I remember the day we canceled in-person worship. I thought to myself, “Wow, this is really hard.”
But I’m sure by now you pastors feel as I do, that the questions about reopening are far more challenging than was the closure of our buildings.
Let me begin by saying I’ve spent many nights lying awake thinking, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” I really don’t. But neither did Peter, James and John, when instead of giving them answers Jesus ascended above them saying, “Wait for the promise, you’ll receive power, be my witnesses.” I imagine they were overwhelmed, as I have also been by the ceaseless deluge of Facebook posts, church leadership articles and ministry forums telling us pastors about the right way to reopen.
The truth is, there is no blueprint for how to do this. Easy answers didn’t guide us well before all of this, and they won’t now. Because bearing witness to the gospel of God’s love is uniquely contextual and particular (Jerusalem, Judea, Samara, ends of the earth…), reopening will be contextual and particular as well. My own context is that of a 700-member downtown church in a small city in North Carolina. Yours is likely different. My wife and are co-pastors, and what we have to offer in the way of reopening is not perfect. Rather than give you the how of reopening, or even the when, I’ve found it more helpful to do what pastors have always done, which is think about who God is, and what it means to be human.
1. Listen to Micah
What does the Lord require of us now? In what ways will our decisions heed Micah’s call to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God? It strikes me that in our world of endless opinions, many folks address issues of reopening in ways that separate Micah’s three-fold call. We cannot do justice without loving kindness without walking humbly. This is a time to take seriously the church’s call to care for the image of God in one another, to love thy neighbor, to love thyself and to love thy God. Before we craft 10-page reopening plans, we need to do some deep thinking and praying about how God’s love is made flesh in our decisions, and in the decision-making process. Let God’s love and grace lead our decisions, not the other way around. Though pastors right now feel the need to be pseudo-scientists, amateur news reporters and freshly minted CDC experts, our first call is to serve our people with energy, intelligence and imagination—to point them toward God’s presence in the everyday. Lead with your ordination vows, lead with your call to bear witness to Jesus’ gospel of grace and care. We can live with decisions that follow an account of God’s steadfast love.
2. Preferential option for the vulnerable
Liberation theology has long reminded us of God’s preferential option for the poor. Blessed are the poor, blessed are the meek, blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. There is a special concern and love in God’s heart that bends toward the least, last, lonely and lost. How do we make our decisions about reopening through the lens of caring for the vulnerable in our worshipping communities? These people are not just the poor — they are the elderly, the recovering cancer patients, the beloved children and the mentally ill. If the wisdom of God is foolishness to the world, wise decisions in this time might look weird. The early church was known for holding all things in common as an act of worship. How do we hold all things in common with all people?
3. Allegiance to God first
This may sound obvious to some, but this idea goes against the very grain of what it means to be American in the 21stcentury. I’ve heard some church leaders using this language: “It’s not a matter of what we are allowed to do, it’s what we should do.” While should language often borders on legalism for me, I do appreciate the sentiment. Like in our preaching, our decisions on reopening will not be about what people want, but rather what people need. Our allegiance as Christians is not to the state’s allowance of our individual rights, but to the pressing of God’s kingdom upon a community of hope. People will need kind and gentle reminders in this time that the church’s considerations in reopening are far different than other businesses. Our pledge of allegiance is to the slain lamb who is at once the author of life and shalom. We are entrusted with bodies and souls that belong to one another in covenant — that is our scope.
4. Love your reopening enemies
After about a month of surprising unity, America did what it does best, and this whole thing became politically polarizing — as is the DNA of our current tribalistic moment. When I am at my most judgmental and self-righteous (which has happened often), I have had to remind myself that I am called to love people who watch different news channels than I do. Even harder, I am called to pray for them. At a time when anxiety and depression are at their peak, and the social fabric of communal life is continually threatened by those stupid words “conservative” and “liberal,” we must remember that it is because of human nature that we seek safety in the extremes while under stress. I have my own opinions about our current administration. But Jesus didn’t vote for either party. Ours is a diverse denomination, a “purple church” some have called it, and as we reopen, we will need to be gentle with those with whom we greatly disagree. People need togetherness and unity more than ever. The church should be that place.
