Why I am thankful for my pastor’s leadership during COVID-19

October 20, 2020

I became a member of Christ Church West Chester (CCWC) on March 8 of this year, the last Sunday before the COVID-19 pandemic brought our country to a halt. For churches all over the world, the inability to gather in person was—and for many, still is—an incredibly discouraging feeling. But for our church, a humble congregation just shy of 100 members in a small borough outside Philadelphia, the shutdown seemed to hit especially close to home. 

Part of the reason for this is that for many in the congregation, the church is home. Numerous members live within blocks of one another, others opt to commute to work across state lines or have relocated to the area specifically to reside near the church, and several live within a literal stone’s throw of the church building. For individuals who have set aside so many other parts of their lives in order to fully invest in the life of this family, the sudden denial of the joys of gathering on Sundays provoked a sincerely hollow feeling. 

As dispirited as the congregation was at the beginning of the shutdown, none was more crushed than our senior pastor, Raymond Johnson. Only a few weeks after celebrating his fifth anniversary leading CCWC, the bustling halls outside his office were suddenly empty, and his family’s dinner table, commonly packed with guests, was suddenly a little less full. For a pastor who wears his heart on his sleeve and whose supreme delight for his congregation is apparent, the temptation to fall into frustration and dejection must have been immense. 

Patience under pressure

The ensuing months would only be more tumultuous. Nationwide disagreements about the pandemic, racial justice, and the presidential election would engulf not only our unbelieving neighbors, but also, sadly, our churches. For pastors, the difficulties that March brought were only the beginning.

But if this season in any way caused Raymond’s joy in pastoring to decrease, he’s never once shown it. If anything, the challenges of this year have done nothing but rekindle his love for the church. As a pastoral intern, I’ve had the pleasure of working with him on a daily basis over the past couple months. Through these interactions, I can confidently attest that the behind-the-scenes Raymond, even amidst 2020’s constant distractions, setbacks, and pressures, is the same person as the Sunday morning Raymond: full of a youthful yet cultivated love for life, the Lord, and his people. 

The eagerness and joy he constantly carries himself with could lead some to wonder whether these past several months have produced any real tests or trials in his ministry at all. But such conclusions would be misinformed. In addition to the heartache caused by suspended or limited gatherings, Raymond and his fellow elders have been saddled with the unenviable pressure of attempting to simultaneously observe community health guidelines, maintain a conscientious adherence to Hebrews 10:25, and respect the multiplicity of preferences and comfort levels of the church’s congregants. 

I encourage you to find the evidences of grace in your pastor’s life during this season, and then let him know that you are thankful for all he does. 

These constraints, coupled also with increasing political tensions, have often led Raymond to the feeling that there is no right move he can make, but a million wrong ones. Such conditions can, if one is not careful, sow seeds of bitterness, anger, and resentment. But he has remained patient and resolute, leaning not on his own understanding, but the Lord’s.

The joy of the Lord

It is precisely this dependence upon the Lord—the confidence to lead courageously and faithfully while at the same time praying, “Thy will be done,” that has allowed Raymond to maintain the same joy pastoring virtually and socially distanced as in normal settings. It is a humble dependence that recognizes his shortcomings. He is constantly asking for ways he can improve his teaching, seeking counsel for the best way to handle sticky situations, quickly repenting for sins committed, and most importantly, going boldly before God in prayer. It is clear that Raymond sees himself as nothing more than a servant of the Almighty, a job title that brings him unrivaled delight.

This joy is an infectious one he is not content keeping to himself. It is not uncommon for him to interrupt work days by rounding up the office for a spontaneous hymn-sing. He is always inviting guests over for dinner or to spend time with his family of seven (each of which shares his fun-loving personality) in the neighborhood park. And each time he ends his conversations with, “I love you, and I’m glad you’re here,” he genuinely means it. 

Raymond’s joy is born out of a love for the Lord and his Word, something that is evident in his eagerness to delve into rich conversations on theology, personal devotion, politics, and similar topics. But at the same time, it is a happiness that refuses to take life too seriously. He recognizes that the Christian life is no monastic or ascetic experience, but one lived in delight in the good gifts God has given us in Christ. Our most memorable moments are indeed the lighthearted ones: putting him in his place on the basketball court, picking him up after a bike crash that left him with a giant hole in the backside of his pants, and pranks around the office. Raymond’s delight in Christ is evident not merely in the way he preaches on Sundays, but in his love of life itself.

The unprecedented events of this year have made things difficult for every member of our church, but our pastor has reminded us through word and deed that the joy of the Lord is our strength. For a time as tumultuous as this one, there are perhaps no perfect answers on how to encourage and exhort a discouraged, anxious, and frustrated congregation, and pastors will likely find themselves failing over and over again. But despite his shortcomings, Raymond’s constant joy has been the firmest reassurance of the Lord’s steadfast love a church could ask for. I encourage you to find the evidences of grace in your pastor’s life during this season, and then let him know that you are thankful for all he does. 

Isaac Whitney

Isaac Whitney is a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and serves as a pastoral intern at Christ Church West Chester in West Chester, Pennsylvania. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24