Pastoring in a Pandemic: Real-Life Reflections

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced pastors and ministry staff across the globe to radically change how they do their jobs. As a result, they have been putting in long hours trying to discern how to best support their congregants and bring some semblance of normalcy to a world turned upside down.

Ever since widespread sheltering-in-place began, pastors and ministry workers have been fulfilling their everyday duties as preachers, teachers, and counselors while also trying to stay on top of rapidly-changing updates; providing emotional and, in some cases, financial support; and standing with members of the Asian-American community who are facing hostility. And all the while, they’re also caring for their own families.

Missio Alliance reached out to five pastors/ministry leaders to discover how the pandemic has changed their work and family life. We offer these reflections as a way to help provide support and solidarity for all those who are in ministry during these challenging and unprecedented times. The participants included:

Howard Brown is the lead pastor of Christ Central Church in Charlotte, NC. His wife Kellie serves as the director of worship and arts and has several other part-time jobs. They have been married for 22 years and have two teenage sons. 

John Carroll is the teaching pastor at Hope Covenant Church in El Dorado, Kansas; his wife Amber is the lead pastor. They’ve been married for 19 years and have two children.

Vivian Mabuni is on staff with Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru). Vivian is also an author and speaker. She and her husband Darrin have been married for 28 years and have three children.

Michelle Reyes serves as the fellowship coordinator, social media director, and other roles at Hope Community Church in Austin, TX; she is also a writer and speaker. Her husband Aaron is the lead and teaching pastor, and they have two kids.

David Swaim is the lead pastor of the Highrock Churches in greater Boston and president of the church network. Among other duties, his wife Michelle ministers to the moms in the churches. They have been married for 27 years and have 11 kids between the ages of eight and 26 years old.

What are the unique needs that you’re seeing in your congregations and/or ministries?

David Swaim: The first is exhaustion as they transition their work, school, and relationships online very abruptly. All the new platforms and passwords have been

Michelle and David Swaim

overwhelming! Add to that many people are working more than ever while caring for and teaching kids 24/7. On the other end of the spectrum, many people are wrestling with loneliness and boredom, especially those who live alone or who have lost their jobs. God created us to need community, and yet these days, community itself has become a threat. Finally, a third group is experiencing a great deal of anxiety about their finances, health, or the health of their loved ones.

  God created us to need community, and yet these days, community itself has become a threat. Click To Tweet

John and Amber Carroll

John Carroll: Our congregation represents a broad array of educational and vocational backgrounds. Our community’s lack of resources shows up in various places. Some families don’t have enough computers for parents and kids to work from home. Over 90 percent of El Dorado students qualify for free or reduced meals at school, which means some of these kids may be hungry. We have people who work in agriculture, education, and oil. But we also have church members who are hairdressers, first responders, CEOs of construction companies, and parents home with their kids. Some of our members are facing a layoff and others are going to have to do the laying off. These people would normally be sitting next to each other on Sunday morning. In both cases, it’s a heavy burden to bear.

Michelle Reyes: The pandemic has made the needs of the marginalized and the poor more pressing. The dual challenges of poverty and unauthorized statuses have made them vulnerable during this time. Most of our congregants are poor. We have immigrants (including undocumented), people who were formerly incarcerated, people currently experiencing homelessness, and single moms. There is a lot of pain, trauma, and injustice that these various demographics experience, and ministry requires that we care for them accordingly.

Michelle and Aaron Reyes

For example, immigrants in the service industry have lost their jobs, but they cannot apply for unemployment benefits, so they can’t pay rent and have no food. We have set up a meal/grocery delivery service and raised funds to pay people’s rents. Many who are sick do not have health insurance so they cannot see a doctor, and they do not even have the luxury to quarantine. We are also setting up hand-washing stations for the homeless in Austin and at the border in Matamoros.

Howard Brown

Howard Brown: At this point, our people need help finding ways to connect with others and figuring out how to get along, how to work from home, how to engage with kids about school issues, and how to do school at home. Many in our community have both parents working so there are issues of whose career is on hold, who’s the parent on call right now, where’s my desk and where’s yours, and who gets the noise-free Zoom space? We have an open floor plan which is awful for Zoom!

A lot of our people are missional so they want to know what they can do to keep their families safe but also how they can serve others. We do have some folks who have monetary needs but we’re preparing and stockpiling our mercy budget so that we’ll be ready if more people lose their jobs. Finally, those in the medical field need to know that they are seen, that the congregation is praying for their protection, and that we’re ready to help when they need us.

