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.