Learning Patience, Digging Deeper, Finding Gems
by Gary Cecil
1. What has been the greatest challenge for you as a minister during this crisis?
For over thirty-six years I have understood ministry as a Presbyterian pastor to be primarily that of preaching the gospel, teaching the faith, and exercising pastoral care in the light of the faith, as John Leith described it. Of this ministry triumvirate, pastoral care has suffered the most. As a pastor, I believe it is important to visit the sick in their home or hospital, to lay a hand upon someone in prayer or to offer a blessing, to engage in pastoral conversations that depend as much upon seeing the other person as hearing a voice over a phone. COVID has left many in isolation and loneliness. A phone call is better than no phone call, but it is no substitute for in-person contact. In a time of unusual crisis when pastoral visitation would be most beneficial, the pastor and officers have been sidelined. This extends to the pastoral care of worship and preaching. Too many are afraid to attend worship due to health concerns and/or restrictions. The same is true for the pastoral care of fellowship.
2. What do you think you and your congregation may have learned through this crisis?
A predictable answer to what we have learned through this would be: patience, in the sense of patient endurance, patient in affliction (e.g., Hebrews 10:36ff.; James 5:10-11; Rev. 13:10). But through this came an increased appreciation for spiritual discipline with renewed determination. We made a commitment even before COVID to undertake a serious study of Discipleship as part of a Vital Congregations initiative. Then when the crisis came, we stepped up efforts to get out pastoral letters and spiritual lessons to the congregation, and we continued to read, study and pray at home. We did not go virtual, but I received positive feedback regarding the printed sermons sent every week that encouraged members to contemplate and study the scripture and message. At the same time, Discipleship participants continued at home with their workbook, Discipleship Essentials, by Greg Ogden. These things created opportunities for dialogue and deeper theological discussions via phone calls and members dropping by the office––maintaining safety protocols, of course. Fortunately, we have been able to resume in-person study and worship, thanks be to God! I am reminded of something Yogi Berra said: We have deep depth! I would say that our spiritual depth is becoming deeper through all this.
3. What do you see as the greatest challenge facing your congregation in the future?
Turning to Yogi again regarding future challenges: The future ain’t what it used to be! I think we understand that churches like ours cannot re-create “the good ol’ days”––and I’m not hearing that so much as a real concern for the church maintaining integrity within our cultural climate. My wife and other members have pointed this out in terms of the Church as the Body of Christ: We lose integrity when worship becomes a spectator event from home with no real interaction as one body, one fellowship in the Spirit. As one said, we have become “Just an arm,” not Christ’s Body. It’s like a zombie’s disembodied limb, moving about but with no real life.
My theology professor, John Leith, discussed this same problem in his book, From Generation to Generation (Westminster/John Knox, 1990). During this “Covidity” crisis, I have found myself drawn to this book where Leith described the integrity problem in terms of pluralism, inclusivism, the elevation of change over tradition––and overall, a theological crisis, a crisis of faith in the church. What my members have been expressing is a sense that the church has been sidelined. It is not so much that we are competing with a dominant cultural pluralism as Leith saw it, where there are “many Words to become flesh,” but that there is no longer even a dialogue possible about the one Word we profess. This is even taking place within the church herself, where voices for political and social change use the church for their own ideology or cause. As Leith put it, “A Christian may move constructively from faith to political and social activity, but few, if any ever move from political activity to faith” (50). So …
4. What good do you think might come from this crisis?
What good might come of this? This strange time in our history and church life has opened eyes to the need to maintain integrity, to stand firmly on the church’s foundation of Bible study, worship, learning the theology of the church, and preserving the truth about Jesus Christ. As a Presbyterian congregation, we are re-examining the foundational principles of the church’s mission as One, Holy, Universal, and Apostolic Church, the Body of Christ, and Christ’s faithful evangelist. Traditional, yet open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not conformed to this world, but transformed (Rom. 12.2).
5. What have been the greatest sources of encouragement for you during this crisis?
The most encouraging thing throughout the crisis has been continuity in the Word. We have dug down deeper into Scripture and have discovered wonderful gems of encouragement in hard times.
Gary D. Cecil, D.Min, is Senior Pastor of First Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), Salem, New Jersey