What is the most important thing you’ve learned, as a pastor, during COVID-19?
This is something I’ve asked myself since starting my first pastorate in the middle of 2020. The pastors in my local association meet weekly for meetings, when my brothers and I gather to study God’s Word, pray for one another and our churches’ needs and offer support when we feel lost. If you are a pastor, you probably know what I’m talking about.
We often ask, “What should we do to keep our members safe?” or “How do we keep people from leaving the church?”
It’s heartbreaking to see men who have served God faithfully wrestle with this dilemma. Members have stopped coming. People have been getting sick and dying. Fear has taken over the hearts and lives of those who feel it’s not safe to worship with a body of believers. Now, more than ever, it is important to answer the question, what is the most important thing you’ve learned as a pastor during COVID-19?
Brothers, we are not immune to the pitfalls of life. We have emotions and trials like everyone else. However, we have a calling that comes with heavy responsibility. I do not want to discourage you from following God’s call in your life to preach His Word, but I want to share something God has taught me during this time.
I, too, have felt like I’m responsible when I see people leave and not come back. I know what it feels like to not be able to take a member’s hand or share a hug with those you care about because you don’t want to cause an outbreak. I even know what it’s like to feel the weight of that week’s sermon and the crushing feeling of depression and unworthiness keep you from doing what you have been ordained by God to do. It wasn’t until I thought of this question and heard God speak to me through His Word that I realized He must be teaching me something amid the chaos.
So, what did I learn in my first year at my first church as a pastor?
So often I focused on studying a passage of scripture, caught up in the preaching aspect of ministry that I ignored one of the most important things about being a pastor. I wasn’t learning. Sure, I read commentaries. I studied Greek and Hebrew texts to better grasp what original authors meant to tell their audience. Yes, I grew in my understanding of the historical, literary, and cultural context of scripture. But I wasn’t learning.
I thought I knew everything I needed to know about ministry in seminary. My roommate and my best friend even talked about starting a church together and running it the “correct way,” according to what we believed scripture told us. How wrong we were. There is no way to understand how to be a pastor until you become one. There is no way for someone to grasp the stress and responsibility it takes to carefully prepare a message for others to hear and not corrupt God’s teaching unless they themselves have done it. It takes humility to realize how much you need God and His Spirit to help get you through each week.
I wasn’t fulfilling my ultimate responsibility as a pastor.
Before we became pastors, we had to study. Many of us attended college and seminary. Some went on to pursue doctorates. We spent so much time equipping ourselves through the knowledge of those with more experience. We were students until we held that paper that said we completed our education. For many of us, education stopped there. I am ashamed to say that I didn’t need more education other than what I could read and study for myself. I limited myself by saying I no longer was a student but a minister of the gospel.
You’re probably thinking, “He still has much to learn.” You’re right! I have to remind myself I am not finished learning. Although I graduated, was called to a church and have served for more than a year now, I never stopped being a student. With that knowledge, I can lead my congregation to grow closer to God. I can be useful as a teacher. A student doesn’t stop being a student, they only become responsible for helping other students grow.
The call to discipleship is a clear example of this important lesson. We as pastors were once disciples learning from other disciples who learned from others, and so forth. A teacher always starts out as a student. And that teacher had a teacher. We are more than pastors, but teachers as well. We are students first with a mission to learn and better understand the Word God gave us. It becomes our responsibility to help teach it to others.
What have I learned during the pandemic? I learned to never stop learning and to never stop teaching. The absence of some members doesn’t mean the end of teaching. Membership has never been what God called us to focus on. He calls us to be His disciples. He calls us to be preachers and teachers of the Word. He called me, despite myself, because He knows how to use someone like me to help lead others. I don’t know how God will do that. I have to trust Him and learn as I go. Because I’ll never stop being a student.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Michael Purcell is pastor of Community Baptist Church in Valdese, N.C.)