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What COVID Can’t Change: A Word for Weary Pastors

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The social and political upheavals of the last year have made many of us pastors feel inadequate, inferior, Zoomed-out, incompetent, personally alone, or maybe secretly reeling from feeling like we’re disappointing everyone no matter what we do … or don’t do. We feel an inordinate pressure to weigh in on global problems, test medical or social truth claims, steady the doubting, avert conflict, manage conflict, resolve conflict, track down strays, trim the church budget, “be there” for the faithful, write the definitive blog piece, all the while convincing our agnostic neighbor that the truth of Christ is not the problem but the answer. 

Concentration for sermon prep seems elusive. Anxiety interrupts sleep. The challenge to love those who disagree with us becomes more acute. Fringe members seem more evasive. Truth be told, many of us are actually relieved to wear a mask come Sunday, if for no other reason than it hides the sorrow that betrays our smile, or the fatigue on our face. In our most candid moments, we may ask, “Is gospel ministry really enough for all this? Is it enough for me to preach and pray and love our obscure little flock, in our nowhere neighborhood, when the world seems to need so much more than I know how to give?” Our courage fails us for a minute—or a month—and we linger over the precipice of self-pity, our hearts distorting that euphoric phrase with our own escapist intent: “we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.” 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we should just punt on the difficult issues of the day and hop on a comfortable hobby horse until the storm passes by. “Let go and let God” is not in the Bible … anywhere … really. But we should remember that Scripture gives us all the power and wisdom we need in order to lead and feed God’s people, even when it seems like we’re in a sandstorm in the middle of a spiritual desert. The manna didn’t need to grow in soil or sand. It fell from heaven. And Scripture, though it didn’t drop from the sky Smyth Sewn in cellophane, still came from the mouth of the eternal and unchangeable God. It exists independently of our circumstances, so that it can transcend all circumstances, and as such it is timeless enough to address every circumstance, including our own. And so, no matter what comes our way, you and I can always do four things. 

  1.     We can cast ourselves on the sovereignty of God

Yes, you are responsible as a pastor-elder to “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2). But God is sovereign over our cultural upheavals, and He intends you to trust Jesus through them. Jesus is indeed head over the church, but that’s not all Jesus rules: “God has put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church” (Ephesians 1:22). Jesus rules everything—COVID, riots, elections, even apostasies—for God’s glory in the building up of the church. Pastor, rest in the mercy, grace, and power of that truth. God has not assigned you the task of solving everyone’s COVID and culture problems by your own pastoral finesse or penetrating insight. Maybe he just wants you to learn to pray harder, preach more faithfully, love more selflessly, and lean on Him more fully. If you say you trust in God’s sovereignty, then brother, lead like it.  

  1.     We can cast ourselves on the adequacy of God

“Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:5–6). The apostle trusted that his own sufficiency came from God; so, brother pastor, where do you think yours comes from? Your adequacy is not in your own knowledge, virtue, skill, diligence, or self-confidence. Even when you excel in those things, realize that even that excellence has its adequacy and source in your spiritual union with Jesus Christ. He is everything for us …for you, brother. In yourself, you are not sufficient—admit it and get used to it. But praise God, He has made us sufficient as servants of a new covenant through His Spirit, by His Word.  

  1.     We can cast ourselves on the sufficiency of Scripture

“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Every good work—that includes making decisions about social distancing, masks, justice issues, the relationship between church and state, even how to lead people to grow in love for those who disagree with each other on issues of conscience. Equipped for every good work—that’s you, Christian, steeped in Scripture.  

  1.     We can trust afresh in the relevance of gospel-centered, Christ-exalting biblical exposition

“The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of the Lord remains forever. (Isaiah 40:7–8). And Peter says, “this word is the good news that was preached to you” (1 Peter 2:24–25). The gospel is timeless, addressing every temporal context with equal ease and applicability. Your job, pastor, is not to make the text or the gospel relevant. Rather, your job is to discover how your text already testifies to the timeless gospel of Jesus, and how that eternal, unchanging-but-multifaceted gospel surprises us with its own relevance to our life today, both publicly and privately, in the context of the church and in our individual lives. How does Christ’s supremacy address our idolatry? How does his holiness address our sinfulness? How does his power address our weakness? How does his kindness address our fears? How does his sovereignty contextualize our authority? How does his wisdom address our foolishness? How does his humility address our pride? How does his cry of abandonment at the cross lead to our reconciliation to God and to each other? What does his bodily resurrection mean for our hope?  

These and a thousand other edifying, electrifying questions await you, and your congregation, in all of Scripture. And if you give yourself to meditating on these things for the strengthening of the saints and the conversion of sinners, then you will discover a depth of inherent cultural relevance, endemic to the Bible itself, that none of your own sophistication or imagination could infuse into the text. The text of Scripture is rich enough to feed the hungriest soul without artificial flavors, colors, supplements, or additives.  

Brother pastor, your context and culture have changed—the spiritual seasons have changed—but your calling remains the same. 

 Preach the word. Be ready in season and out of season. Rebuke, reprove, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching hears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1–5)

The truth is, preaching is now in season for some of our hearers, and out of season for many others. Either way, get ready to preach. Study your Bible prayerfully. Talk and pray through the Bible with your fellow elders or church leaders. And remember, no matter what’s happening now or in the future, “… surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of the Lord remains forever.” Yes, everything has changed … except the Word of God. What’s new? 

Paul Alexander is as the Pastor of Grace Covenant Church of Fox Valley in St. Charles, Illinois.
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