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A Letter of Compassion to the Coronavirus Clergy

[Note: This letter was written by a Christian pastor who serves a United Methodist congregation in Texas. Its worldview is based on that reality, but it is intended for clergy of any faith or denomination, and even for non-clergy and people who don’t work in religious organizations.]

16 March 2020

To the Coronavirus Clergyperson,

Hey there, friend. It’s been a week (or two, or three), hasn’t it? Before we dive in, take a deep breath. If you’re like me, you probably don’t feel like you’ve paused in at least a week. So take as much time as you need here before reading on.

The Situation

A few hours before I sat down to write this letter, the President of the United States  held a press conference in which he set out new guidelines for Americans that are meant to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Don’t gather in groups of more than 10 people. The elderly and immunocompromised shouldn’t leave home. Education and work should take place at home wherever possible. If your congregation wasn’t already thinking about what it might look like to make changes as part of the call for social distancing, it probably is now. Be honest, how much time have you spent this week researching how to put together a well-polished livestream? We’re all looking at new ways of ordering our congregation’s communal life, and it’s a lot to handle.  And I just want to say something to you, my fellow brother or sister in the ranks of the clergy: It’s ok.

A litany for this season: It’s ok

It’s ok if you don’t have a decision on hand immediately. Yes, this virus has been making its way around the world like an 18th Century British socialite on a Grand Tour for several months now, but its impact is just starting to manifest in many communities around the U.S. Implementing social distancing protocols or outright canceling most events at your congregation involves a lot of logistics. You can—and almost definitely should—take a beat before making decisions, either on your own or with other congregational leaders.

It’s ok to not be the best at this stuff. Were you trained in livestreaming worship services as part of your education? If so, consider me jealous. How many people in your congregation have the skills and knowledge to step right up and perfectly create a video-conferencing plan for classes and small groups? The presence of this contagion in our communities requires a response, but please don’t fool yourself into thinking your response needs to be the Mary Poppins of virtual religion: practically perfect in every way.

It’s ok that people may get upset with you. Most of us already knew that being a clergyperson inherently entails making decisions that some people in our congregations aren’t going to like. You’re probably about to make several of them (funnily enough, even people who don’t regularly attend really like the idea of always having the option to be there for your weekly service). But I know you, and I trust that every decision you’re making is done prayerfully, with an eye to balancing communal life and public health concerns.

It’s ok not to do everything. A lot of us are going to have a deep drive to keep up with the Joneses in this season. That congregation down the street was already livestreaming their services every week in 4K Ultra HD, and now they’ve just announced they’re going to have a virtual Bible study three times a week for the duration of this pandemic. Good for them. If you feel your congregation truly needs that kind of response, too, then have at it. But if you’re just worried it’ll look bad not to respond at or above that congregation’s level, then the effort isn’t worth your time.

You can extrapolate this principle out to a lot of things during this season, so I’m not going to list everything out right here. But I really do hope you internalize this litany for this season (especially if it might extend through the summer). It’s ok. It’s ok. It’s ok. And here’s why.

The Why

The situation is changing constantly. Today’s Monday. Yesterday, our local public health department hadn’t really given strong recommendations about limiting meetings. That being said, we did have a few cases of COVID-19 in our county, so we decided to meet, but taped off pews in our sanctuary to enforce a 6-foot radius between family units. By the end of the day, recommendations were coming in that events that might involve more than 10 people of high risk (people over 65 and the immunocompromised) should probably be canceled. If I had had that information prior to Sunday morning worship, we would have gone all on-line yesterday. This season won’t have much in the way of settling. We’re going to get new updates, new recommendations, new fears, every day. No organization can respond perfectly in that kind of environment.

There will be other aspects of your ministry that REQUIRE your attention. Putting together a grand plan of virtual meetings and educational or disciple-growing resources sounds important, and we ALL want to make sure we’re providing for the people in our care now that we can’t gather together like we’re used to. But people are going to get sick—not just from COVID-19, there are still other diseases out there—or end up in the hospital because they got injured. Members or their relatives are going to die. Families are going to have struggles, congregants are going to have crises of faith, and in all of these situations, they’re going to want your presence, your attention, and your care. Remember these potential concerns as you figure out the balance you’re creating with new aspects of ministry.

You are part of the community, too. As a member of the public, public health recommendations apply to you, too. You are a part of the group of people the CDC and local officials are trying to protect through their work. That means you should try to stay isolated as much as possible, just like everyone else. And for many of you, that means being at home with a spouse, or your children, or your parents. If your kids are of school age, they’re going to need your help doing school work from home. If there’s another parent in the house, they’re going to need your help cooking and cleaning and entertaining the kids. And somewhere in all of that, you still need to take care of yourself. Or maybe you’re like me: you’re single and childless and live alone. You may not have to do the stuff I just named, but you need to care for yourself. Don’t let your time and energy get totally eaten up in the name of having the most amazing response congregational response to COVID-19 anyone’s ever seen. Down that road lies burnout.

And, perhaps most importantly,

People will forgive you. Everyone has been thrown for a loop by this outbreak. Nobody expects your congregation to suddenly have a perfect, pleasing, and professional-grade solution to this crisis. Honestly, I’m just proud of all of us for not throwing in the towel and calling it quits this week. And I know our people—and the people outside our congregations—will be forgiving. Sure, there will be some people who say something like, “Can you believe they actually posted that yesterday? Who greenlit that video?” Don’t worry about them. Most everyone else is feeling the struggle, too, and they won’t blame your congregation for not handling this perfectly.

Settle in for the season

I wrote this letter to you, dear brother, dear sister, because I know how often we clergy don’t extend grace to ourselves. But if we’re going to get through this season of distancing and isolating, we’re going to need all the grace we can get. So take time to breathe as often as you can. Try not to worry too much about what anyone else is doing. If you’ve made it this far in the letter, I’m assuming you’re a religious person, so remember that God is with you as you go through all of this. And as you do all of that, repeat the mantra: It’s ok. It’s ok. It’s ok.

Your loving brother,

Rev. Trey Burns

Pastor

Whitehouse United Methodist Church