A Very Present Help in Trouble
by Ben Sloan
1. What has been the greatest challenge for you as a minister during this crisis?
I was taught at Union Theological Seminary in Virginia by John Leith that the three main tasks of a minister are “preaching, teaching, and pastoral care.” Of course, the ministry is much broader, but these are the basic tasks of a minister. All three areas were challenged in different ways. Preaching was challenged in that there may be a preacher, but none to hear. For months, we had no in-person worship at all.
What a blessing that we ramped up our online presence before the March 15 shutdown. The joke was that every minister had become a tele-evangelist. We immediately learned about lighting, streaming venues, and how to communicate worship online, and we picked up many viewers from churches without these capabilities. We also began worshiping outside, at first in the parking lot, then at the lake, using an FM mini-transmitter and speakers. Crowds gathered. The teaching was similar. It was fairly easy for my Associate and me to set up Facebook Live devotions. But getting people to Zoom into Sunday School was not so easy. We could fenagle around the preaching and teaching to offer something to those who wanted it. Pastoral care was by far the hardest. Ministers were banned from visiting hospitals and nursing homes where those who were sickest needed help. Our people often faced their COVID illnesses alone. We wrote a devotional entitled, “Alone with God.” But there is no substitute for being there. The importance and singular necessity of prayer stood out. Letters, postcards, emails, etc., were not getting through to the sick. Even cell phones were often taken away from some in hospitals. The loneliness of shut-ins, those in nursing homes, and the sick (COVID and non-COVID), was a huge spiritual issue that was primarily left in the hands of God, while we often sat helplessly on the sidelines.
2. What do you think you and your congregation may have learned through this crisis?
At the beginning, we asked: How did ministers handle this in the past? How did the church respond during other pandemics, for example, the Bubonic Plague or the 1918 Flu? There were debates among ministers about what and how to do things. There was the roller coaster of ever-changing public health advice. Our best laid plans could change through a momentary government proclamation. In the end, I think we learned to trust God more, to be more flexible, and to be more open to His providential leading. We learned again that God uses means––talents, medicines, and vaccines––as answers to prayer.
While our society debated what is essential and non-essential, I remained convinced that the corporate worship of God is essential. Others may disagree. But fear coupled with a rational cause can easily get out of hand. Isolation has its own set of temptations: 1) Forgetfulness of God; 2) Depressing loneliness; 3) Drug and alcohol abuse; 4) Domestic abuse; 5) Internet perversions from pornography to paranoid “group think” to mean and degrading social interaction, etc. The church is called to minister, that is, to serve God and the people as much as we can. This means the church should be ready to welcome people back when they are ready to come and take part. Some have made a big deal saying, “Out of love we are closed.” Perhaps we should rather say, “Out of love we are open when you need us to be.”
3. What do you see as the greatest challenge facing your congregation in the future?
Surprisingly, getting people to bring their children back to Sunday School. Ironically, children have been coming back first to sports, then to school, but many parents do not see the need for Christian Education in an increasingly secular world.
4. What good do you think might come from this crisis?
We are seeing more vaccines and more people coming back. We have learned how much we missed each other, how much our faith means to us, and how resilient many have been in keeping it. There is almost a glow and an amazement that is wonderful to see on the faces of normally-more-emotionally-subdued Presby-terians when they come back to worship. “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the House of the Lord’” (Ps. 122:1) has a vibrant new meaning.
5. What have been the best sources of encouragement for you during this crisis?
The greatest source of encouragement has been relying on the vertical dimension (prayer and scripture) more than the horizontal dimension (fellowship and service) of the Christian life. Perhaps God is trying to wake us up to Himself by slowing our busy-ness and taking many distractions away. Death, job losses, financial stresses, and general heartache, cause us to cry out for God who is “our refuge and strength, and a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1).
Ben Sloan, D.Min., is Senior Pastor of Lake Murray Presbyterian Church (PCUSA), Chapin, South Carolina