Pandemic Intersection

Craig in AlaskaBlog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader

I recently reached out to an old friend who I haven’t contacted in a while. I simply asked, “How are you doing?” He emailed, “I am doing about as well as can be expected in the midst of a global pandemic, an escalating national crisis demanding racial justice, and the most divisive political campaign in my lifetime. Other than that, I’m doing fine!”

I’m afraid to ask people, “How are you?” It is not that I don’t really want to know. I do. I care very much where folks are during this difficult time. But in hearing their answer, I find myself nodding my head in agreement because I’m feeling the same way too.

The congregations in the presbytery were going through challenges before the pandemic hit. We were struggling with the challenge brought on by declining membership and resources. We were trying to figure out why our children don’t return after confirmation, and why our older adults leave or sit idly on the sidelines. The presbytery was struggling with the reduction in volunteers. Are people just busy? Are people disinterested? Are people just apathetic? Then wham! The pandemic hit.

Keep in mind that the social unrest we are experiencing isn’t because of the pandemic. The viciousness and below the belt politics would have happened anyway as well. The pandemic has caused us to observe these events and take them into our living rooms and dens. The pandemic is the stop sign on the corner of the intersection. It is an intersection we should have been stopping at anyway. But were too busy, too involved, and not paying attention. We just blew past the corner. Now we have no choice. We must stop. We have to look at our society, our congregations, and ourselves and ask, “How are you doing? What is going on?”

The anti-racism work that so many of us are doing is necessary to help us become the church on the other side of the pandemic. The self-reflection and grappling with our political convictions can help us expand our sense of community beyond party lines, or we’ll narrow our gaze as we live into tribalism. The constant barrage of Black lives being lost on camera should open the wells of empathy in our hearts and help us become a welcoming community: a community of justice, a community of inclusion.

There will be another side to the pandemic. It may take one year, or it may take five years, but we will come out of this period of limitations. The type of people we become and the type of church that is resurrected will depend upon how we use this time; what we learn, who we talk to, what we value, and where we find God.

Rev. Craig Howard

Too many pastors are falling on their own swords

Article shared from Baptist News Global

Well, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been imagining killing myself,” the pastor said.

I was on a Zoom call recently with 10 pastors across three denominations, when one of the participants shared a struggle with suicidal thoughts in these challenging days. By the time the meeting concluded, four of the 10 had found the courage to admit their own suicidal ideations.

I was the youngest person in the group, so these aren’t young, green pastors. These are veterans who have gone through plenty of difficult things in their time, but today’s intensity and difficulty is unprecedented.

One pastor shared the heartbreaking story of going back to church too early and losing a beloved church member to COVID-19. Another shared how congregants were daily emailing him with threats to leave the church if they didn’t reopen immediately — and withholding their tithes until then.

One pastor was fired. Her husband passed away several years ago, leaving her a single mother of two children. Without childcare, she was forced to work from home as best she could. Parenting is a full-time job, and parenting two small children alone during a pandemic stretches the metaphor beyond its breaking point. Her church was unhappy with her leadership, sermon quality and lack of a vision during this time of crisis, so they let her go.

Another pastor was forced to lay off half the church’s staff members because so many of the church’s congregants lost their jobs and are unable to give right now.

I know of another pastor who wasn’t in this meeting who after preaching about race one week, a congregant came to the church office and kicked his office door off of its hinges in an attempt to incite the pastor into a fist fight.

One shared that the survey results the congregation took about whether they should return to in-person worship or not resulted in a nearly perfect 50/50 split, with several members writing in the comments section that they would leave if the church (1) didn’t open immediately or (2) attempted to open at all.

“Leading anxious congregations amidst a pandemic, a hyper-partisan culture, a civil rights movement, and an upcoming election is destroying the lives of our pastors. Literally.”

Leading anxious congregations amidst a pandemic, a hyper-partisan culture, a civil rights movement, and an upcoming election is destroying the lives of our pastors. Literally.

The only thing that surprised me about the confessions made by these four pastors struggling with suicidal ideation was that there were only four admissions. This Zoom call only echoed the reality that I’ve heard other pastor friends across the nation report for months now.

