Your life and mine has been disrupted by the Coronavirus COVID-19 virus. It seems no part of life is unaffected. Travel, shopping, business, education, healthcare, foodservice, and, as you know, life in the church. Beneath the changes in society is the mood of the heart. Behind the hoarding of toilet paper and hand sanitizer, behind the nervous jokes about homeschooling children, behind the extremes of thinking the worst or the best, is a reality that it’s been a long time since humanity has had to deal with a pandemic of this magnitude. Many describe the sense of dread, widespread fear of illness, and the possibility of death.
While scientists continue to wage this war in the laboratories, we have a calling to minister. We are the people of First Presbyterian Church, a people of great faith, and a people of great leadership capabilities. We of all people are well-positioned to show the world how followers of Jesus respond to adversity. Our people are leaders in government and industry. Our ministries are constantly reviewed for emulation and consideration. We have outstanding staff and volunteer ministry leaders. It is time for us to lead in this crisis. To borrow from the words spoken to Esther in the Old Testament book of Esther, perhaps we have this prominent place of leadership in this community “for such a time as this” (Esther 4:14).
Framing our Response
I have been pondering the role of the church in a pandemic like this. We do not need to strain to find a place in history where we have dealt with fears around health crises. We need only to look to the plagues of history. Listen to this excerpt from an article from Foreign Policy Magazine published last Friday describing our Christian past.
“During plague periods in the Roman Empire, Christians made a name for themselves. Historians have suggested that the terrible Antonine Plague of the 2nd century, which might have killed off a quarter of the Roman Empire, led to the spread of Christianity, as Christians cared for the sick and offered an spiritual model whereby plagues were not the work of angry and capricious deities but the product of a broken Creation in revolt against a loving God.
But the more famous epidemic is the Plague of Cyprian, named for a bishop who gave a colorful account of this disease in his sermons. Probably a disease related to Ebola, the Plague of Cyprian helped set off the Crisis of the Third Century in the Roman world. But it did something else, too: It triggered the explosive growth of Christianity. Cyprian’s sermons told Christians not to grieve for plague victims (who live in heaven), but to redouble efforts to care for the living. His fellow bishop Dionysius described how Christians, “Heedless of danger … took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.”
Nor was it just Christians who noted this reaction of Christians to the plague. A century later, the actively pagan Emperor Julian would complain bitterly of how “the Galileans” would care for even non-Christian sick people, while the church historian Pontianus recounts how Christians ensured that ‘good was done to all men, not merely to the household of faith.’ The sociologist and religious demographer Rodney Stark claims that death rates in cities with Christian communities may have been just half that of other cities.
This habit of sacrificial care has reappeared throughout history. In 1527, when the bubonic plague hit Wittenberg, Martin Luther refused calls to flee the city and protect himself. Rather, he stayed and ministered to the sick. The refusal to flee cost his daughter Elizabeth her life. But it produced a tract, ‘Whether Christians Should Flee the Plague,’ where Luther provides a clear articulation of the Christian epidemic response: We die at our posts. Christian doctors cannot abandon their hospitals, Christian governors cannot flee their districts, Christian pastors cannot abandon their congregations. The plague does not dissolve our duties: It turns them to crosses, on which we must be prepared to die.”
I find Martin Luther’s word’s helpful. Scanning his tract on whether Christians should flee the plague, his main concern was that ministry to those who were suffering was being done, social order be maintained, the gospel in the middle of fears was proclaimed, and the Sacraments were administered. He had much to say to pastors, including that if enough pastors were present to take care of people, proclaim the gospel, and administer the Sacraments, he was not troubled if some left. However, his overall message was to not let fear slow us and if we die, “we die at our posts.” I’ve said for years when people ask about my mission travels to remote and sometimes hostile places, “If I die, know that I died on mission. I died with my boots on.”
What follows now are some principles and then actions we are embracing. These begin with the “die at our posts” mindset, but they also recognize our unique place as a church. Again, First Presbyterian Church of Lakeland is looked to for leadership in the community, so let’s lead.
Principles to Follow
We must be willing to sacrifice convenience out of love for neighbor.
Aggressive sanitation measures, social distancing, avoiding in-person group settings is an inconvenience, but it is also and most importantly an act of care for others. We love others enough to not put their well-being at risk.
We must continue to practice good hygiene and follow the well-published guidelines published by public health officials. Even as we do so, know that we are motivated not first by self-preservation, but by love of neighbor. We care about and for ourselves, but we are also motivated by the command of Jesus to love others.
We cannot avoid all risk.
Not all can or should avoid social contact. I think of doctors and nurses at this time. My daughter works at Morton Plant Hospital emergency room. She is standing in harm’s way of the threat this disease poses to the public. Do we not have a similar burden of care? If we are to stay on mission, we will be at some risk as we engage the world.
We don’t call off church.
