It was a Facebook Messenger exchange that opened our eyes last week. The conversation with a former local member of the clergy was about the loss of Mother Melissa Kean, all of 30 years old but already a much-loved member of the community.
We talked of the pressures on clergy today, multiplied tremendously by the lengthening pandemic. The impact has been alarming so we asked a basic question:
“We need y’all more than ever and yet how do we help y’all when you’re lifting us up?”
The answer was immediate and was knocked us back:
“A call. A text. A card. A concern beyond ‘how are you’… Letting others be successful and not looking at you as a failure.”
We expected something like “it is what we’re trained to do.” And yet few today have been prepared for a pandemic.
That conversation would be amplified in the following days as we heard from others with area churches. We’ve watched how the pastor of North Rome Church of God battled back from COVID-19 even as his wife and several dozen others in the congregation tested positive and didn’t know what to expect next. He was discharged from Floyd Medical Center late last week and wrote a deliberate post to his family and congregation. It reads, in part:
“Covid. It’s no joke. It’s being politicized, used as campaign leverage and made part of the war against leaders at every level. It’s been questioned, doubted, mocked, and ignored. Some state their defiance of the rules, and others argue in anger over restrictions brought on by this virus. And then you can’t breathe… and the game is over. I’m attaching my diagnosis, to show how quickly it can get critical. If you have symptoms, get tested and get medical care!”
North Rome had reopened following the March closings, among the first to do so. For years, the church has been a community leader, from the annual Passion Play to repeatedly hosting the efforts of Rome Ga Cares as relief supplies were gathered for victims of hurricanes in Texas, Florida, North Carolina and now Louisiana. The church youth group was among the first to lead a march in town over racial injustice.
These past two Sundays, the church has been closed. Replays of previous services were offered as leaders debate reopening plans yet again.
That decision is being discussed in churches across the community. It is another layer in a world of pressure put on clergy already dealing daily with life and death. A great friend shared a recent blog post that stunned us: “Six reasons your pastor is about to quit.” (Full text here).
- Sept. 24: An update, “Why you shouldn’t quit ministry right now even though you feel like it.” Column.
The opening paragraphs are terrifying. While the pandemic gets much of the blame, the author says it really only sped up the decision-making process. It outlines the stresses from coronavirus, including the day-to-day struggles we all feel to infighting among the congregation about when, how and why to reopen. There are fears about fewer people coming back when the time is right, about empty collection plates, about outright criticisms of pastors and an increasing workload even if a church sits idle. Many have turned to digital services, prayers and other forms of community spirituality to help hold the congregation together. As Rome City Commissioner Bonny Askew shared early on, Jesus is in more living rooms today than ever before.
So here at a time when we need spiritual guidance the most, we find some tearing into clergy, beating them down when they need us as much as we need them. And for what reason?
Much of it involves empty buildings on Sunday mornings. Or is it more about empty seats and not being seen in those buildings 52 times a year? Defiant charges to open at all costs aren’t softened by the pleas of our older citizens or the medically fragile or others identified as the most vulnerable to a plague that does not have a vaccination. Did we learn nothing from The Church at Liberty Square in Cartersville?
And yet the clergy bashing continues on a level that matches today’s politics.
This isn’t what happens during those 60 minutes in a building on a Sunday morning. It is what we do and how we act for the other 167 hours of each week. As another former Rome pastor said early on about digital services, “The church has left the building — but the church will not leave you.”
For some, that isn’t enough. And now we’re losing clergy when we need them the most — in every format.
This week, an interfaith group departs for a solemn service to remember a brief but beautiful part of our community. We don’t know if COVID-19 was part of her silent struggles but we do know she and her colleagues were being called out for doing what they believed to be the right thing to save lives — as well as souls.
Please keep this group in your prayers this week. They need us — and when they return, we will continue to turn to them for answers we can’t find as yet.
Working with them — not against them — will help get us through the toughest challenge of many of our lives.
John C. Druckenmiller is editor and publisher of Hometown Headlines Inc.