There’s a story in the Old Testament about King Saul being defeated in battle. Instead of waiting on the opposing army to torture and ridicule him before killing him, he chooses to take his own life by falling on his sword.

Well, pastors are already facing ridicule not just from their adversaries but from many of their own congregants. They’re being tortured by their own inability to lead their churches out of a pandemic, out of hyper-partisanship and out of racism.

Falling on their swords is starting to look pretty attractive.

Church always has been a place where people can act foolish with little consequence — where people have the space to act out toward clergy in ways that aren’t safe to do toward their bosses or their spouses. Being a pastor never has been easy, but this is a new level of hell that pastors are living.

If you’re a congregant reading this, here’s some advice:

  • First, accept the fact that your church is not The Church. The body of Christ here on earth is not Christ himself. Don’t conflate the two. Churches are fallible organizations full of sinners saved by grace.

“Those people who are hellbent on saving the church are ironically the very ones who end up doing her the most harm.”

In my experience, those people who are hellbent on saving the church are ironically the very ones who end up doing her the most harm. The person who chooses to love the church just as she is, for this is what Christ does, is the one who is able to grow with her.

So stop comparing your church to the one down the street or the one your kids go to. Accept your church for who she is.

  • Second, accept that your pastor is a shepherd, not The Shepherd. If we’re unable to accept that our pastors are human beings with flaws, that says more about us than it does our pastors.

And stop comparing them to the pastor down the street or on the podcast you listen to. It isn’t fair to your pastor, and such comparison incites in us the sin of envy. One of the Ten Commandments teaches us not to covet —and I believe healthy church members will not covet their neighbor’s pastor.

  • Third, pray for your pastor. Pray for his or her mental health. Pray for the pastor’s family. Pray for the pastor to flourish. Pray for God to give you understanding and patience with your pastor and to show you how to be a source of light and life during this time of death and darkness.
  • Fourth, for the next six months, commit to staying and being the best church member you can be. I’ve learned that when I get angry emails, I don’t need to respond on the same day. I write a response, then I sleep on it. If I still feel like I need to say those things the next day, then I do. But 90% of the time I don’t, and I craft an entirely new email.

If you don’t like how things are going in your church, that’s OK. No one is saying you should, but I am absolutely suggesting that you keep it to yourself until the pandemic is over and then, if you still think it’s worth addressing, do so at that time.

It’s common for church members to smile to themselves when their pastor does something they like but never reach out with a compliment — and then be quick to speak out when the pastor does something they don’t like. That means the only time we hear from some of you is when you are unhappy. It’s exhausting, and isn’t an honest representation of who you are or your relationship with the church and your pastor. Share the good things, and share them often.

Practice the Christian virtue of being long-suffering, and ride this storm out. Be committed to your church. Be committed to its financial and spiritual success.

  • Fifth, advocate for you pastor’s mental health. Ask committees to use emergency funds to pay for your pastor to see a counselor, get a spiritual director or even just get out of town for a bit. Assure your pastor that if she or he needs to take a leave of absence or an extended vacation, they are empowered to do so. Their lives may depend on it.

If you’re a pastor reading this, I have advice for you too:

  • First, get a counselor. Find a professional outside of your congregation whom you can get real with, and then be brutally honest with that counselor.
  • Second, be honest with your primary care physician about anxiety and depression. You made need to see a psychiatrist, but odds are that your PCP is dealing with a lot of mental health issues right now and may have some wonderful advice for you. And you made need medication in the short term. It’s worth it. Your life may be at stake.

“We are in a pandemic. Reevaluate and recreate realistic expectations.”

  • Third, do less. Being a pastor right now is killing pastors. That isn’t hyperbole or a metaphor. The workload and the mental strain are inhumane and unsustainable. We are in a pandemic. Reevaluate and recreate realistic expectations.

Some things can be delegated to other staff, deacons, committees or lay teams. Other things will need to be dropped for a time. Hopefully your church will understand if you communicate your needs to them, but even if they don’t, losing your job is better than losing your life.

