Lockdown is a state of being that encourages fantasies: the daydreams we have of what we would really like to be doing. For pastors, the pressures of this time can easily lead to schemes for escape being formulated. I’ve got friends who have been feeling at their lowest ever ebb over the past few weeks; I’ve felt pretty low myself. Giving up and doing something else can look very attractive.
The latest lockdown puts more pressure on pastors who have to decide whether to maintain in-person gatherings. A commitment to the significance of the gathered body and the necessity of regular corporate worship means many of us want to plough on; but there are many factors that might be pushing us to pause. In previous lockdowns the issue we had to deal with was how to respond to what felt like State overreach in limiting freedom of worship. In this lockdown we are still permitted to meet and that puts the responsibility squarely on our shoulders. What is the right thing to do?
A statement sent out by the Baptist Union to its member churches this week illustrates the issues.
We recognise that Government guidelines allow churches to remain open during this period. However, given the significant increase in numbers of Covid-19 infections and pressure on the NHS, we advise churches to stand with the wider community in making every effort to limit the spread of the virus.
We would still support churches as they open their buildings to provide vital services to the local community, such as food banks, as has been the case throughout the pandemic.
The pressure to ‘stand with the wider community’ by ceasing worship services is considerable. But is curtailing the public worship of God really the best way we stand with our communities? Might it not rather be a dereliction of our mission and witness? Why is it that things such as food banks should be considered ‘vital services’ but the public ministry of the word and worship should not? Haven’t we been told somewhere that man does not live by bread alone?
In the case of my church, we did not gather last Sunday and will not again this week, primarily because of the complexity of having a team able to run a service. I have been self-isolating due to contact with someone who had the virus, and then a positive test myself. (As is the case with most people who catch covid, my symptoms have been no worse than mild flu.) Other members of the team are needing to shield. So finding enough team who are actually allowed out in public is a challenge.
But practical limitations aside, the pastoral pressure of leading through the divisiveness of all this is considerable. It is challenging to manage the emotions of those who feel we should not meet and those who think we should; to manage the inner-conflict between not wanting to do anything that might cause a further spread of the virus while not wanting to deny fundamental spiritual convictions; to honour the consciences of those unwilling to meet together while wanting to speak courage into people – especially those who are at minimal objective risk (i.e. anyone under 60 with no pre-existing health issues).
It is very easy to start planning the escape route.
Just before Christmas I preached from the story of Elijah at Horeb. He was a man looking for an escape route. I preached it for myself but it might help other pastors who are feeling the pressure.
Pastor, I don’t know what you should do in your context – I’m not even too sure about what to do in mine – but I do know Elijah was so depressed he wanted to die and God told him he wasn’t finished yet.