Listening and Learning Will Help Us Live through This Crisis

By David Emmanuel Goatley

The tornado damaged or destroyed houses up and down the block. It was like something out of a scary movie. But it was all too real.

Utility poles were broken. Trees were uprooted. Shingles were scattered. Toys were tossed. Clothes were cast about. It was a mess.

Peculiarly, you could see a house here and there standing unharmed by the violent storm that passed by a few hours earlier. How in the world did those few buildings escape damage or destruction?

One of those homeowners whose house escaped damage said, “The Lord blessed us.” That sounded strange.

That person saw total devastation across the street, next door on both sides and across the back yard, yet managed to say, “The Lord blessed us.” What did it mean to say “The Lord blessed us” when 80 percent of the neighbors’ houses and apartments had been obliterated? Did the homeowner whose house was still standing not feel connected to everyone else? Does being blessed happen only when I, personally, escape hurt, harm and danger?

We are sometimes seduced into thinking that life is well when trouble is not in our yards or in our faces. The coronavirus, however, is rattling the cages of many who live with the illusion of invulnerability. The susceptibility to debilitating illness from COVID-19 should remind all of us that, in the words of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “we are bound up together in the bundle of life.”

Uncertainty can produce fear. Some are responding to fear by isolation and cutting themselves off from virtually all human interaction. Others are responding to fear through demonstrations to “reopen” the economy, even at the risk of their own lives and the lives of others. And other expressions of fear include increased substance abuse and lashing out verbally or physically at loved ones.

Pastoral leaders will be increasingly called on to minister to people who are fearful. How shall we serve people who are scared?

More than two decades of serving and supporting leaders globally who faced water disasters, pandemics, earthquakes, war and more have taught me some things that pastoral leaders might want to consider in ongoing preparation to serve in the coronavirus context, both now and in the future.

Pastors will need to care for themselves and their families. Faithful pastors often have a hard time with self-care because of their commitment to serving others. Codependent clergy lack self-care because of unhealthy emotional needs that desperately need addressing.

Responding to the needs of congregants, congregations and communities is demanding. If not careful, the pastor can be consumed by the constant calls for care and concern. Burnout is higher among pastors than most professions. Ill health is a significant problem among pastors who serve amid normal life challenges and changes. The added burdens of economic injury, personal stress, physical illness, dying in isolation, death without the rituals of grief and more will exacerbate the high levels of stress that pastoral leaders encounter. Pastors who preside often at funerals talk of the depression they periodically encounter. Dealing with a lot of death can take the life out of you. The added numbers of deaths related to COVID-19 and people’s likely desires to have memorial services after social distancing relaxes will present formidable mental health stressors.

Practicing healthy habits for spiritual, mental and physical care are critical for pastors who intend to be useful to God and to humanity. Starting and ending your day without checking your media outlets is a good place to start. Building support groups for positive mental health is a wise move. Pastors need someone to ask, “How are you?” and “How can I pray for you today?” Developing habits that bring you joy are critical ways for the Lord to “give you back yourself” (Psalm 23:3a). Flight attendants instruct passengers to secure your mask first, in the event of decompression, and then assist children or others in need for good reason. You are useless to others if you are passed out on the floor!

Many people will be different as we emerge from the immediacy of the coronavirus crisis. A pastor who lived and served through a large-scale

disaster said, “The people do not know how to worship anymore.” The pastor noticed that, in the aftermath of the catastrophe, people did not behave the same. Their expressions and responses in worship seemed off. After a long and thoughtful time of sharing, the pastor concluded that the real issue might be that “the people are not the same anymore.” Loss, grief, dislocation and more had shocked people personally and collectively. They mostly looked the same (except a little sadder) and they mostly sounded the same (except a little more reserved), but people were different somehow.

I experienced something similar working with schools in a context after a civil war. Prior to the war, students were well mannered and cooperative. Of course, they did kid-size and teen-type things that aggravated adults. But, for the most part, they went along with the program. The war, however, changed things. Students were much more aggressive, even hostile, after the war ended and schools reopened. Children had to develop survival skills and assert themselves to avoid being further victimized by rebel fighters, government soldiers or out of control neighbors. All of the children knew peers that had been murdered, maimed, raped or conscripted to be child combatants. Everyone was affected by war, and children learned skills to increase their probabilities of survival. Trauma changes people, and those we serve — in churches or communities — will be different in ways that can be anticipated and beyond.

The context in which we serve will have changed. Churches in communities that face large-scale flooding and earthquakes have to learn how to minister when the ground beneath them literally and figuratively shifts. When houses of families and houses of faith are destroyed, people have to learn alternative ways to live and be together. How do you have a meal with no table or dining room or building? You can only do so much under the trees. How do you gather for worship when there is no roof above or walls beside or solid ground beneath you? I know we have highlighted that the church is not the building, but buildings are important tools to facilitate the work of people of faith. People who face physical calamities have to negotiate new physical contexts.

While the physical grounds may not have shifted because of the coronavirus, the social ground rules have changed. I hear pastors talking about how much the people miss being together and wonder what sample size of their congregations they are consulting. A pastor shared an anecdote about an older member who informed the pastor that she would not be physically present as much once they were cleared to gather again at church. She explained that she had experienced worship online, giving online and meeting with people online. As a result, she discovered that she did not need to be in the building as much as before. One wonders how her testimony will be multiplied.

Pastors will need to think about reclaiming some and incorporating others. Some congregants have enjoyed grazing across media platforms to sample or scarf down sophisticated media ministry productions that they had not known before.

  • How might churches work to re-engage with folks who have been exposed to other experiences, at least virtually?
  • How might churches work to stay connected with new people who found their services online during this season of sheltering in place?
  • How do we ensure a kind of hospitality when people meet at church online and then have to face the unadorned reality of the saints together?
  • How do we build a relationship rather than settle for transactions when people are hundreds or thousands of miles away?

Re-engaging, engaging and encountering will offer opportunities for human imagination and holy inspiration as we work in the ongoing coronavirus context. While everything may not have changed, a whole lot of things will be different.

Let’s listen and learn. Crises are not new to Christian communities and Christian leaders. Many who live and work in the United States, however, have a strange delusion that this is the center of the universe. Others have experienced catastrophes and managed to adapt with the help of the Spirit. If we are not too arrogant, we can listen, learn and live better sooner. Too much is as stake for any other path.

David Emmanuel Goatley is research professor of theology and Black Church studies and director of the Office of Black Church Studies at Duke Divinity School. He served over 20 years as an executive leader of Lott Carey, a global missions agency supporting indigenous communities in evangelism, empowerment, compassion, and advocacy.

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