Darrin and Vivian Mabuni

Vivian Mabuni: Part of my work in this season is raising awareness of the anti-Asian racism that’s surfaced as a result of COVID-19. When we’re facing fears of the future, economic downturn, and unemployment, there is a natural human response because of fear and a desire to cast blame on someone. Unfortunately, Asian Americans have been the recipients of a lot of hate crimes and racial slurs. My Asian American friends are seeing their kids being bullied. Recently there was an Asian American woman in New York City who had acid thrown in her face. This is similar to what happened after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and subsequent Japanese internment. Assumptions are made based on how we look without knowing any of our stories.

I’m hoping that Christians will come alongside the Asian American community and not minimize what we’re experiencing. I recently did a podcast with other Asian American leaders and was part of creating the Asian American Christian Collaborative which is actively speaking out against anti-Asian racism. I want my brothers and sisters to believe us and take us seriously. Sometimes there’s a casualness communicated: well, the virus did originate in China so what’s wrong with calling it a Chinese virus? What we’re saying is that misinformation is physically harming and actually dangerous for us. I’m hoping that Christians will come alongside the Asian American community and not minimize what we’re experiencing. Click To Tweet

How has the pandemic changed what your days look like?  

Swaim: The past weeks have been extraordinarily intense. Over the last 20 years, we carefully built thoughtful systems to care for and lead our people. Now that we can no longer meet as a community, these systems don’t make sense. So we’ve needed to reconstruct in two weeks something that initially took us two decades to build. Over the last twenty years, we carefully built thoughtful systems to care for and lead our people. Now that we can no longer meet as a community, these systems don’t make sense. Click To Tweet

This has been draining not only because of the decision fatigue but also because working with a large team means that each decision requires extensive communication and consensus-building.

Reyes: Aaron and I feel like we’re working around the clock. There are so many needs. It sometimes feels like if we’re not on the ground providing relief, someone will go hungry, or get evicted, or worse. That’s what fuels our urgency. We’ve been trying to be as wise and cautious as we can. We do drop-off deliveries with minimal contact. We wear masks and gloves. We practice social distancing. We want to obey the law and flatten the curve of the virus while also making sure our community and neighbors aren’t left vulnerable and hurting in the process.

Carroll: A friend shared on Facebook that online services should offer a sabbatical for pastors. We are working even harder in the wake of this crisis! Our online presence is more important now than ever. Social media, Zoom, and our smartphones have been the primary means to create regular “touchpoints.”

We spent several weeks researching how to keep people connected despite social distancing. We’ve developed online groups for the purpose of prayer, discipleship, and community. The groups meet at various times throughout the week and study the same curriculum. We’ve also empowered the facilitators to care for the needs of their group. In turn, they also encourage the group to care for the needs of people in their neighborhoods.

Your family is now together 24/7. What’s that like?

Brown: Since I’ve always worked from home, this situation is not new. What is new is sharing the space with my wife and having to navigate schooling our kids. I’m used to owning this house in the middle of the day, so I’m surprised that other people think they can come into this space! My wife and I are both intense. She likes to do things her way, and I like to do things my way. We’re learning how to respect each other in new ways.

I’ll go over and ask her a question in the middle of her work and she’ll say, “I’m working. I’m not your wife right now.” That kind of stuff has caused us to deal with some things. It makes me wonder, is this my personality or am I that self-centered? Do I have a degree of disrespect for my wife that makes me think my work is more important?

We’re having an intense home ministry right now and it’s showing us how much we really love God and love each other. That stuff can be deflected when you’re busy loving other people. For me, it has become a fairly regular exercise of let’s stop, let’s talk, let’s figure out what’s going on.

We’ve had to call up our marriage counselor and say, “Can we meet this week and next week? We need help.” That has caused us to open up to other people in our church to share what’s going on and let them know how to pray for us. I’m welcoming them into my brokenness as a pastor, husband, and father in ways I haven’t before.

Mabuni: Darrin and I have mostly worked from home, but we do spend a good amount of time traveling and speaking so it has been an adjustment for sure. We’re trying to get into some kind of a rhythm and set times to meet together and talk through things. We’re also trying to sit in the feelings that are there—even the disappointments—and keep the lines of communication open. Some issues that we need to focus on have surfaced and in that respect, it’s been very emotionally draining.

Swaim: We have 11 congregations and 11 children, nine of whom are home with us, so my wife Michelle and I are both working to our breaking point. Try juggling log-ins and academic zoom calls for nine kids! We built a lot of trust after 27 years together, and we’ve seen our share of crises. As a result, we’ve learned to extend grace to each other. In the meantime, we try to take walks together and are careful to be kind even when we’re both very tired. And when we’re not, well, that’s where the grace comes in. We need lots of that these days.

