Pastoring in the Pandemic

May 20, 2020
Current Events

This past weekend, a pastor friend of mine asked me for my current thoughts about the COVID pandemic and how to think about what’s happening right now. In the last few weeks here in Illinois, it feels like people are processing it in new ways and handling it differently than before. It’s been interesting to watch our government leaders continue to lead through the situation and observe how different people process and react to that leadership. In the midst of all of that, I’m having a number of pastors reach out to me and ask me how I would suggest responding (as someone who understands both the pastoral and scientific worlds).


The Piece I don’t hear Us Talking About

I think one of the most important facets to understanding this current situation is the fact that this has been, and continues to be a very uncertain situation. The situation is, in fact, framed by its uncertainty.

Have we learned some things about the COVID-19 virus? Yes.

Can we rule some possible scenarios out? Probably. But this situation is still shaped more by what we don’t know than what we do.

Do we know the mortality rate? We don’t.

Do we know if it will be possible to create a vaccine? Not yet.

Do we know what the economic impact of all of this will be? Nope.

It’s a common mistake for people who aren’t trained as scientists to misunderstand or overestimate the value of scientific data and understanding. The fact is, the scientific method is nothing more than a procedure for refining our best guesses so they can get better and better. When we have a situation like the present one, where scientific analysis is shaping public policy, that fact often gets overlooked. All the epidemiology, all the infection projections, even the mortality rates, and so forth are simply our best guesses at the moment. In time, we should be able to pin them down more precisely, but precision takes time, and there isn’t the time we need to get precision before possible life-and-death decisions need to be made.

For those of us who like to attach to numbers, I would ballpark it at this: We probably know 20% of what we could know that would be helpful in this situation, which means 80%  (the overwhelming majority of information we could use) isn’t clear yet.

This uncertainty drives two things—first, it feeds into decision making by governments (aided by scientists) that is based on highly uncertain input. These decisions will naturally reflect the fact that they are based on our 20%—knowledge guesses, and many of them will pan out as not ideal choices as time goes on.

The problem with this is that the other effect of the situation is that the uncertainty provokes anxiety in most of us, and when we feel anxious we look for sources of certainty… and where else should we look than the scientists and governmental leaders? Not only is it very easy to misunderstand how firm any of the scientific findings the decisions being made are based on, but we are also looking to the scientists and leaders for certainty, so there is a tendency to doubly over-trust their input as “fact”.


The Fallout

As the situation naturally evolves, we see the places where the predictions didn’t pan out (which is to be expected somewhere). If we thought the authorities were basing their choices on facts, it’s easy to perceive this as betrayal. These are the people we were looking to for the truth in this uncertain time! How could they be so wrong? What aren’t we seeing here?

When you add to that the emotional exhaustion of this ongoing whole-life disruption, you have a situation ripe for a felt need to blame someone, and that’s exactly the trend it seems is ramping up. Depending on our history and disposition, it might look more reasonable to cast the blame towards the scientists (this is probably a biological weapon being covered up), the government (the government’s ploy to infringe on our rights), the media (this whole thing is essentially made up to drive media dollars), other nations (this is a biological weapon), or swung around the other direction and blame others for not taking the regulations seriously enough.

Here is the critical thing for us as spiritual leaders to be tracking with: While all of this seems very fact-driven, the thing driving it along is emotional, not logical. Unless the person is highly self-aware they probably won’t realize it, but what they’re really trying to do is work through the difficult emotions of this uncertain environment.

I have a suspicion that what many people need right now is not answers about scientific, governmental, or other questions, but they need someone with the courage to admit, “I don’t know, and it’s hard not to know isn’t it? How are you handling this uncertainty?” We don’t need to replace our “scientific certainties” with “leadership certainties” to understand this situation. We need to admit we do not understand what is happening and that’s okay. It’s not comfortable, but there isn’t anything wrong with that. It’s better to be honest about that than otherwise.

As spiritual leaders, this is the area we can speak to with authority. Do we know the details about COVID? No one really does yet. Is a vaccine coming? No one knows. Do we know if this is a governmental conspiracy? Honestly - nope, we don’t know. Do we know if this is a media scam? Not really. The truth is we don’t know the situation, either scientifically or from a leadership point of view, and that’s okay, because we do know Jesus, and he is the source of our certainty - not in the way where he creates the certainty we wish we had, but that he joins us in the uncertainty and gives us what we need in the middle of it. Our job right now is to point people to Jesus who has all the inner resources we need in this challenging situation.


Looking Forward

What should we expect going forward? That’s a great question, and I obviously can’t project the future (in fact, I just admitted we don’t even know the present), but what I CAN do is frame the way I’m seeing it. It seems to me that there are different forces acting on society pushing in different directions, and the balance of these forces drives the overall trajectory here.