  • Fourth, practice friendship. One of the worst things about the pandemic is the isolation. We are in this together, but we are doing it separately. Reach out to your friends and put a weekly or monthly Zoom date on the calendar. Have a drink, cuss, play video games or anything else that brings even a modicum of relief to the internal pressure you’re carrying.

Community and intimacy are prescriptions for the spiritual disease of isolation, and you probably cannot get your prescription filled in your congregation right now.

  • Fifth, lean on your peers. No one can support a pastor quite like another pastor. Ask a few trusted peers to be in a small peer group that carries each other’s pandemic burdens for the next six months. And then tell them the truth, pray for each other fervently and often, and hold each other accountable for their taking care of mental health. When my other pastor friends ask me if I’ve made an appointment with my counselor yet, then I feel compelled to do so in a way that I don’t otherwise feel.

You may think you don’t have any more room to carry anyone else’s burden, and that’s true, but I’d wager you will find the burden is actually lessened when shared with competent companions who are on the same journey.

Jakob Topper serves as pastor of NorthHaven Baptist Church in Norman, Okla.


Taking the Pandemic Seriously

Craig in AlaskaBlog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader

I took a two-day trip to Chicago this week to celebrate my oldest daughter’s birthday. It was the first time I’ve traveled since March, and I hadn’t seen my daughters since February. My time with my girls was outstanding and worth the travel and challenges. However, entering into the Chicago metro area was entering into a COVID-19 defense bubble, and it began with the hotel I stayed in.

Upon arrival I was given a letter and verbal instructions on the new rules. There would be no housekeeping service, no daily room cleaning, changing and making of beds, changing of towels and linen, etc. I must phone the front desk if I need any of these items. Furthermore, housekeeping is not allowed in a guest room unless the guest vacates the room for 3 hours. If I need a change of towels, linen, etc. or desire my room to be cleaned, I must arrange it one day in advance. There is no access to public areas. No daily free breakfast. No hanging out in the lounge watching TV. Mask must be worn when outside of my room along with social distancing.

And this was the beginning of my trip. The next morning, I went to a 4-mile walking trail for exercise. I used to run this trail in my younger days, so I am very familiar with it. My first surprise was the number of cars in the lot. There were so many people walking, running, and biking on the trail. I encountered more people while walking 4 miles than I have encountered while walking 150 miles in my village of Ellisville. Even though we were outside in a park, about 90% wore masks, and we all practiced social distancing.

I would learn later that restaurants had signs, “No Mask, No Service.” The city had also established the occupancy capacity for each eating facility. As I drove through Chicago to arrive at my daughter’s high-rise apartment, I was amazed that people walked the sidewalks wearing masks. Masks and social distancing were being observed outside as well as inside of facilities.

At one point I felt like I was in a different world than St. Louis. It was as though the community of Chicago is suffering a great loss, and everyone is pitching in to make sure the intruder who committed the crime would be evicted and not permitted to return. Perhaps this also explains the warmth and friendliness I experienced. Amidst the pandemic, protests, and riots, the residents of the city showed a heart of hospitality and kindness to one another.

As I return home to Ellisville, I am clear where I stand on masks, hand washing, social distancing, and public health. Missouri’s COVID-19 rate is higher than Cook County, where Chicago is located. I pray all within the presbytery will take this pandemic seriously as well. Let’s be well and be safe.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Three Dimensional Worship

Craig in AlaskaOn Sunday I had the opportunity to preach via Zoom at Glendale Presbyterian Church. This is only the third time I’ve preached since the pandemic. Each church has been very different in its technology, liturgy, and location. Twice I’ve preached from home, and once inside of a church. Twice has been by Zoom and once by Facebook live. On Sunday I tried something I’ve never done before. It’s an idea I stole from Liz Kanerva. About two-thirds into my sermon, I had the congregation break into small groups. I had several pre-planned questions for them to discuss. I allowed 10 minutes for the discussions. Afterward, they all returned to hear the conclusion of the sermon.

As a teacher at heart, this style of preaching made me feel like a teaching elder! The time for small group discussions was a moment I could stop, enter a small group, and listen to what is on the minds of the parishioners. I could hear them process the sermon and discover their thoughts and ideas. It was a moment of true liturgy–the work of the people–as they engaged one another and led each other in conversation.

