Written by Joe Welty
I am a pandemic pastor.
I know, everyone who serves in a pastoral role has been a pandemic pastor for a while now. But I am a sucker for a strong opening line. And I feel like I can say it a little more emphatically than most. You see, I am pastoring a community I have never known outside of the pandemic.
It happened like this.
In the fall and early winter of 2019 my family and I began to sense the need for a transition from the community we had been serving for the previous decade. 2020 came and we began to work though this aloud with the community’s leadership. On March 1 it was official and we began the process of tying up loose ends and saying goodbye.
And then 2020 became … 2020.
Fast forward to August.
It is our first Sunday in a new community. It is a transitional role, helping a congregation walk through their own leadership transition as I continue walking through my own. That first Sunday my family and I are met by many smiling faces. At least, I think they were smiling – it can be hard to tell behind the masks. Person after person comes forward to introduce themselves and say welcome. All but one stops short suddenly as if they walked into an invisible wall roughly six feet away. The one exception, an elderly saint with his mask askew, breaks through the invisible wall and, with sincere eyes, extends his hand and says, “If it is okay, I would rather die than not shake my pastor’s hand on his first Sunday.”
“If it is okay, I would rather die than not shake my pastor’s hand on his first Sunday.”
And the next week it is a whole new set of eyes and masks to greet and learn names and connections to. And then the next week and the next and the next as we work through our attendance rotation. And then after a few more, it is just me and a camera in an empty room as the lockdown settles in once again.
It is common to speak about a first year in any pastoral role as a honeymoon year. There is a lot of truth to this as both parties are nervous and excited about exploring life together. This past year, however, has felt instead like a long series of first dates as I feel less like I am pastoring a community and more like a collection of individuals.
I know the connections are there. I hear them. But I don’t see them. I don’t know them. I know many individuals in the congregation. But I have never heard them sing together. Nor shared a meal with anyone. Nor even shared a cup of coffee.
Can you really know a community until you have sung and prayed and eaten together? Or until you see how they respond to an expressive child during a reflective moment? Or how they slide over to make room for someone they know, or don’t know, or know too well? Or how they look at each other and the elements in their hands as they pause for the briefest of moments while passing the communion plates.
I don’t know these things.
And yet, in a unique way I am learning to know them. One at a time. Like a person backing away from a painting, the individual brushstrokes blending to form the whole, rather than the other way around. It is not the usual way we get to know our communities. We usually start with the whole. The large group and experience of Sunday morning slowly being broken down into individual names and stories. But my experience is the opposite. I am left trying to imagine what it is like having all these individual names and stories there in the same room. Yet, I am learning to see this for the unique gift it has been.
When the pandemic first hit and lockdowns became the norm, there was a part of me that was afraid of what it might reveal about the Christian community we are a part of. I was afraid it might be like a fire that burns down a building, leaving little if anything in it wake. Instead, it feels like a fire that burns through the Canadian Shield which many of us live on or nearby. The visible face is changed. It bears little resemblance to what we have always known. Gone are the easy to see signs of life – the full nurseries, team meetings, and event calendars. But now exposed is the community’s deep bed rock of faith and commitment to each other and the One we are all united in and growing up on.
So no, I don’t know what it looks and feels and sounds like for us to all be in one place together.
But one day soon I will. And when that day comes, perhaps I, and you as well, will be able to step out and feel in a new way the firmness of the ground that we are planted on.
After all, we have all been pandemic pastors.
Joe Welty is the lead pastor at Crossroads Mennonite Brethren Church in Winnipeg’s downtown and diverse St. Boniface neighbourhood. He and is wife, Ang, are parents to three teenagers plus one more who wants desperately to be one. An avid reader, skier, and paddler, he would never say no to a day spent on a trail or a river talking about a good book or even nothing at all.