There’s no question that the past year and a half has been challenging. Between a global pandemic, a disputed election, and racial tensions, the United States seems increasingly polarized. We don’t have to dig far to find articles and pundits highlighting division in the U.S. We don’t have to scroll far to find accusations hurled or subtweeted on social media, whether or not the users are Christians.
How do churches navigate these tensions when they seep into local congregations? How do pastors – in some cases facing personal trials and losses – shepherd their flocks and promote unity during a tumultuous season?
We talked to eight pastors around the country about their experiences over the past 18 months – both the hardships and the ways they’ve seen God’s faithfulness to them and their churches.
“Of my 30 years in pastoral ministry, this was the hardest. I’ve never been more mentally drained and emotionally exhausted for such an extended period of time — much more so than in any other time of my life,” said Dr. David Silvernail, Senior Pastor at Potomac Hills Presbyterian Church (PCA) and visiting lecturer at RTS Washington. He reports that many pastors were feeling discouraged, and some have taken jobs outside of the church to get a break from the constant demands they faced.
Various factors contributed to the tiredness that Dr. Silvernail described; leaders found that the increased level of decision-making was mentally exhausting. Chad Scruggs, Lead Pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, said he realized what a luxury it was to be able to plan. During the early months of the pandemic, the leadership asked day-by-day and week-by-week, “What are we going to do this week?”
“There was a whole lot of newly-introduced strain just to decide about normal things that we’d never had to think about before,” agreed Eric Youngblood, Senior Pastor at Rock Creek Fellowship in Georgia. He recognized that Rock Creek wasn’t alone; leaders in almost every church and organization were listening to disparate voices, discussing options, building a consensus, and communicating it to others.
To make decisions, many churches created task forces. RTS Washington alumnus Ryan Mowen became senior pastor at Church of the Atonement (ARP) in Maryland on January 19, 2020. Less than two months later, they had directions from the state and local government not to meet in person. He found that “keeping up with the latest research, policy, and procedures was too large a task for [their] staff.” The committee they created did “amazing work” and helped the session to make various decisions.
Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi, is an intentionally multiethnic church in a city that is about 80% African American (according to the 2010 U.S. Census). Assistant Pastor of Shepherding and Discipleship Brian Gault shared that, in Jackson, “COVID hit the African American population harder than the white population… Many of the large African American churches didn’t reopen until Easter 2021.”
When Redeemer started planning to return to in-person services, they looked at what local PCA and African American churches were doing. Since June 2020, they’ve conducted four surveys to listen to congregants’ voices, especially around seating. “With a diverse congregation, it was paramount that we have seating where anyone who wanted to come back [to corporate worship] had a way to come back where they felt safe and comfortable.”
At Covenant Presbyterian, the leadership talked about the importance of protecting the church’s unity before communicating the particulars of their decisions. Rev. Scruggs reflected, “[It’s] powerful for our people to hear that unity was what we were after… We confessed early on that we wouldn’t get it all right, but we were pleading for the congregation to both voice their thoughts and also trust us to do the best we could.”
In addition to surveys, pastors and sessions sought to foster transparency in their decision-making via videos, emails, and Zoom meetings. Dr. Greg Lanier, Associate Professor of New Testament at RTS Orlando, is associate pastor of River Oaks Church (PCA) in Lake Mary, Florida. He appreciated that their leadership team did not always agree on how to respond to the pandemic: “It primed us to be aware of how to convey our decisions to a group of people who, like us, were at different places on the spectrum of opinion. When the congregation saw that the leaders could unite behind a course of action even though not everyone agreed with the specifics per se, that went a long way to helping them do the same.”
Congregants’ responses to these decisions were varied. “97% of folks have been incredibly supportive, but it’s hard not to be particularly impacted by the 3%,” shared Dr. Lanier. Jim Davis, Teaching Pastor at Orlando Grace Church, recalled, “Each disgruntled household was like an open browser tab in my mind using an already limited amount of battery power.”
The strain of the past year has highlighted practices that pastors want to continue in less stressful seasons, including transparent communication with church members and personal pastoral care. Many pastors realized they needed better systems to ensure that nobody falls through the cracks and want to equip church leaders to better care for families and congregants.
As Covenant Presbyterian Church began to gather in person again, Rev. Scruggs saw the congregation celebrating their fellowship: “People are mobilized for the work of hospitality.” They want to see that hospitality and celebration remain part of their church’s DNA.