COVID time has not been pleasant, but it has offered us an opportunity for creativity. It is a chance to make our two-dimensional worship into a three-dimensional experience. I’ve seen churches use the Call to Worship as a time for people to greet one another with a wave. I’ve seen people sharing their heartfelt prayers and praying for one another in the chat forum during the time for Prayers of the People. Children’s sermons can be videos, images, and recorded nature walks with conversations. At Glendale we ended worship by turning off the recording of the worship service and sitting and sharing informally our joys and concerns.

What are some creative things your church is doing during this time? What are some ways you have turned this time of cloister into a time of creative growth? Please share your ideas in the response section of the blog, so we can all learn together through the cross-pollination of ideas.

Rev. Craig M. Howard

Shuffling Through History

Craig in AlaskaBlog Post by
Rev. Dr. Craig M. Howard
Presbytery Leader

Be it further RESOLVED, That we lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past; and

Be it further RESOLVED, That we apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously (Psalm 19:13) or unconsciously (Leviticus 4:27); . . .

Resolution On Racial Reconciliation On The 150th Anniversary Of The Southern Baptist Convention, 1995

We repent of shutting our hearts to the experiences of fellow humans whose stories of pain, suffering, hardship, struggle, love and joy mirror our own life journeys, yet are deprived of privilege and marred by racism.  We have turned our backs and walked away pretending not to see, yet we saw, pretending not to know, yet we knew, and convincing ourselves that we were not complicit, yet we are.

We now know that we as white Christians have benefitted directly and indirectly from these injustices. We name ourselves as complicit and repent.

An Apology to Our African American Sisters and Brothers for The Sin Of Slavery And Its Legacy, Presbytery of Giddings Lovejoy, 2020

In 1995 the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) wrote a stinging apology and rebuke for their history of slavery and white supremacy. Over 15,000 people were present in the Georgia Dome 25 years ago when the document was read and approved. The Resolution was then used as an olive branch to the black community. The L.A. Times wrote, “The Rev. Gary Frost of Youngstown, Ohio, the denomination’s second vice president and the first African American to reach that post, accepted the apology on behalf ‘of my black brothers and sisters.”‘

Earlier this year the presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy passed their Apology document. The Apology, created by the Dismantling Racism and Privilege team, is a strong statement that fills in the missing, overlooked, and denied pieces of social history in the presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy. It is exciting to see that congregations are examining the Apology and are using it as a platform to discuss current racial issues in their particular context.

As I read the history of the SBC in Robert P. Jones’ book, White Too Long, I see obvious comparisons between the SBC Resolution and the presbytery’s Apology. Since the SBC has a 25-year head start, what can we learned from how the SBC has incorporated its Resolution on Racial Reconciliation and what may happen with the Apology document?

Jones provides a cautionary tale as he looks at the past 25 years in the SBC. Although the Reconciliation document is filled with repentance, regret, and promises, the church has struggled to move past these emotional sentiments into real racial progress. Jones describes what he calls the White Christian shuffle. This entails “a subtle two steps forward and one step backward pattern of lamenting past sins in great detail, even admitting that they have had pernicious effects but then ultimately denying that their legacy requires reparative or costly actions in the present. It’s a strategy that emphasizes lament and apology, expects absolution and reconciliation, but gives scant attention to questions of justice, repair, or accountability.”

The warning from Jones is clear. If the church is going to move forward on issues of race, it must move from lament to accountability; from repentance to justice; from reconciliation to repair. Moving forward means costing the church something today. I do not know what that means for our presbytery. I know there is a conversation in our denomination with the Presbyterian Loan and Investment Program to access their funding (and debt) of African American congregations. I am aware of presbyteries that create incentives for congregations to interview and hire pastors of color. These examples hint at the type of effort it will take to bring racial change in our presbytery.

I believe that if we are going to make any progress against racism, it will take a sustained determined effort. I pray we keep focused, keep at it, and keep the faith believing that a change is going to come. Amen.

Rev. Craig M. Howard