, etc. For some, this has been an easy decision from the start, for a lot, it has been an agonizing decision and it continues to be one.
A question that I see posted pretty regularly on pastor forums on Facebook is, “Does anyone actually know anybody who has tested positive for COVID?” You can read between the words on that question. In the early days there were a lot of replies that indicated “no” but here in the middle of June, more often than not, people are reporting knowing people who have been directly impacted by COVID, many even knowing people who have died.
I get my flu shot every year. Not so much because I’ve been worried about the flu (but I probably should consider it) but mostly because I don’t want to become a potential carrier or infection point for the people I’m sharing life with in our local church. Theologically, I believe God heals. Practically, I think he still expects me to do my best to take practical measures to protect those I love from communicable diseases. So my bias, the older I get, is that my friends who are older than me and have various health issues, need me to love them by getting a shot every year that reduces in some small way their risk of being infected.
So for now I’m trying to discern with my friends when we should come back together for our worship. Right now we “gather in place” via digital medium and occasional small groups that observe physical distancing, masks, and sanitizer. Lots of sanitizer.
I have a chart that rates activities by their level of danger of spreading infection. Our normal church activities are all in the high numbers on the chart. I’ve had to decide whether or not to have church service when a winter storm had hit and we had to dig out. I’ve had to decide whether or not to have church service when a hurricane had blown through. I’ve had to decide whether to keep a church service going when a winter storm started to howl outside and roads were becoming dangerous. I’ve never had to decide whether or not to meet because of a pandemic that had already claimed over 100,000 lives in just a few short months.
And in all the storms I’ve cancelled service for I never had to deal with people saying the storm was just a partisan ploy to harm the re-election chances of a political candidate.
There’s an amazing video where a man is being asked about getting things back to normal during the COVID pandemic. The interviewer is asking a man some questions about how much risk is acceptable. They stand together in an empty street as he asks him – like the conversation between Abraham and God – how many losses are acceptable losses. He settles on a percentage – something relatively small. Then the interviewer works out with him how many people that would be based on the population in their location. I think they decide it would be 40 people. The man says that seems like an acceptable loss to get things back to “normal.”
The interviewer then says something like, “Now I’d like to introduce you to 40 people.” Ouch. The man braces himself and you can see the anticipated pain cross his face. But he prepares himself. He can handle it.
Suddenly 40 people come around the corner and onto the street the man and the interviewer stand on. The interviewer asks, “Do you know any of those 40 people?” The man’s hand covers his mouth as the crowd comes closer and closer, waving, faces smiling, “I know them all,” the man says, “they are all my family.”