Critical challenges from the pandemic are only adding to the daily load faced by the pastors and other religious leaders of our community. Now imagine the pastor himself being hospitalized in a life-threatening battle with coronavirus, including advanced treatment of collapsed lungs and pneumonia. Terry Addis, senior pastor at North Rome Church of God, shares the stunning insights of both his battle and recovery, as well as the continuing challenges facing today’s congregations. This will change your perspective on how we treat the pandemic — and each other.
One Pastor’s Perspective
So, how do we describe 2020? Different, challenging, unexpected, crazy, unprecedented and stressful are just a few words that immediately come to mind. And after building a long list of descriptives, we would likely conclude that this year has been all of the above, and more. As a pastor, I can say that this has been, and continues to be, a year like none other I have experienced.
For everyone, 2020 has layered so many difficulties onto the normal challenges of life. And no one is unaffected, or has come through this extended season unscathed. We are all touched by the financial challenges, emotional struggles, relational strains, physical ramifications and spiritual effects of the changes this year has brought into our lives. So as you navigate each day, take note that every person you encounter is dealing with the effects of this season we are experiencing. Show them grace.
My wife and I felt that we were taking adequate precautions while attempting to continue navigating life and ministry. We took those precautions while grocery shopping, in restaurants and in the halls and sanctuary of our church at North Rome. And yet we have both walked the journey of experiencing COVID-19. Pam was able to treat at home, using medications prescribed by our family physician. I found myself unable to breathe and, after going to the ER, was admitted to an ICU room in the COVID unit at Floyd Medical Center. My condition was very serious with COVID, bilateral pneumonia and both lower lungs having collapsed, adhered together by the COVID/pneumonia mucus.
An excellent medical team stepped up to battle my issues, being transparent with me about my condition, and showing strong commitment to do everything within their power to help me on the road to recovery. And that they did! I have nothing but praises for those who are on the frontlines in the medical field. They face extreme challenges daily, work long and exhausting hours, put themselves at risk and go the extra mile to care for people like me who are fighting to survive. And I praise them for their sacrifices and commitment to serve! Their quick and thorough response to my physical condition is no doubt a critical factor to my recovery. They are true heroes whose support deserves more than a few expressions last spring. Thank a first responder and medical team member at every opportunity you have.
Then there is the element of faith. As a Christian and a pastor, I live by the words of a wonderful hymn, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. I dare not trust the sweetest frame but wholly lean on Jesus’ name. On Christ the solid Rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand. All other ground is sinking sand.” If you just sang those words, you can thank the church you grew up in, or currently attend. Words of faith, songs of worship and promises of God gave me hope and peace as my body responded to treatment and began the journey of healing. Without a doubt, my faith in Jesus Christ as healer sustained me during those difficult days.
As a pastor, I understand the importance of faith in all seasons of life, and particularly during difficult times. The very word faith reminds us that it is not about having all the answers to the situations and struggles of life. But rather about trusting God, especially when the answers evade us. Scripture reminds us that, “Faith shows the reality of what we hope for; it is the evidence of things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1 New Living Translation). During unexplainable seasons and struggles, our trust in God is a strong foundation that enables us to, “Stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exodus 14:13 New King James Version).
And yet the challenges and struggles of this season have not left the faith community untouched. Pastors, church boards, denominational leaders and faithful congregants find themselves navigating an unprecedented season with never before faced questions, challenges and decisions. The additional stress and pressure has resulted, and continues to do so, in pastors resigning their churches, leaving the ministry altogether, choosing early retirement and many more questioning their ministry effectiveness as a pastor. As a pastor, I can tell you that we are human. And pastoring is a challenge in the best of times. Add in the difficulties of this COVID season, and the weight of responsibility can become unbearable but for the grace of God.
Do I hold services in-house, in the parking lot or not at all? Do I utilize Livestream, Youtube, Facebook and etc. to reach our congregations without face-to-face ministry? How do I, or even how can I, encourage members to remain connected and faithful in support of their church during times of ministry disconnection?
Trust me, those questions never stop coming. And the answers vary from pastor to pastor, congregation to congregation and community to community. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to the challenges pastors and churches face during this season. And the opinions on those questions are as varied, and at times as vocal, as the people asking or responding. So we must resist the urge to compare ourselves to others, critique our own decisions based on those of others, and judge our own situation in comparison with what other faith groups are, or are not doing.
At North Rome, we are currently navigating our second relaunch of in-house services on Oct. 11 after a four-week period of online-only services. This second pause came after experiencing some cases of COVID in our church family. We quickly learned last spring that the challenges of relaunching far exceed the decision to cease in-house services. In both relaunch instances, we put in place safety and sanitation standards that exceed State Public Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. And yet there is no “bullet proof” plan. Nor is there one that meets the expectations of every parishioner. So we press forward, accumulating information from the experts, and setting in place a process that we feel is best for our church family. And we pray… a lot.
Then there is the challenge of adjusting ministry to the times. No longer can I as a pastor visit hospitals to have pre-surgery prayer or step into the ICU room with a patient and family during those last moments of life. Ministry that so often involves up close and personal contact must either be postponed or repositioned as I seek to provide safe distancing and observance of requirements and recommendations for public gatherings and personal safety. Sanitizing, disinfecting, social distancing, local, state and national requirements all factor into decisions that must be made. Layer on things like median age of congregants, ministries that provide focus on different groups such as children, youth, families, discipleship and community outreach. Factor in widely varying opinions on adequate protocols, and the politicizing of this virus, and the stress level of those leading in the faith community is unprecedented. Thomas Paine’s words from 1776 seem so fitting today, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
What can you do? Pray. Time spent in prayer benefits those prayed for as well as those praying. We who must make the challenging decisions need and value your prayer. Encourage those who are seeking to lead during such unprecedented times. Kind words, supportive texts or cards that offer encouragement and support are such a blessing to those bearing the weight of responsibility and the burden of ministry. If you are part of a church, congregation or faith community, support the decisions of those leading the way, understanding that we are all navigating times the likes of which we have never seen. We understand that your level of involvement is an individual decision that must be made based on personal factors that you face. We are concerned, if we notice you doing many of the things of life, while continuing to refrain from church involvement. It’s because we know that life habits form quickly, and you need ongoing connection to a faith family.
As someone who is still navigating the personal effects of this virus, I encourage you to take this seriously. Don’t be thrown off by those who seek to politicize it for party advantage. Don’t minimize the seriousness of COVID-19 based on those who insist it is being overplayed by the media. Don’t buy into the many and varied conspiracy theories that seek to move focus away from a path to navigating this virus for however long we must. Instead, use every safety measure you can to protect yourself as we navigate life with this real threat to our health. And through it all, trust in the Lord to help us, especially when life loads us with more than we can bear. By faith we know that God is with us, God is for us, and God is helping us day by day.
Pastor Terry Addis
Senior Pastor, North Rome Church of God