At Christ Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Houston, Texas, they’ve endured crises due to hurricanes and floods every few years. “Each storm upsets our normal routine, and we have to strive for unity and peace with one another,” shared Richard Harris, a current Doctor of Ministry student at RTS Charlotte.
Most churches have had to strive for unity and peace this year to varying degrees. Rev. Youngblood found that the widespread isolation and loneliness created even riper conditions for people to be “substantially discipled by lots of other things than their local church, including cable news and their social media diet.” He sees part of the burden of pastoring as helping to shape Christlike character so the church can express the unity that is ours in Christ.
“We are one,” he said. “But the realization of that is not always apparent.”
The leadership at River Oaks Church recognized that the pandemic didn’t create the rising divisiveness but “certainly exposed [it].” To address the us-versus-them thinking, they held a four-month Sunday school series “to spur [their] folks to think about challenging topics from a robust scriptural perspective and not just from left or right talking points.”
Rev. Davis shared that social unrest hit his church harder than COVID-19. “When pretty much all of our ministries were shut down and racial tensions were rising, we tried to expose our church to teachers we considered to be wise, charitable, and helpful through our podcast, ‘As In Heaven.’”
He continued, “I have learned how important it is for believers to be physically present with the body of Christ… It’s easier for us to believe the worst and gossip or even slander when we are not in physical contact with each other.”
According to Rev. Harris, unity in the church “does not look like uniformity in thought, opinion, conviction, and practice down to every detail… It looks like giving each other the benefit of the doubt. It looks like believing the best about each other. It looks like being charitable in our assumptions about one another. It looks like being long-suffering with those who disagree with us on matters of preference.”
Despite the temptation to give in to us-versus-them thinking, pastors saw frequent examples where the
oneness of the church was on display. Members checked in on each other, finding creative ways to spend time together, and longed for the regular rhythms of corporate worship and other ministries. Believers put up with restrictions out of care for one another, especially the vulnerable in their congregations. When regular volunteers couldn’t attend church due to health concerns, new volunteers filled the gaps.
Members at Redeemer Church have a history of giving up personal preferences; one example is seen in congregational music ranging from gospel music to traditional hymns. Rev. Gault shared, “I think that Redeemer is practiced enough and conscious enough in laying aside our preferences, that…we worked together to love others by laying aside those preferences.”
Dr. Lanier was notably encouraged by the responses to mask policies at River Oaks Church. Those who disagreed with the rationale “put aside their views in order to worship together in person.” When the church pivoted to a mask-optional policy, “those who were pro-mask continued wearing them but… did not foster a sense of judgmentalness toward others.”
Rev. Scruggs has seen God at work uniting churches in the Nashville area. “I’m grateful for the way the pandemic humbled us in terms of our ability to organize and control ministry… It eliminated any competitive spirit [among pastors]. We shared best practices and rooted for each other.”
Dr. Silvernail also talked about how the pandemic forced churches to get back to the core of their mission and vision. As he reflected on the importance of prayer, preaching the Word, and pastoral care, he said, “Sometimes in our striving to be creative and relevant we forget the basics, and our congregations suffer. When the basics are all you have to offer, you discover that is actually [what’s needed] most.”
Other pastors shared their deep love and affection for their congregations. When asked how he’s seen God at work, Rev. Youngblood responded, “I adore our congregation… I’m proud of them and have seen God creating a kind of endurance — the endurance of bearing with each other and with the situation at large.”
Rev. Mowen felt similarly. “As we have come through this season, I have come to see just how wonderful the congregation of Church of the Atonement are. They have a heart for God and desire to honor him. They really care for one another and their pastors. They are excited about seeing the gospel at work in our world.”
At Orlando Grace Church, they sense that God is doing a new work, despite what “feels like a winnowing of sorts.” Rev. Davis shared, “I have never felt more encouraged by the people in our church or by our elders… I believe that we are a more outwardly-focused, missionally-minded church because of some of the trials 2020 brought us.”
In Rev. Davis’ own life, “God has used this experience to solidify in my soul why I do what I do. Many of the ministry idols I had ten years ago have been successfully crushed. It is clearer to me than ever before why I do what I do and who I ultimately do it for.”
The weariness, division, and physical isolation we’ve experienced have highlighted the importance of being together as the body of Christ. And these stories of God’s faithfulness — the church’s care, long-suffering, and humility — echo David’s song in Psalm 133: “Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”
Illustrations by Rusty Hein.
Painting by Lucas van Uden, “Landscape with Rainbow, Shepherds and Sheep,” oil on canvas, 33.8“ x 54.9”, 1648.