Carroll: The first few weeks of being at home required lots of conversations about emotions and logistics. Our kids are very disappointed about not participating in spring sports and not finishing the school year with their friends. There was a little anxiety about finding our collective groove but we designated specific work and learning spaces throughout the house, and overall, it’s working well for everyone. Plus, the shelter-in-place mandate has given us a chance to further invest in our marriage and our kids during the evening.

Is there anything that’s been unusually difficult or stressful in this season?

Brown: School is not working. I’m surprised how much the structure and discipline of the school day help them to do their work and how not having that has caused them to lose interest and focus. The lack of social structure, of not being in a class and not being with friends, is hurting them. We’re having to stay after them in ways we never thought we would have to stay after them. They’re bored and maybe a little bit angry. I think it’s been difficult for them, maybe more than for us. It’s hard for us to know how to help them. I’m always carrying the well-being of my kids around with me. I’ll be on a call and see that they’re bored. I’m less free emotionally because of this.

Mabuni: I’ve struggled during this time. When I’m unhealthy, I shut down. The emotional wear and tear and the concerns about being looked at suspiciously as an Asian American are a double dose of weight to carry emotionally. I think it’s affecting me more than I realize. My husband offered to go to the grocery store because he thought I was worried about the coronavirus. He sent me a text saying You seem afraid to go out and I burst into tears. I am afraid to go out. I hate to admit it but there’s this underlying fear about what might happen that’s right below the surface.

Then there’s the financial component. I was booked to speak for five straight weekends and four of them were canceled. That’s been an adjustment, and I’m experiencing loss and grief. If people lose their jobs then they have no money to give, which will definitely affect us because Cru staff raises support. We’ve already had a short paycheck and I’m freaking out about that. Perhaps the most challenging part of this is that none of us have been through these circumstances before so it’s all uncharted. My fear and anxiety can get the best of me through the ups and downs. Now, as we experience shelter-in-place, I need to trust that God’s purposes will be accomplished and his provision will not run out.

What’s bringing you hope or joy?

Reyes: Throughout our marriage, Aaron and I have always prayed together, at least in the morning and at night. In this current season, we have taught our kids to pray for those who are sick and for God to stop the pandemic. We’re also encouraged by fellow activist and friends who we can link arms with. It’s nourishing for us to know we are not alone, and that there are other Christians who care for the vulnerable during this hard time.

Brown: Communication and sharing our lives has increased and deepened. Like the Bible promises, God’s grace is abounding growing more to meet our need for it.

Mabuni: Darrin planted a small vegetable garden from seed in our backyard. I have really found joy in watching those little seeds grow into seedlings and then into plants that we are actually able to enjoy as part of our dinner. We have fresh broccoli, beets, and bountiful amounts of organic salad from our garden. God intended that those seeds would become food. The colors of a beet leaf are so deep and so beautiful. I put the greens into a smoothie. Those really simple things have brought me joy. In many ways, it’s been worshipful to realize that God is a God of growth. There are rhythms and seasons. I’m reflecting on all those things now.

Carroll: The Kingdom of God is not in jeopardy and neither are we! In the midst of this pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to be the incarnational presence of God in our neighborhoods and communities by loving others wisely and well in the face of adversity. The Kingdom of God is not in jeopardy and neither are we! In the midst of this pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to be the incarnational presence of God in our neighborhoods and communities. Click To Tweet

Swaim: I’m encouraged by so many Scriptures, especially some of my favorite Psalms. It’s poignant that so much of this had been happening during Lent. On Ash Wednesday we imposed ashes on our people’s foreheads and reminded them of their mortality, which seemed almost hard to believe at that moment. Fast forward a few weeks and our mortality and fragility seem all too obvious. It can feel overwhelming. But Lent led us to Easter—the reminder of our resurrection! Jesus’s resurrection proves that God keeps his promises to us.

What does your prayer life look like in this season?

Brown: This has been a time of reckoning, of asking “what have I really been about?” You can fool yourselves to think you’re not about the size of your congregation, not about power, not about the accolades that come with all this ministry stuff; then when the possibility or the stage for those things are gone, you’re realize, “Wow. My heart has been pretty shallow. I’ve been pretty self-centered and in this for me.” Even preaching is different. Now it’s about me truly communicating God’s truth to them, not about me being seen.

So my prayer life is, “Lord, what’s next? What are you doing? You’re disassembling my life and my ministry and you’re leaving me to deal with the things in my heart.” I’m facing my own fears of getting sick. I have preexisting conditions. Now I’m the broken, scared one who can’t rise above my fears. I have to really anchor myself. Writing a good sermon or Bible study, or leading a bunch of people to Jesus don’t scratch that itch when you’re afraid you might not make it.