Yes, I will admit I stole this title from the new country song by Lily Rose. The song is, of course (it’s country), about a break-up — and the singer agrees to be the villain, the bad guy, so that the ex can have the town on their side, having everyone believing that the break up is all the singer’s fault. But the song is clearly sarcastic — or tongue-in-cheek at least. Of course, an end to a relationship is rarely just one person’s fault.
If you’re a leader in any organization that involves in-person contact with people, over the past year my guess is that you have found yourself in the role of the villain far more often than anticipated. To be fair, I did anticipate taking on this role last year when the pandemic began. I even remember saying to the congregation, “If we do everything right (refrain from in-person meetings and take all safety precautions), nothing happens.” I even reminded everyone that it would seem over-the-top or as though we were being too cautionary, that is how it feels to keep a community safe.
I know that there are other leaders, spiritual and otherwise, who have found themselves villainized for the exact opposite behavior. Perhaps they opened too soon and someone got sick — and now the community is tasked with living with the fallout of those decisions. There still exists shame and guilt around contracting COVID-19; our coping mechanisms sometimes have us tempted to explain away those who are sick by their risky behavior. But what we are really doing is trying to reassure ourselves that we won’t contract the virus.
I think almost all leaders have felt a dooming sense of “damned if you do, and damned it you don’t” when it comes to taking precautions around preventing the spread of COVID-19. The phrase “you’re not going to please everyone” has been thrown around weekly — if not daily.
Last weekend we observed Good Shepherd Sunday, where we focus on Jesus as our good shepherd. And of course, the word “pastor” is derived from the Latin noun that means shepherd. Pastors too are called to care for, provide and protect. But pastors are spiritual leaders. Most of us would fully admit that we have felt stretched to lead, along with elders and deacons, in the area of public health during the past year. And yet, it is soberingly true that all health is intertwined. It seems silly, if not reckless, to focus only on spiritual health and ignore physical health and the pandemic at hand.
All of this to say, “I have been the villain.” In my case, this has meant I have erred on the side of being cautious when it comes to returning to in-person worship. I am aware that this has made me unpopular. I know congregants are frustrated with me. I know I may be too “data-focused” (Can we blame that on my math major and statistics minor?). But, I don’t want to ignore the mind that God has gifted me with and make decisions to take risks that may hurt others.
And even as I say, “I have been the villain,” I have heard other pastors say the same when they have been the leader pushing to re-open and, as a result, their congregation has felt or been unsafe. Or, perhaps the pastor has been seen out and about and judged for their behavior — for taking risks or not taking COVID-19 seriously enough.
So, whatever villain you or your pastor has been this year, let me say this: I have been a reluctant villain. That is why I like the phrasing so much of this song title: “I can be the villain.” I can be. I didn’t want to be. I still don’t want to be. I would rather not be. But I will be.
Friends, congregants, Christians — loving God and loving each other through a pandemic remains hard. There is no one way, right way or wrong way. We can all be villains. But what if we were all partners?
I am extremely aware that this piece reflects my own agony and pain. But I know we can do better. I pause and give thanks for the congregation’s re-entry team formed during this extremely difficult time that has done just that. I give thanks for a diverse group of church members who so often disagreed and yet, found a safe way. I give thanks for a team who was willing to stick their name on a letter or an email (so it didn’t come from just Pastor Julie). I give thanks for a team who was willing to stick their necks out and make recommendations to session. I give thanks for a group of disciples who was willing to do the extra work of setting worship up outside in the parking lot, taking temperatures before entry to the building, researching air purifiers, measuring six feet constantly (our favorite distance by now!), boldly asking someone to pull their mask up and being villains with me. “I can be the villain.” But it is so much better to have some company.
JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey. Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.