What Have We Learned During the COVID Crisis?

Ten Presbyterian Ministers Respond

A Moment of Revealing

by Joseph Sherrard

1. What has been the greatest challenge for you as a minister during this crisis?

We have lost so many important spaces of congregational life and pastoral care, some of which we continue to do without. Caring for the flock while being unable to visit saints who are in the hospital, unable to share a meal together, and unable to enjoy those unplanned moments of ministry that take place spontaneously when the Body gathered without restriction has felt like ministering with one hand tied behind my back (and sometimes two). Underneath all of this is the loss of physical touch: hands held at hospital bedsides and embraces after funerals. I have grieved the loss of personal pastoral care, and it is a challenge that we continue to navigate as many in our congregation continue to struggle and suffer.

2. What do you think you and your congregation may have learned through this crisis?

When we made the decision to cease in-person gatherings on March 14th, our congregation entered lockdown equipped in all of the explicit and implicit ways we have formed them as disciples of Jesus. The result was a surprise stress test on the fruit of our ministry, and ever since I’ve been pondering what was revealed. I’ve been forced to ask how much of our work was focused on getting people to “come and take” from our various church activities (i.e., consumption) versus equipping men and women to meet Jesus in Word and prayer, to love and lead their families and friends as followers of Jesus, and to respond to suffering with perseverance. As a result, we’ve redefined the core virtues and competencies for what it means to be a disciple and are currently working to realign our ministry to that end.

3. What do you see as the greatest challenge facing your congregation in the future?

The COVID crisis has been apocalyptic for the church in the United States. Not in the sense that it has ushered in Jesus’ return (although we can hope!), but instead in the original sense of the word: a moment of revealing. My concern for myself and my congregation is that after being confronted by all that has been revealed––the illusion of our control of the world around us, our uneasiness with death, widespread loneliness, mental health crises, massive social inequalities, racial injustice, and political idolatry––we will look away and return to “business as usual” when we are vaccinated and are free to populate our lives with the same activities and busy-ness which we previously enjoyed. The temptation to “amuse ourselves to death” is strong. As in John’s Revelation, the apocalyptic moment is a gift, meant to show us truth and invite us to obedience. Knowing what we now know about the world, how do we live as those who are responsible for what we’ve seen? It’s a significant challenge for us.

4. What good do you think might come from this crisis?  

There is so much to lament from these last months, but biblical lament is also accompanied by the conviction that God’s mercy and grace remain new each morning. This leads me to hope, and specifically to hope that the winnowing that has accompanied this crisis can loosen the many improper attachments that we have cultivated over previous seasons of life. I hope this is true for the women and men in our church, many of whom have been asking probing questions about their vocations, their use of their time, and what lesser loves to which they have given themselves. I hope this is true for our congregation, as we take stock of all the ways we spend our resources and time and ask again how we are forming our people and loving our neighbors. And I know that this is true of me, as I have been invited to consider my own patterns of abiding in Christ and how the Vinedresser is at work pruning in my own life. My prayer for all of these is that God would refine us through the trials and temptations of the last months so that we could be presented mature in Christ.

5. What have been the best sources of encouragement for you during this crisis?

Two sources of encouragement come to mind. The first is the prophet Isaiah. In January of 2020 I began a study of this book, and I have been strengthened and nourished by Isaiah’s words over the last year. In a time of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear, Isaiah’s exhortation to look to the Holy One of Israel and to find rest and security in Him alone has been a balm and a firm foundation. Isaiah has reminded me that both moral discernment and faithful obedience must be built upon a deep knowledge of God’s character and faithfulness. Through Isaiah, my prayer life has deepened, and my leadership has been markedly less frantic. The second is Augustine of Hippo. Augustine lived in a time of great change and his life was marked by paradoxes: a deeply introspective person who constantly surrounded himself with friends; a pastor who wrote hopefully about the City of God as empire declined around him; a man whose intellect moved restlessly from one topic and controversy to another and yet who wrote movingly about finding rest in God. I’ve needed a pastoral mentor to guide me through the past months, and I’ve found a wise one in this fifth-century bishop.

Joseph Sherrard, Ph.D., is Associate Pastor of Discipleship of Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church (EPC), Signal Mountain, Tennessee

Richard Burnett
Richard Burnett
The Reverend Richard E. Burnett, Ph.D., is the Executive Director and Managing Editor of Theology Matters.


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