5. Don’t make this decision alone
I failed my polity exam a few times, but this is the kind of moment where our denominational structure hugely benefits us. My wife and I created a CRT (coronavirus response team) made up of the chairs of several committees. They can be a lot nimbler in decision-making than can our large session. We’ve begun our first two meetings by praying and doing theology together. As is the case with our team, it’s probably a good idea not to stack the deck with people who want to reopen like you do. Jesus’ CRT had a zealot, some fishermen and a tax collector. Imagine the arguments in their reopening plan. Pastoring has always been a lonely job. But as much as I have believed the lie that my wife and I are lone-wolf leaders who must shoulder the burden of reopening alone, I’ve found such relief in knowing that our congregants will make this decision for themselves and for one another. Let the body be the body.
6. Get ready for the anger
Churches are family systems, and when families experience loss, members get angry. There is such a whirlwind of loss spiraling around us all. Stay close to your own loss, and in so doing, you will have compassion for the loss and anger that many pastors will receive for not reopening in the way people want. Some will say we opened too soon, others will say we’re far too late and others will lament that the worship we give them will not be the worship they remember. And it won’t be. The Israelites returned from exile and wept when they saw that the second temple paled in comparison to the first. Get ready for the anger, even within yourself, but remember, too, that on the other side of anger is acceptance.
7. Consider how reopening mirrors God’s hospitality and inclusivity
Is it really worship if a large portion of our aging denomination are not allowed to attend or if it is not safe for them to do so? Does that meet the demands of the gospel’s radical inclusivity? I don’t know the answer. Nor do I know to what extent a service can be defined as worship if all of its liturgical fleshiness is stripped away. If we cannot see faces, cannot sing, cannot pass the peace, cannot have children’s time or cannot worship intergenerationally, then what kind of worship is this? I say all of that knowing full well that the Spirit is the guarantor of our worship, and Jesus is our High Priest. What I do know is that we ought to reopen in a manner consonant with our mission statements, which in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) means defining worship only as worship when the doors are open to all.
8. Find your new heart
The difference between managing congregations and leading them is that while management takes care of what always has been, leadership requires and enacts change — what Paul calls the renewal of the mind and the prophets a new heart. There has been and will be devastating loss during this pandemic. But exile is where new words and hearts are born. What worship practices, definitions of church and ways of being do we need to let die so that a more loving, generous and Spirit-driven church might emerge? What is God doing in your very local, very particular midst? What new creation will re-open out of this tomb in which we’ve been living? When I retire from ministry (hopefully at age 55!) and look back, I wonder what I will make of this time. I expect I will say that it shaped my entire ministry going forward and changed my answer to the question, “who is the church?” What I hope is that I can say it gave the congregation we served a chance at a new heart, a new spirit, a more beautiful way of being within the Kingdom of God.
Friends, this is so hard. These days being a pastor is like heeding the call that Dumbledore puts on Harry, “We must choose between what is right, and what is easy.” Thomas Merton’s prayer has been on my heart, “Lord I have no idea where I’m going, but I do know that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”
As uncertain as these times are, I am certain that God’s promises remain the same. As unprecedented as this time feels, I am certain God’s love will take precedence. The same God who told Abraham “go” and Ruth “cling” and Moses “rescue” and Mary “give birth” is now speaking and residing with us. And best of all, God is not just with us, God is for us, and for the world. And if our God is with us, then who could be against us? I have no clue what tomorrow looks like, but I trust that God’s steadfast love will await us there. In the meantime, I’ll be praying for you all.
JOSHUA MUSSER GRITTER co-pastors First Presbyterian Church in Salisbury, North Carolina, with his wife Lara. They watch movies together with their dog Red.