3 Ways Shepherding Our Socially Distanced Church Has Made Me a Better Pastor

Jared Cornutt

I believe 2 Timothy 4:2 has taken on a new meaning for most of us this year. Pastors are leading their churches in a way they never have before. I have often joked that I missed the seminary class on “Pastoring through Pandemics,” but this really is unchartered territory for our professors as well. Most ministers I have spoken with are exhausted, noting that they have had to work harder during this time than at any other point in ministry. I can attest this is certainly true for me, and I believe ultimately, I will be a better pastor because of it.

What is most striking is how quickly this all transpired; almost overnight, the way we have been doing ministry had to adapt and change. We went from pastoring the local church gathered to pastoring the local church scattered; and primarily virtually. This time has certainly felt out of season. Most of us are searching for and discovering new ways to minister to the flock entrusted to us.

I want to encourage you by sharing some things we have done this season that are different, but have served to make me a more effective pastor. It is easy to focus on the negative during this time, but it is essential to focus on the things we can control. We must remember that God is still on his throne in this season, and he is in control. Instead of asking why God has allowed this to happen, maybe we should seek to see how God wants to grow us as this happens. Here are three areas where we have done new things during the pandemic that have become blessings. 

1. Becoming better communicators 

One of the ways my people have affirmed experiencing stronger leadership is through better communication during the pandemic. One of the first decisions I made for our staff was that we needed to be in constant communication with our membership. We did not want what them to be guessing about what we would do next. Instead, we have had them walk alongside us at this time. This process is something I thought we were already doing well, but honestly, we have found it’s an area where we could have been doing a lot better. Our people have appreciated the extra effort from the staff, and in particular from me as their pastor.

We have been doing a few different things to communicate better. First, we have been putting out weekly articles from different pastors on staff to encourage and challenge our people. These are short and are designed to be devotional. It gives our people a chance to hear from the staff, especially those who do not get a lot of stage time. 

A second thing we have been doing is sending out regular emails detailing the needs of our church, ways we can pray and meet others’ needs, and letting people know what the next week will look like for the church. As restrictions were being loosened and we were formulating a plan to regather, we developed a 10-question survey for our church. They were able to hear what our plan was and give us their expectations for coming back together.

Instead of asking why God has allowed this to happen, maybe we should seek to see how God wants to grow us as this happens.

Our people have said they appreciate being genuinely heard and regularly hearing from their pastor. When things get back to normal, we will continue to build upon these new ideas to communicate clearly, competently, and consistently with our church.

2. More intentional pastoral care

Our hospitals quickly stopped allowing visitors, which created a unique challenge for how to visit the sick. This meant that the way we did pastoral care would be different. One thing we did was assign every pastor on staff a list of 125 church members to call each week and check on. Each pastor makes sure they update the members they call with any new developments, asks what their needs are, and asks for prayer requests before praying with them. They also take notes on their conversation to share with the staff. We have found that we are getting to know our people better because of this intentional time. Coupled with that, we discovered that for many of our members, especially those who live alone, this is a time they really look forward to. We plan to keep an updated list of our membership for our pastors to call each month to speak and pray with our people.

This has also been a season where I have been doing a lot of handwritten notes. Members who have had birthdays, anniversaries, loss of loved ones and employment, and other experiences are not going through the normal process of celebration and grieving. Taking the time to write our members to rejoice with them or mourn with them has been so well received. This is another new thing I plan to keep doing every week as a part of my ministry. I have always said, “No one wants to know what you know until they know you care about them.” This is a great way to show your people you care about them.

We also implemented three teams among our deacon body to serve our church in this unique time. These teams will go grocery shopping for our more vulnerable members, pick up prescriptions for our elderly members, and help them with any other needs they may have. Our deacons have also helped some of our members learn how to use the technology needed to watch our services so they can stay connected to our church. There is no way this could have all fallen on the pastoral team, and I am thankful area deacons took on this challenge to be servants to our body. 

3. Refining my preaching skills

One of the most challenging things about this season is preaching to a video camera in an empty room. This is much more difficult to me than preaching to a room full of people. Early on, we decided that we record our service on Thursday and then release them live on multiple platforms on Sunday morning. This means that I have had the unfortunate privilege of watching myself preach each week for two months. It’s like I’m sitting through homiletics all over again. 

As awkward as it is to watch yourself preach, I do believe this can help you become a better preacher. Do not waste this opportunity to refine your preaching. I have been able to watch myself and ask questions like: Did I communicate that properly? How could I have said that better? I also have been able to critique how clear I have made the gospel in my messages and how I can do so with more clarity next time. In terms of cadence, tone, and eye contact, I have seen areas of growth over our seven weeks online. 

 Most importantly, hold fast to the gospel and use this as a season to grow as a pastor, leaning heavily on the goodness and grace of Jesus to bless your efforts and build his Church. 

This has also reminded me how utterly dependent my preaching is upon God. Speaking to a camera and pleading with people to repent and believe is in vain if it’s powerless preaching. I have spent more time praying over my sermons than at any other point I can remember. This is another thing I will continue to do. In addition to praying, I have been reading Francis Grimke’s Meditation on Preaching as a devotion as I prepare each week. I do not know who will see our video each week, but I do know what they hear has been prayed over deeply by someone who knows his words don’t save—only God’s power does. Determine to get the gospel in people’s ears, and trust God to get it into their hearts.

Our plan going forward

As great as these improvements and ideas have been, we still long to gather together again. As this article is being penned, we are in the process of regathering as a church. As I mentioned earlier, we have listened to our people as we have come up with our plan. The decision to regather, at least to me, is much more difficult than the decision to cancel. Part of becoming a better leader is leaning on the wisdom of those around you. Therefore, we created an ad hoc committee consisting of doctors in our church and key lay leaders to help us make our decisions. They have been instrumental in developing the plan for our church coming back together.

But, make sure you write your plans in pencil, not pen. Your people will not fault you for being overly cautious during this time and adjusting plans based on this changing situation. Most importantly, hold fast to the gospel and use this as a season to grow as a pastor, leaning heavily on the goodness and grace of Jesus to bless your efforts and build his Church.

Jared Cornutt is the senior pastor of Plymouth Park Baptist Church in Irving, Texas.

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