Church leaders urged to prepare for long-term shift in how people worship amid pandemic

Walter Kim
National Association of Evangelicals President Walter Kim speaks at his inauguration ceremony in Washington, D.C., on March 5, 2020. |

Denominational executives are urging pastors to protect their mental health as well as prepare for a long-term shift in the way the church worships as the world struggles to respond to the new coronavirus pandemic that currently has no cure.

The advice came Thursday during a panel discussion hosted by Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals at the COVID-19 Church Online Summit.

Doug Clay, general superintendent of the Assemblies of God, said their mental health committee recently polled their pastors on advice for other pastors during the pandemic and they developed a nine-point list of best practices which they are now circulating among leaders. At the top of the list pastors were asked to be mindful of boundaries.

“All of us are going to be stretched in ways we haven’t been stretched before,” Clay said.

Pastors were also urged to find a trusted friend to help process decisions and leadership; intentionally manage their input, like taking a break from the news; take care of themselves by finding good physical and emotional rhythms; allow themselves a laugh break; hold to realistic expectations; have private worship; control only what they can control and don’t get stressed out by what they can’t; and seek to find hope in creative ways.

Colin Watson, acting executive director of the Christian Reformed Church, said pastors should get used to the idea that there isn’t going to be a quick fix for the pandemic.

“I think the idea that this is really a long term situation that we’re dealing with [is something that we have to get used to]. This is not just a short term something [that] will be fixed in a few weeks [and] we can go back to being the way we used to be,” he said while praising Clay’s recommendations.

“The idea of we need to establish some practices and rhythms for the long-term is very, very, important,” he said.

Watson said he has been discussing the idea of social distancing a lot with his pastors and he said he asked them to reframe that narrative as just “physical distancing.”

“We want some social closeness so we need to figure out some new ways to be church together,” he said, noting that pastors will have to figure out whether they will use old school technologies like the telephone or new school technologies available on the internet.

He said leaders are being urged to worship and focus more on who God is to get their priorities right.

Scott Ridout, president of Converge, a movement of churches working to help people meet, know and follow Jesus, agreed.

He said while he hasn’t told pastors how to respond to the pandemic, he has facilitated online gatherings and is allowing them to do what works best for them based on their needs.

“In times of uncertainty, people need clarity and agility,” he said is his main message.

The denominational executives also talked about the kinds of prayers they have been praying.

“Certainly, as we think about the environment that we find ourselves in, there is no shortage of things to bring before our Lord. Right now of course, we think about our churches. We think about the leaders in those churches, pastors and ministers. And certainly from my perspective, there’s been a lot of prayer for the churches, for the leaders, for the members, frankly, as they walk through this valley. And our prayer is that they might see God clearly, especially at this difficult time,” Watson said.

“In a real sense we think about what might be ahead of us, and certainly I’ve been praying for a cure for this pandemic. But in the meantime, we’re praying for the church to be unified so that we can be a great witness, especially at this time. So just prayers for the entire community and prayers that we can come together as God has ordained us so that we can be salt and light, especially at this time for our nation,” he added.

Ridout noted that he was recently talking to a pastor who said, “the value of our portfolio is falling but the value of our prayer is rising.”

“We don’t have much else that we can depend on. We don’t know what’s going to happen. We know we can depend of God,” he said. “I’ve been praying Psalm 146 and Psalm 46. Psalm 46 says that God is an ever present help in time of trouble…,” he said.

He also noted that his group has been seeing historic levels of online engagement with churches online.

“People are looking for hope. All they get on television is despair and they are looking for hope, and they’re gonna find it in God. So my prayer is that this is an awakening,” he said, agreeing with Clay that he hopes this period leads to a “pandemic of prayer.”

“I agree with that,” Ridout said. “That there’ll be a pandemic of prayer, it would be fantastic. ... So my prayer is that God will use this to draw more people to himself.”

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