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An open letter to pastors planning in-person Easter services

Dear Pastor Planning In-Person Easter Services,

Dr. Rob Schenck
Photo of Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck : On Sunday, October 14, 2018 Christian gather to pray for those devastated by gun violence. |

Let me begin by thanking you and honoring you for accepting and carrying out the unique call to be a shepherd of souls.

I’ve been an itinerant preacher for more than forty years, as well as a denominational official, and as such, I’ve visited with an incalculable number of pastors (stopped counting after I had preached in 1000 churches — a long time ago). Over my career, I’ve watched how masterfully a pastor like you balances the many demands that come with caring for a flock, including leading souls to faith in Christ, shaping them as disciples, teaching them how to pray and read their Bibles, share their testimony of Jesus and live in a way that reflects the model of their Lord.

In addition, you, of course, answer their constant questions, intervene in their many personal crises, anoint them with oil when they’re sick, marry them when they’re in love, and bury them when they die. All this in addition to directing innumerable programs, supervising church staff, raising annual budgets, and managing buildings and grounds. It’s exhausting work, but I’ve also seen the enormous joy you get from it all.

And so much of pastoral work comes to a crescendo in the annual celebration of the Resurrection. Depending on your tradition, there may be record numbers of respondents at the altar, a rack of baptisms, induction of new church members, an elaborate cantata, soaring worship anthems — and always — always — the best sermon you’ll preach all year! After all, you’ve no doubt treated this passage during the course of your ministry as much as I have, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But if he did not raise him then in fact the dead are not raised” (1 Corinthians 15:13-15). The Resurrection is not only the pinnacle of our faith, it is the pinnacle of our church year!

Of course, this year, something has happened that has required many pastors to involuntarily scuttle the in-person Easter week programs they and their people have anticipated all year long. The coronavirus pandemic, together with calls from every quarter for extreme social distancing, including local, state and federal closure orders have forced many churches to shutter their buildings and cancel any gatherings this week and well into the late spring and early summer.

Whether or not you’re subject to such legal orders, I am writing to appeal to you to do the same and cancel any plans you have for any type of in-person assemblies or contact this weekend. 

There are three reasons why I make this appeal to you:

First, as a pastor you are charged with the care of souls. A shepherd protects the sheep. At this point, there is an overwhelming consensus among public health officials that COVID-19 is a dangerous threat to everyone’s well being and can only be defeated by keeping people at home and away from each other. (This advice also comes from our born-again, Bible-believing, gospel-witnessing, mature Christian brother, Dr. Francis Collins, a Baptist layman and head of the National Institutes of Health.) It is now widely known and accepted in the scientific community that people without any symptoms can carry the virus and easily infect others. 

In other words, by assembling your people together, you run the very high risk of harming them. That’s the opposite of what a shepherd must do for the sheep. By sending your people home to stay away from others, you contribute to their good health and survival — and that’s precisely what Jesus models for us as the Great Shepherd.

Second, as a minister of the Gospel, your ministry is to all of humanity, not simply to your own flock. The Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ is for every person on earth. You and I have preached, taught, and witnessed to this countless times, “For God so loved the world . . .” (John 3:16a), “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations (peoples) . . .” (Matthew 28:19a). All the people of our nation and the peoples of the world are at risk for contracting, suffering and even dying from this disease. Naturally, this has caused great concern, alarm and even fear among a large part — if not the vast majority — of the American and global populations. 

Watching a church gather people together this week indicates a germination factory for the virus, leaving you and your people to be perceived as a threat — not a source of hope — for them and their loved ones. Far from looking like a caring and protective shepherd of souls, you will be seen only as a menace to humanity.

Third and finally, Jesus gives every pastor a model for what to do for those under our charge when they feel threatened and afraid: go to them — not demand they come to you. Another text you and I have taught from the pulpit many times is this, “Jesus went out to them . . .” (Matthew 14:25b). When the disciples were in the boat on the Sea of Galilee, and they were afraid, our Lord went to them, walking on the water to where they were and comforted them with words of faith. It wasn’t until Peter was ready that the Lord beckoned him to step out of the boat — and when he faltered — Jesus again went to him, reaching out His divine hand to lift Peter out of his distress. Following His resurrection, again, Jesus did not require His disciples to come to Him, but, rather, went to them as they “were together, with the doors locked for fear . . .” (John 20: 19-20). 

When danger lurked outside, the disciples sheltered in place and “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” Following Jesus’ pattern in our time of danger this Easter is an occasion for pastors — shepherds— to virtually go to your people and minister to them where they must isolate themselves for safety. 

Please, dear Pastor, for the sake of the souls you have been given to care for and protect, cancel your in-person services (there’s still ample time to power up on Zoom), guide your people to safety by directing them to stay home, and demonstrate to the world that you care deeply for all those God loves. This is not a time to claim legal rights, demonstrate our superior faith, or obligate those under our authority to engage in behavior that places them, their families, whole communities, and, indeed, our nation and world in great peril. This is a time for you to reach out, using the wonderful gift of technology, to speak words of faith in the midst of the storm — not in denial of it.

On behalf of all those here in the U.S. and beyond in the mission fields of the earth, please, pastor the flock and offer the world “faith, hope and love,” by closing your auditorium and building, and sending your people to the safety of their homes. By doing so, you will assure the people of the world that God loves them and so do you.

I am, humbly, your co-worker in the Lord’s (indoor) vineyards,

Rev. Rob Schenck, D.Min.
CEO, The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, Washington, DC
Spokesperson for Prayers & Action
Executive Advisor to the Office of the Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance
Author, Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope and Love (HarperCollins)

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