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

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.

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