On one side of the situation, we have the medical establishment which has been driving to close down institutions to contain and slow the spread of the virus. At first, this framed and drove the decision making, but as the situation has panned out differently than first guesstimates, there is decreasing trust (at least from us average members of society, it is unclear from our governmental leaders) in their recommendations. On the other side, industry has a building pressure to open society back up, and the longer things stay closed down, the greater that pressure builds. Add to that the increased pressure on family systems right now, and you’ve got two forces pushing to restore life to “normal”. The government sits at the crossroads of these contractive and expansive forces, trying to chart the course based on the input from the different sectors. (A much deeper analysis of all of this is linked here.)

However this all plays out, the dynamic balance of these factors chart the course. The higher the tension between those forces get, the more likely things get messy (with acts of violence, etc). It seems to me that the pressure building for the forces to open back up is overcoming the pressure to keep things closed down. That’ll be okay as long as we don’t have an event that ratchets up the contractive forces again (like another city with a runaway outbreak). If that happens, this could get another degree difficult before it starts getting better… we’ll see. Even if this is the turning point for stay-at-home-orders and so on, there is still just as much uncertainty about the economic damage and what the new “normal” will look like after this. The flavor of the uncertainty will change, but the magnitude of it isn’t going away anytime soon.

All the emotion of this builds up and needs to go somewhere… and if not intercepted by the in-breaking power of the kingdom, it winds up taking a toll. For some, the mounting pressure will come out through domestic problems, for others mental health issues. It seems to me the critical factor for the road ahead is resiliency.

I believe we as ministers of the kingdom of God have two roles here:

  1. Cooperate with Jesus to release His kingdom in the lives of people around us. In a serious way, there are going to be lots of opportunities for us to let go of trusting other things and embrace trusting in Jesus. His kingdom is unshakable, and when the rest of our life is shaken, that is the perfect time to lay hold of the kingdom.
  2. To help de-escalate the tensions as they build in society. When blame begins to be cast, we have an opportunity to pour gasoline or water on the flame, so-to-speak. Our role here is to help manage the tensions in society and help them not escalate to the level of violence, etc. This will be particularly helpful in the family sector, which doesn’t have as clear a voice in society but needs just as much support and guidance as any of the sectors. As sources of spiritual input and guidance, we can help people notice when they are beginning to deal with this situation by pointing at others instead of looking to Jesus.

I don’t know anyone other than Jesus who saw this COVID season coming, and I don’t know anyone other than Jesus who knows how it is going to continue to unfold. What I do know is that if the world is going to be shaken, I am going to take advantage of this opportunity not to try and find certainty in the natural, but to lay hold of the stability that is our birthright in the spirit. If we can do that, then from that stability, we have something of strength to offer the people around us.

Most of us are excited about the prospect of having something of the Lord to give away to the world around us, but it’s easy to forget that the process of laying hold of something in God is almost never fun. It’s hard, painful, stretching, and humbling. This is what spiritual growth looks like; it’s not always bestowed on the mountaintops, it’s also chiseled into our lives in the valley. And what I have found is that the things formed in the valleys are usually more profound and powerful than anything else.

The more I think about it, the more I’m convinced that we may never have another opportunity to grow in the Lord more profoundly than in this time. Growth doesn’t happen when we learn an idea, growth happens when we contact the grace described in that idea for ourselves. We haven’t grown because we know God is our provider; we grow when in faith we lay hold of the grace to know God as provider because we need it. Being able to tell me what you know about God doesn’t do much to shift my life, but if you can stand in front of me and tell me with integrity that when life came apart at the seams, when you were struggling with depression because the fear had taken it’s toll, when you didn’t know where the money to pay next month’s rent was going to come from, when your own health was on the line and you didn’t know what you were going to do… at that moment, when there was nothing left and you were staring your own undoing in the face, THAT’S when God showed up for me; THAT’S how I know God, THAT’S who He’s been for me and THAT’S who he can be for you. That’s the kind of contact with God that has the power to bulldoze past all my defense mechanisms and self-protection.

Having been around the world a bit, at times I get a glimpse at the extent to which we, in the first world, put trust in our comforts and natural options. It’s so easy to trust in something natural: finances, our own ability to provide for ourselves, our health, etc, without even realizing it because we never have to go without it. We cannot even know the idols we have because we’re never challenged to do without them! Well, now we find ourselves stripped bare, exposed before the Lord, and reliant on Him only. We do not know our present, and we cannot predict our future. There is no other source of confidence; we have been pinned into a corner with our only option as laying hold of God in a way we never have had to before and we may never have to again. I’m not wanting the destruction of this season to be prolonged, but at the same time, I pray we grasp our opportunity in this once-in-a-lifetime event and come out the other side differently.

“This phrase, ‘Yet once more,’ indicates the removal of things that are shaken-that is, things that have been made, in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire. ”

— Hebrews 12:27-29

Putty Putman has traced a wild journey with Jesus from physicist to pastor to entrepreneur to author and speaker. His three main passions are the Holy Spirit, effective communication and journeying towards the future God has for the church and the world.

Putty founded the School of Kingdom Ministry and is a pastor on the staff team of The Vineyard Church of Central Illinois. He is the author of two books, and lives with his wife and three children in Champaign, IL.

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