Pastoral Work in the Time of COVID-19

Date posted: Wednesday 25 March 2020

Bishop Patricia Lull wrote this message to the rostered ministers in our synod on March 24.


When Paul wrote to the young Christian community in Thessalonica, he addressed them in this way: “We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (I Thessalonians 1:2-3) Little did I know at the start of Lent how well St. Paul’s words would capture my own appreciation and affection for the way you are embracing the challenges of ministry in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic.


Thank you for pivoting so quickly to lead ministries, plan worship, reach out to others and to maintain the basic work of a congregation or chaplaincy in ways that are fresh, innovative and faithful. If you are like me, however, you also have had bouts of anxiety about what these days mean for those we love and for the institutions we serve. Long solitary walks, phone calls with family and friends, and times of prayer have buoyed my spirits every time. I hope you are finding fresh encouragement through similar practices.


Creating New Stories

One of my phone calls was with Dr. Janet Ramsey, a retired professor of congregational care. We were colleagues when we both worked at Luther Seminary and Jan’s expertise is in resilience; not just how individuals grow and thrive through challenging times but how communities foster resilience.


Jan reminded me that reaching out was a good first step. She then pointed out three other features that mark long-term resilience. Those are:

  • belonging to a community that pulls together;
  • taking personal steps to stay in relationship with others;
  • and accepting our emotions.

In the midst of this pandemic there is one other thing we can do, which is to create new stories about ourselves as pastors and deacons and communities of faith.


I see those new stories emerging in the online witness to the tenacity and creativity of the Christian church. It is there as worship services are streamed or curated through social media platforms. It is there in old-fashioned phone trees and parking lot food drives. It is there as pastoral care is extended in dozens of ways that do not include close contact with one another. More of those new stories and narratives will emerge week by week.


Pastoral Practices: Funerals

In this letter I want to address a couple of pastoral practices that are impacting many of you. The first of those is funerals. How do we commend our dear ones to God when we cannot worship in person, as is our rich custom following a death?


Some of you have done small-sized funerals with immediate family (less than 10 persons) or a graveside committal with a promise to hold a memorial service when it is safe to gather as a larger worshipping community. I know that must feel strange to you as a minister, as it does for the grieving family and friends. Perhaps it even raises fears for you about those you love and the distance you must keep from extended family and friends. Those are emotions we can express to colleagues even as we present a confident presence to others.


As pastors and deacons, we need to model following whatever restrictions on gathering that are asked of us by the governor, even if that comes to be a prohibition on having a funeral altogether. As Lutherans, we have a hearty respect for the vocation of our public leaders and are not to imagine that our vocations give us immunity to this virus.


Pastoral Practices: Holy Communion

Some of you have contacted me with questions about Holy Communion, especially as Easter approaches. How do we best share the embodied Word of the Lord’s Supper when we are not able to gather physically in one place? Here is a link to an essay by Dr Timothy Wengert with a brief word by Dr. Gordon Lathrop. Both are esteemed Lutheran theologians. You will read that neither presents a perfect answer for this unique time of social distancing. What they each note is the emphasis we Lutherans place on the Word of God – preached, taught, prayed and shared by one Christian with another.


I also invite you to read this essay by Dr. Dirk Lange, professor at Luther Seminary and liturgical scholar, now serving as Deputy General Secretary of the Lutheran Work Federation in Geneva. Dirk is rostered in this synod and has been a helpful teacher to me at many points.


Before you tackle the question of Holy Communion, please do not overlook the gift of time we have all been given to deepen our preparation for preaching, teaching and praying the Word with others. People are truly hungry and eager for a life-giving message of hope and grace. We have that to share in our witness to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. As I listen to your online sermons and devotions, I expect to hear the very best proclamation of God’s grace and mercy. In whatever format you share God’s Word, share it with power and truth and love. I know that God is giving us the grace to rise to that challenge in these trying times.


As for celebrating and sharing Holy Communion, I am embracing the Lenten fast from this sacrament, described in this link from the Office of the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA and in this link from the Lutheran World Federation. Our sacramental decisions are not ones to be made in isolation from others in the global Lutheran community nor from our ecumenical partners.


A number of you have called or emailed me to talk about Holy Communion. I am grateful to be learning alongside you about your own sacramental theology and your pastoral sense for the people you serve. As you exercise your “reverent best guess,” to quote Tim Wengert, please take seriously your role as a teacher of the faith in your context. Neither Holy Baptism nor Holy Communion are magical rites, as some might be tempted to trust in these trying times.


There is much we cannot fix or address directly today. Great patience and restraint are being asked of each of us for the sake of our neighbors. As Lutherans, we get that part about doing things (or refraining from doing things) for the sake of others. Thank you for your own commitment to seeing this pandemic season through to a healthy conclusion and doing so together with other communities of faith and people of good will.


You Are In My Prayers

Please know that you are in my prayers. God willing, I will post again next week with further thoughts on Holy Week and Easter 2020. Know, too, that our companions in Guatemala and Tanzania are praying for us, as we pray for them. In the midst of a disease that spans the globe, God reminds us that all our lives are intertwined and all of us abide in God’s mercy and grace.


In Christ,

Bishop Patricia Lull