We still had and will still have worship services, only we must shift to a version of corporate worship that does not involve meeting in person. New tools are available for this to happen and still keep people safe. For us, those tools are livestreaming and on-demand platforms playing on Facebook Live, YouTube Live, and Roku. While we can think of things we want to change from last Sunday, we had outstanding feedback on the livestream. We had 2,500 views, which requires some explanation and interpretation, but our best estimate is we had 2,000 individuals join us online for church. That is big.
One problem to solve is the Sacraments. We have a baptism scheduled for April 5. Will we have in-person services? Do we baptize during the livestream? What about Communion? How do we have communion? We have more to decide and develop in the near future.
We must find new ways to build community.
We must find ways to build community in the middle of a pandemic during which social distancing is the norm. For many, this may be one place where social media finally has become most useful. But for all, this may be the time for an old-fashioned communication technology: the telephone. How will youth be connected? College and career? How will the elderly feel connected? These are questions that flow from the principle of building community.
We must anticipate needs.
You already know the stories. More than sectors of business, social, government, and education, people are affected. Individuals and their families are affected or will be in real ways. We must anticipate how we can help. Some have called for a COVID-19 fund. Others are asking to help fill the gap in food insecure families who do not have the daily meals available to their children now that school is closed.
Even within ministries, we must anticipate. On Monday, a reporter from the Ledger newspaper asked me whether we still planned on holding Easter services. I told him I know we need to talk about it, but immediate needs are before us and that comes first. Another Lakeland pastor told me yesterday of his young families who are still working, their kids are out of school, and the burden this places on their families. He described the added burden of cancelling in-person youth programming. What to do? We must anticipate needs of the people.
Actions for Now
With all of the above in mind, what will we now do in these unchartered territories in which we now find ourselves? Here is what I am directing the staff to do or help facilitate.
Contact every single person in the church by phone over the next ten days.
Expect a phone call. We are putting together a list and assigning names to callers so that over the next ten days, a call will go out to at least one person in your household. We want to check on our own people. Let the caller know how you are doing, how we can pray for you, and what needs you or others have at this point.
No in-person meetings for a few weeks at least.
We have decided that we will not have any in-person meetings of committees or ministries except those who are gathered for missional care and support through March 31, 2020. Even those who will meet to carry out mission are limited to no more than 50 people at once. Our goal is to continue to be loving and caring to our congregation while also protecting them. In the meantime, and in order for people to meet, we are encouraging the use of free conferencing services.
Build community using digital tools available to us.
I have asked that we find ways to stay meaningfully connected in this time of social isolation. We are actively making plans for using the telephone, computer, video conferencing, conference calling, and other tools to collapse the physical divide. This morning, Pastor Zac and Brian Morgan spoke of plans to be in ongoing contact with youth using video conferencing technology. They also spoke about reaching out over social media to share ideas for what to do in this extended time at home as a family. Yesterday, Jo Ahearn shot a video for children’s ministry for parents to share with children. Today, Dr Paul Suich recorded a video to share with the church and on social media about anxiety and what we can do about it. These videos will be shared in the coming days. Dr. Connie Befus is coordinating what limited in-person visitation is available and increased telephone calling to shut-ins or hospitalized. Pastor Kenny has already engaged his small groups using video conferencing. Keep your eyes open as all of these means of being in community unfold.
Have the congregation rally around a mission focus related to COVID-19.
I asked mission coordinator Nancy Betram and the mission team to lead us in identifying a ministry and serving others in need caused or exacerbated by COVID-19. Individuals and families are feeling all that is happening. Some are losing jobs or income. School is out, businesses are going remote, industries are already feeling the financial burden, and shelters and other parachurch ministries of care may face increased demands. The big mission now in the works is collecting food and hygiene items for some migrant camps where kids are unable to get to the schools. Staying on mission is an active conversation and much more is in development. Stay tuned.
Focus church communications on faith, hope, love, and care.
I have asked Pastor Zac to take the lead this with input from all program staff. This work is to communicate to the world all that is relevant to these days of COVID-19. We will update social media when updates come out from public health officials. Our voice is to be seen in the midst. We will update social media with requests for helping others. We will update social media with messages about anxiety, hope, courage, mission, and ministry in such times. Pastor Zac is already scheduling updates.
Hold livestream-only worship services.
As we decided last Sunday, so we will do this Sunday and, unless something changes, the following Sunday. Not everyone was in favor of cancelling the in-person services, but the great majority were. No new information has come to us to signify an easing of the requests for preventative action. In fact, the requests for preventative action has intensified. We will continue to be a part of this preventative action by not hosting in-person services. This is as good time to improve our online giving platform and that improvement is being explored.
Little Shepherds will continue to follow the Polk County School schedule.
This means they are currently closed.
Continually monitor this ever-changing situation.
So much has changed so rapidly. Our commitment is to stay on top of it and respond with leadership for our church and community.
I close with words I posted on social media yesterday. I wrote to remind all of us that our mission as believers is not diminished by this pandemic. The new realities caused by the virus is the setting of your ministry and mine, not the removal of it. God has a purpose for you right where you are. Find your way to love God and love people in the middle of all of this. And go in God’s grace and love and power.
God loves you and so do I…