That was odd.
A feeling of oddness was about the only one I could muster after watching myself preach and lead our Easter Sunday worship. It was odd being able to worship with my family who, admittedly, were either half awake after being up all night with our newborn or were too interested in the tablet to watch. It was odd seeing myself preach on Facebook. I hate the sound of my own voice, by the way. That was odd being at the cemetery, before the sun came up, to prepare for our sunrise Facebook live feed.
This whole thing has been odd.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what it is like to lead during a pandemic. Odd is about the only word I can use to describe what it is like, for me, to be a pastor this moment. There is no rule book or guidance on how to do what we are doing. We’re all trying to make the most of it and proclaim God’s name through new and unique means, which I believe is taking place.
Yet, it is odd to look at a camera every week and preach a message. My thought has been to make it “feel” as close to a typical worship experience as possible. Every church is going to do it differently. I felt we needed something that felt normal in the midst of chaos. So, each week I’m there in the full robe and stole, standing about where I would to preach on a normal Sunday, and offering words of hope to an empty congregation.
There is a level of faith and trust that goes into the services each week. For one, you are hopeful that the feed works (which is not always the case). More importantly, though, you are placing a lot of faith that people will engage the service. You are hopeful that they heed your prayerful guidance to turn out the distractions of their day and life to give attention to the moment. You know, however, that people are likely to have you on in the background while playing a game or doing something else. It is naive to think someone is fully engaging in worship, during this time, throughout the video. What you hope for is that the person on the other end of the camera is getting something that connects them to God in a deeper way.
Leading now is odd, too, because you don’t know who is participating in the service. Preaching in a typical setting comes with a known variety. I know the nature of the congregation when I write the sermon each week. I know their spiritual needs and questions, while also having a relationship built in that allows the freedom and grace to say some things that need to be said. That’s not the case for this time. You don’t know who is engaging the service each week. It could be someone from the congregation or someone that has never heard of Christ, but saw that the church down the street was doing these videos and wanted to see what the fuss was all about. There is more pressure, then, each week to prayerfully consider what to say and how to say it, because you don’t know who will be receiving the message. In fact, I’ve stressed more about the sermons over the last few weeks than I have any other during my time at my current appointment.
I have felt a sense of oddness, as well, in trying to navigate the balance between the needs of the church and needs of my family. Ministry is always about trying to find the right balance between those two tension points. Sometimes one gets more attention than the other. I don’t think people always understand how demanding and challenging being a pastor is, especially in our current context. It is a demanding – emotionally, physically, and spiritually – life that requires all you have, in a normal situation, to share hope with someone. It requires a lot of time, patience, and grace.
Right now, the church is getting a lot of my attention and that is necessary. There is a lot of work that is involved in trying to keep a church connected while apart. You feel the pressure, as a pastor, to make sure people are staying connected and, yes, giving to the church. That has meant my ministry has included doing daily devotional videos, extending our Bible Studies, and rethinking all of our worship plans. It has meant a lot of conversations, text messages, and, yes, tears trying to make it all happen.
Through it all, there are times you believe you are leading the church well and, at others, that you are killing the church with each passing day. At times you feel alone in this work, as you often do in ministry, because it really comes down to the fact that pastoring in a crisis is hard and challenging. It requires presence.
Yet, it is odd to do that while welcoming a new baby into our home. I’m supposed to be on paternal leave, but I’ve put that on hold during the pandemic because this time requires pastoral leadership that is present and not absent. I’ll take time off when things are clear, but I’m playing a major bouncing game between rocking a baby, caring for our autistic son, helping my wife heal, and taking care of the church. Our new son won’t have some of the experiences his older brother had, in his first few weeks, which has grieved me. There have been no visitors, at our request, and no pictures of church members holding the baby. It is possible we may not have those photos from this appointment, nor have the baptism we had scheduled for May.
Because, truly, what makes all of this odd is that I’m leaving in June. The thought I keep having is this: will I get to say goodbye? We’re officially in the transition and I’m a lame duck, yet, at the same time, I need to be more engaged than, perhaps, I would be at this time because of everything going on. That is awkward.
I keep thinking about what if we don’t get to say goodbye to one another? What kind of grief does that create? Would anyone notice? Would anyone care? Yes, I’ve thought about all of this. It is only natural in a transition.
This has been an odd season. While I truly believe the church is doing a new thing and God is using this time to share the message of hope in a mighty way, it is still odd to be stretched into this way of life. It’s awkward. It’s challenging. It’s stressful.
I hope and pray it has been fruitful.