I will share some lessons learned, as a senior pastor of a local church (First Evangelical Church Glendale) in Southern California that is primarily a Chinese-American nondenominational evangelical church, in shepherding God’s people during this pandemic.See Siang-Yang Tan, Shepherding God’s People: A Guide to Faithful and Fruitful Pastoral Ministry (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019).
First, the pandemic taught me afresh of the need to spend more and much time with the Lord, in solitude and silence, and in prayer and His Word, including resting and rejoicing in Him as well as weeping and lamenting over this pandemic and the tremendous suffering it has caused to so many people all over the world. I also prayed more throughout the day, and especially during my walks as part of my regular exercise routine. Pastors and church leaders tend to be over-involved in the doing mode: in ministry projects and plans, and busy, driven activities. Many of us are in a hurry and live hurried and harried lives. The spiritual mentor (the late Dallas Willard) of John Ortberg gave this now well-known word of wisdom to John years ago when asked about how John could remain spiritually healthy in the midst of a busy ministry in a mega church: “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”See John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1997), 81–82; Siang-Yang Tan, Rest: Experiencing God’s Peace in a Restless World (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2003), 25–26; see also Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry (2019). We have all had to learn to pause, stop, slow down, and be still (Ps. 46:10), and to live more in the being mode of our lives, including spending much time with the Lord and keeping the sabbath. I have described this as being shepherded more deeply by the Lord Himself as our Shepherd (Ps. 23:1) before we go on to shepherding others or God’s people in the church.
Second, the pandemic taught me and my church to pivot to other platforms, mainly more virtual means of connecting with our people in pastoral care and personal ministry. I have learned to use the phone a lot more (even though I already used it frequently), plus texts, emails, Zoom meetings, especially with small groups or fellowships, and other social media to keep in touch with people despite having to be physically distanced and often to stay or shelter at home during this pandemic. There are also creative ways to meet people personally outside, for example, in parks and parking lots, with required physical or social distancing and wearing masks. We have learned that church is not a building or even a meeting, but it is spiritual connection that can be made through virtual means and the phone, and prayer for one another connecting in the Spirit, although regularly meeting in person cannot be replaced and should be returned to, as soon as possible.
Third, preaching and teaching online, whether with prerecorded or livestreamed sermons or messages became a necessity in this pandemic. Many pastors, including myself, have had to learn to do this and adjust to preaching without a live or full audience or congregation. Online preaching and teaching will become a crucial means of ministry and outreach to people, even after the pandemic ends and we return to having full-fledged services again in person at church. I was also able to speak to a wider audience worldwide through webinars or virtual seminars and services online or on Zoom. However, I also intentionally chose to limit my participation in such virtual meetings or ministries to avoid being too busy in this pandemic that God is using to slow us down or even get us to a full stop, to help us overcome our tendencies to be crazy busy, driven, hurried, and harried. We need to stop Zooming around so much!!
Fourth, hospitality and outreach in evangelism and social concern became key ministries as social isolation resulted in loneliness and a more acute need for social and spiritual contact and connection, even if mainly by remote or virtual and digital means, during this pandemic. As a pastor, I made many more phone calls to reach out to people in my church and others, with pastoral care and counseling and prayer, and also kept in touch through other social media including texts, emails, and Zoom meetings. I also visited people in person when possible but with appropriate physical distancing and wearing masks, in places such as backyards or parks or parking lots, or at front doors, sometimes bringing food and snacks and devotional materials. “Visiting” neighbors next door or across the street was also important, especially the elderly, where and when appropriate. Some people have lost jobs and have therefore been in financial need during this long pandemic, and as the senior pastor, I have made available love offering funds from our church to help support those in deep financial need, as much as possible. Other pastoral staff in our church also brought food, desserts, and snacks to some frontline workers where possible. Tutoring services to neighborhood kids near our church continued online during this pandemic, and parking lot meetings outside at our church are being planned when possible. Spiritual formation into deeper Christlikeness involves loving our neighbor or others as ourselves (Mark 12:31), and therefore it is for the sake of others.
Fifth, the pandemic also provided many pastors with more time for taking better care of our physical health and bodies in terms of more frequent and regular exercise, adequate sleep, and proper nutrition. These physical practices became essential in strengthening our immune systems and protecting us against the coronavirus. Many of us as pastors learned to care for our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19,20) in a more serious and disciplined way, to the benefit not only of our physical health but also of our mental and spiritual and relational health. As a pastor, I have also encouraged and challenged our church people and others to take better care of their health and bodies as whole, integrated persons, with appropriate self-care and beyond to “we-care” and “God-care.” Spiritual formation therefore involves the whole person as an embodied human being.
Sixth, during the pandemic, many protest marches against racism took place due to incidences of police brutality against African-Americans, and Black Lives Matter became crucial. There is a lot of pain and suffering in this matter, and justice issues (Micah 6:8) and stands against racism are justifiably taking center stage and garnering more support and attention in American culture and society today as well as around the world.For example, see Teesha Hadra and John Hambrick, Black & White: Disrupting Racism One Friendship at a Time (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2019); Esau McCaulley, Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020); Jemar Tisbey, How To Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey Toward Racial Justice (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2021); and Jemar Tisbey, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020). As the senior pastor of a predominantly Chinese-American local church, my church and I have had to seriously and soberly face our struggles with racism and prayerfully repent from racist attitudes and behaviors, and reach out more with love for our neighbors or others, especially those who are from different and diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, including our African-American brothers and sisters. The Asian-American community and church need to be less isolated and insulated and be more inclusive of others. There is a lot more to be done, and that can be done, and that should be done with the love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, in breaking down racial and other barriers and to deepen our unity with and love for one another (Gal. 3:28).
Seventh, I have had more time at home because of the stay-at-home directives during the pandemic, and therefore, I have spent more time with my wife and adult daughter who moved in with us. This has been a precious time and season for us as a family. The priority of family life has been renewed and needs to be maintained, especially for us pastors, even after the pandemic ends.
Finally, I continued to faithfully provide leadership during the pandemic as the senior pastor of our church even though it has been closed, by keeping in close touch with our pastoral staff and church boards (elders, trustees, and deacons), mainly through Zoom meetings but also with some appropriate personal visits and many phone calls. Faithful leadership and servanthood are crucial aspects of pastoral ministry even and especially during a pandemic.
These are eight ways in which the Lord has used this pandemic to prune, purify, and perfect me as a pastor and our church to become more like Jesus in deeper spiritual or Christian formation and soul care. By His grace and the power of the Holy Spirit, may we grow through this pandemic and not just go through it. O Lord, teach us what we do not see.