Pastoring in isolation
A pastor’s heart:
It feels so strange to me to be pastoring remotely. I am missing so much of the things I love; hanging out with people, praying with the hurting and the broken, worshipping corporately, enjoying coffee, being with my family, hugging people, laughing a lot.
For many of us this can feel a time like never been before, and perhaps this is true of our lifetime. But I don’t think this has always been the case. Long before Zoom, streaming services, Instagram, Google Hangouts and other options changed the way remote communication was done people were wrestling with how to pastor from afar. Pastoring in isolation may well be unprecedented for our generation but not for the church.
Paul wrote several of his letters under incarceration and John similarly from exile. I know these are our Bible heroes but I imagine they struggled with some of the things we are thinking about…how is everyone doing, how should we deal with these issues, will people hear what we are saying, how are people walking the way of Jesus.
Remotely Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12 how he is worried about the state he will find the church in when he gets back to them, I have certainly had those thoughts recently. John in Revelation 2 says ‘you guys in Pergamum are listening to the teachings of Balaam – you are muppets’ (my paraphrase), perhaps many of us are dousing out the flames of fake news and false teaching and feel pained because we are not there in person to do so. Even more forcefully to those at Ephesus ‘you have forgotten your first love’, and all of us are desperate for our churches to not simply hold on to their first love but be a supreme example of it in this season.
So what did they do? How did they journey through this tension and see the church grow and flourish? Because not only did they manage to pastor during this season but the churches under their care changed the world forever. What an opportunity this season might present. Below are a few simple things that Paul & John seemed to do well.
Encouragement: it sounds simple but almost all of their remote writings started with a word of encouragement. In times of isolation to have people coming alongside and saying well done is incredibly powerful. In Ephesians Paul says that hearing about their faith has made him thankful and prayerful for them.
Cultural moment: They didn’t offer bland answers or Christianese but rather they spoke vividly and richly of faith in the cultural moment they were living in. In times of isolation people knowing that you are walking alongside is so reassuring. Now this doesn’t mean that everything we say for the next few weeks is about covid-19, but it does mean we speak into and offer hope and God’s perspective on the way the world is today. John offers a culturally nuanced note to each of the seven churches in Revelation that sharpened his message to the church. For to offer ‘stand firm in your faith’ is true but that almost doesn’t mean anything, unless it points to a reality in our world and a hope coming from it. Might we offer a voice that speaks truth through the lens of our season, ‘how to stand firm when it feels like the world around you is crumbling’.
Moved away from consumerist church: The way they were forced to do church was not ‘come and see me’, but rather ‘this is how you can live’. It forced a simplicity to how they offered Jesus and encouraged a response from its listeners. 1 John 2 ‘Whoever claims to live in Christ must live as Jesus did.’ Are church doesn’t do fancy at the best of times and our online services are not slick or Oscar worthy, but they have forced our church to step up.
Reliance on the body: The idea of priesthood of all believers could no longer be abstract under these circumstances, it had to be practical. They had to rely on people to share the message, local leaders to help govern and people to run with ideas. The thing many churches have been crying out for, namely how to stop the pastor doing everything, has been forced into our hands.
Compassion and love: woven into the fabric of all of these letters is deep concern and love. What we can no longer do face to face I think we need to strive, more urgently, to do remotely. I have been so focused on getting ‘sermons’ online that I have forgotten to get ‘welcomes’ online, yet I know in my mind people come to our church because they feel loved and not because the sermon is great.
Praying for others: I love how Paul makes a point of praying for the people, even when sometimes he has not even met them. What an opportunity to be praying and to mobilise our team to be praying, even for those we have not met with passion.
Example to edify: Paul talks of his example and it is clearly an encouragement to the wider body. I think this is a key time to be putting things online and sharing content, of course. But I also think we need to not just add to the noise that is out there. We must strive to offer something that will encourage and also be an example. Is what we offer edifying?
Something crafted: and as well as being edified is what we offer something beautiful that begins to reflect our Lord and maker? The language, portrayal and vivid use of imagery, for instance, make these letters rich and real and something people can relate to. Now both Paul and John were supremely inspired by the Holy Spirit. But my challenge to myself has been am I letting God have time with me to so inspire what I might offer that it could speak all the more powerfully. In a time where we are all scrambling simply to adjust to new ways of operating this can seem like a waste of time. But let us learn to be crafted that we might offer that.
Something real: this is not a time for trite answers. But rather a time for honest reflection that we might see Jesus all the more clearly and the people we are pastoring. Paul’s thorn in the flesh allows him all the more powerfully to point towards Jesus. I think neat answers and perfect scenarios often don’t reassure people but push them away, believing that the life they lead is to far removed. Let reality in this season be our magnet.
They were forced to do slow church: The sheer time lag between communications meant that there was time to process, to digest and chew on the call to the way of Jesus and to help ingrain it in the churches life. The mantra of our ages has been around urgency and on demand services and this has been no less true of the church in our age. A quest for a silver bullet of speedy evangelism and discipleship. But perhaps this season forces us to slow down, to walk with our congregations, to accept that Christian formation is the journey we don’t finish but simply continue in.
Be encouraged, God is using you. Much talk in the last few weeks has been on the need to be creative and I think that is important. But not, perhaps as important as our faithfulness. I am challenged to let my creativity flow from my faithfulness to God rather than be simply drawn into trying to be more and more creative. God desires faithfulness in these times.