Interim Work in a Global Pandemic

Pastor Sherman Bishop, IMA-ELCA Board Member
Intentional Interim Pastor, Trinity Lutheran Church of Vermilion Ohio

You are familiar with the tasks of Intentional Interim Ministry, familiar because you live them day by day. Like the "Stages of Grief" those tasks are not so much a set of items to be checked off a list when completed, but the description of a journey. They are the signposts we hope to pass while we journey with a congregation, but no two faith communities will have a matching route for each must walk at its own pace through its own terrain.

Now all of us are experiencing a major detour in that journey. There seems to be nothing like a Global Pandemic to throw one off course. How many of you have said in the last weeks of March, "There was nothing in my seminary curriculum or my Interim Ministry training on how to deal with this!"? I imagine the tasks of the Interim Ministry process have slipped down your "to do" list to make room for those skills needed to pastor a church that cannot gather, to connect with a church whose members you cannot visit while working with leaders who cannot meet together all the while trying to figure out how to provide meaningful worship moments, services, sermons on platforms you may have never used for that purpose. And let’s not forget about the issue of finances, and how to keep the congregation’s fiscal health at a level that it can pick up and move forward once the worst of this pandemic is behind us.

Let me offer, or perhaps at this point merely reinforce for you some things that are becoming part of a "best practices for ministry during a pandemic" list. By the time you read this newsletter, you may have items of your own to add. As we are all "learning to fly this plane while we’re building it", I encourage you to improve this list through your own experience.

Best Practices for Ministry during a Pandemic

  1. Do what’s important right now, and it isn’t everything. The learning curve on how to be a virtual pastor is steep for many of us. If that’s what you need to do now, give yourself permission, even if other things slip. Every week reflects on what is now "most important", for it will change as we go through this.
  2. Transform Pastoral Care to Congregational Care. You are most likely a pastor because you care about people. All of the members of our congregations need some caring touch right now, but you can’t provide it (see item 1 above). Let the church be the church, and encourage members to reach out to everyone they can think of. Also, recruit someone to organize the task in your place to keep regular contact with those most in need. We asked our Stephen Ministry leaders to do that, and they have organized people (Stephen Ministers and others) to daily make calls or if someone cannot benefit from a call to weekly send cards (i.e. homebound members with dementia). "Congregational Care" allows you to focus on other critical tasks.
  3. Don’t make the mistake of trying to ‘go it alone’, imitate, or just plain steal good ideas from your colleagues. Locally, this is a time to build on the collegial relationships you have. Do tasks together to spread out the workload and expand the benefits. For example, several pastors in the county in which I serve have each taken a day to write a daily devotional. It is then shared with all of the churches involved so that a "daily word" comes to each member’s email box. Locally with two ecumenical partners, we have covenanted with one another to be on-call if one of us is the one diagnosed with COVID-19. In the past I only occasionally glanced at "clergy Facebook pages", to read a thread that interests me or ask for some ideas from others. I am now finding them to be a good source of ideas and a good place to test out ideas. Many of us are designing the same wheel, and it’s refreshing how many are better designers than me. Of course, there are those who seem to be stuck wanting to argue about items that are adiaphora. Feel free to ignore them, but don’t forget to pray for them.
  4. If you are working from home, use the power of routine. Build a schedule for your week to keep you focused. Years ago a very effective pastor shared with me a few things he lived by. One was, "he (or she) who plans, wins". That is very important for a moment like this. It is so easy to just allow the latest headline to pull us toward despair, or distract us from our task. If you are working from home I am guessing that you have more than enough to do to keep your days full. I am serving in a part-time interim (75% of FTE), but find myself now working full time. That’s because this moment demands that. I have filled my week with needed tasks that enable me to 1) engage with the congregation and 2) keep in mind what I need to do in order to allow enough time for our church secretary to do what she needs to do without getting stressed out. To make that happen I have a daily list of must-do tasks (see item 1 above) and keeping them enables me to get everything finished in a timely way. "Plan your work, then work your plan".
  5. Love your neighbor as yourself – just don’t forget about loving yourself. Much of what I’ve already said falls into the category of "loving your neighbor". You need also to be aware of the need to love yourself. Interim work, because it normally involves helping a congregation consider needed change, exists with tension in the air. In that midst, we seek to be a non-anxious presence. To maintain that emotional balance you must allow your own spirit to be fed. Daily devotions, prayer (I’m thinking contemplative more than intercessory), and the intentional nurture of your soul are essential. I suggest that it is a daily #1 (see above) as you pastor through the chaos this pandemic can stir up. For me, music and good sound preaching attend to those tasks, and once more the internet is a valuable tool to fill my daily plate with good spiritual food.
  6. Linked with that is Remember the Sabbath, keep it holy, and TAKE IT! My full-time work schedule keeps me busy 51/2 to 6 days a week. My wife, who is the CEO of a non-profit is also working from home, and her days too are filled with meetings and tough decisions. We have both found a "day off" to be necessary and so for the first time in our married life, we are able to take the same day off on a regular basis. Taking that day of rest goes a long way toward the refreshment of my spirit. Take that day for yourself so that you can give yourself to the important tasks of ministry.
  7. Finally, not to be least, but to be the last thing you are thinking about You are a minister of the Word. Trust in the power of the Word to work through you to bring comfort, hope, and assurance of grace. You are necessary to the people of God in your community at this moment. Your vocation calls you out in unprecedented ways at this moment. Luther said that when the wolf threatens the flock, that is when the shepherd is needed, to step forward and defend against the threat. Thank you for what you are doing to make the promise of all God has done for us in Christ be known in new, powerful, and comforting ways to the people God loves in the community you serve.

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