COVID-19 and the valley of decision: The unbearable pressure your Senior Pastor is under
Photo: Karl Fredrickson:Unsplash.com
Editor’s note: This article was first published on February 14, a week after Singapore’s risk assessment level had been raised to Dorscon Orange. With recent announcements that more denominations and churches had decided to suspend worship services in the wake of new guidelines to limit the possibility of spreading the coronavirus, we felt this lesson from Scripture just as relevant today.
Maybe your Church is running worship services this weekend, and you’re not happy about it.
Is that really the wisest decision at such a time?
Or maybe your Church isn’t running services, and you’re not happy about that.
What does the Bible say about not giving up on gathering?
It’s easy to be critical, but try for a moment to imagine the weight of decision-making responsibility resting on every senior pastor’s shoulders right now. You’re criticised if you do, and criticised if you don’t.
Gather, as the National Council of Churches of Singapore encourages, and you run the risk of … you know. Don’t gather, and what does it say about your faith, or in fact the faith?
No Senior Pastor, at this point more than a fortnight into COVID-19, is taking the easy way out. Going ahead or cancelling services involves making a decision.
Either decision takes immense courage. Health and life are at stake. But so is the faith and all we stand for. Cancelling services is not an act for the cowardly – we all know the recrimination that might follow. It takes equal boldness to decide to carry on.
Cancelling services is not an act for the cowardly. It takes equal boldness to decide to carry on.
How does it feel like to be the leader making the decision? I think about the moment Elijah calls Elisha to leave his family and serve the Lord. As soon as Elisha rushes off to say goodbye to his family, Elijah quietly acknowledges the gravity of that which he has asked Elisha to do, in 1 Kings 19:20.
“What have I done to you?”
Church leaders experience this to a much gentler degree on a day-to-day basis. We call believers to step out of their comfort zone into a life of surrender and sacrifice.
But the Senior Pastor who now draws from his faith convictions and asks members to keep coming to Church despite the risks posed by COVID-19 – a decision that many in the world might not understand – will surely be feeling the gravity of his decision.
He or she will be wrestling within himself, with each person that comes through the Sanctuary door triggering that unspoken doubt: “What have I done to you?”
Some Church leaders have chosen to suspend their services for now.
This includes Adam Road Presbyterian Church (ARPC), City Harvest Church and the Roman Catholic Diocese, with others likely to follow from this weekend. Some Christian events, such as Cru’s Unveil 2020 Conference in mid-March, have been called off.
This should not be a reason to condemn, and not a basis on which to judge a church’s “faith levels”. As NCCS President Terry Kee reminded us, believers should refrain from comparing why some churches choose to close some services or programmes while others may not. Different churches have different considerations, such as the demographics of attendees or members’ known exposure to confirmed COVID-19 cases.
For example, ARPC cited its “unique” church demographics, with “a higher proportion of families and children” than other churches, as a key factor in its decision.
“Thus, our faith in God and love for one another should lean us on the side of caution in the face of the many unknowns of COVID-19. We think suspending our Services temporarily ‘before the fact’ of another possible church cluster outbreak is more faithful to God and loving to our neighbour than being forced to ‘lockdown’ church ‘after the fact’ of an infection,” Senior Pastor Christopher Chia said in a Facebook post.
These decisions are being made in a situation that many members of this generation of Christians have not experienced in their time as Church leaders. There are precedents, but not quite in recent memory.
No matter how confident or convicted your Senior Pastor or Elder looks as he or she announces your Church’s stand – carry on or cancel – know that behind that decision was surely much agonising and maybe even self-doubt. What if I make the wrong call on this? Did I really hear the Holy Spirit right?
This is no time to criticise and denounce your Church leader’s decision. Now, more than ever, is the time to rally around the leaders of your Church, whatever they decide. They need your prayer, your trust and your support.
Understand the spiritual principle: Your leaders are appointed by God (Romans 13:1-5), and you submit to them as if you are submitting to God. Resist them, and you resist God.
But, equally, understand the human dynamic: Leaders need encouragement and affirmation as they made the tough decisions on your behalf, knowing that they are accountable for your life (Hebrews 13:17).
Consider the psyche of Joshua as he takes over the leadership of the Israelites upon Moses’ death. A next-generation leader, well-known for being a faithful aide to Moses, but for the first time coming into his own in making the big decisions. The words of God and Moses echo in his spirit: Be strong and courageous. Be strong and courageous.
God leads through His leaders. God reveals His plans to His prophets. God sets the example through His elders.
But now it is time for battle, and this new leader is about to call on his people to put their lives on the line. We know Joshua is a man full of faith, but as a human, I’m sure he had his human doubts. Is this the right decision? How much risk am I exposing my people to?
Then he gets to the tribes who, frankly, have the least to gain from the battle – the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, who were promised allotments outside of the land of conquest. If I were Joshua, I’d have my doubts about this group. But they instead reply:
“All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go. Just as we obeyed Moses in all things, so we will obey you. Only may the Lord your God be with you, as he was with Moses! Whoever rebels against your commandment and disobeys your words, whatever you command him, shall be put to death. Only be strong and courageous!” (Joshua 1:16-18 ESV)
After 40 years of grumbling and disobedience (remember the rebellion of Korah? “No, we will not come!”) the people finally understood. God leads through His leaders (Judges 5:2). God reveals His plans to His prophets (Amos 3:7). God sets the example through His elders (1 Corinthians 11:1, Hebrews 13:7).
Dear Christian, these are tough times for you, because you worry about your life as the threat of illness looms. How much more so is that pressure for the Senior Pastor, when the lives of many rest in the decisions he or she will make.
Consider not criticism, but encouragement. Go up to your Senior Pastor in Church this weekend, or drop him a message now, saying: I’m with you, 100%, whatever the Church decides. Only may the Lord our God be with you.
Only be strong and courageous.