S2E9 — A Tale of Two Pastors

The following is a transcript of a video from my channel, Almost Ordained.

Video link: https://youtu.be/5FiajDHNRH8

Opening: Welcome to another episode of “Almost Ordained.” I am your host, David, the guy who graduated seminary but never got ordained.

The Interim Pastor: You’re hired, but not for long

I’m thinking about what makes a good pastor, because the pastor at my church has announced he is going to retire. The process of searching for a new pastor takes a long time. In our denomination, we first look for an interim pastor, and try to fill that pretty quickly. His job — or her job, because in our denomination, women can be ordained. And some of you already are saying, “That means your church is an apostate church, because the Bible says, ‘Women should keep silent in the church.’” Yeah, I read that differently. I don’t have time to explain it now, but it will probably be a topic for a future episode.

Anyway, I’ve been in churches with an interim pastor twice, so I know pretty much what to expect. Basically, when the interim pastor comes in, they hold down the fort until the church finds and approves a candidate to be the permanent pastor. In one of those cases, we wanted to make the interim our permanent pastor, but he was going to move. His wife had received a job offer somewhere else that was just too good to pass up, so their gain, our loss.

So we are at the beginning and trying to find an interim, someone who is willing to come into the job knowing we are already looking for his or her replacement. It sounds unfair when I say it like that. But whoever it is understands. That’s the nature of the position.

I’ve had good relationships with my pastors most of my life. Having graduated seminary myself, I really respect the work they have to do to become ordained, and the work of a pastor once they get hired. Whoever comes next for us has big shoes to fill in my mind. He officiated my wedding, and he conducted the funeral service for my two grandparents who died four days apart. So I have a personal connection, and I’ve seen and greatly respected his leadership style over the years.

What Makes a Good Pastor?

Even so, not all pastors are good, so I appreciate the good ones even more. Which brings me back to the question, what makes a good pastor? Of course, it helps if they preach good sermons. That means knowing how to read the Bible in context and explain it to the congregation, while also showing how it’s relevant to their lives. They should be of good character and integrity. They should know and believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ, what it is and what it is not. It’s not health and wealth, for example.

I also like a pastor who can be the calm in the storm, because their faith, hope, and love are genuine. They can counsel you with wisdom and peace, especially in a crisis. And in times like these, wisdom, compassion, and speaking the truth in love is all the more important from our spiritual leaders.

Moving away from my church, I want to use two examples of pastors who are approaching this Covid-19 situation in completely different ways. And to me, a crisis like this shows whether I want this Pastor leading my church. Out in Southern California — and to be clear these are not candidates for our church. They have their own churches. They are much bigger than we are, and they probably wouldn’t want to leave that for us. But, just hypothetically, both of them are pastors of big and well-known churches. If I gave the names of the churches and pastors, many of you would probably recognize them. However, I don’t want to prejudice your response with whatever you already know about them. So I will describe how each has responded to restrictions placed on them due to the pandemic and ask, which one is a better witness of Jesus Christ in the midst of this crisis?

Covid-19 Response from one pastor

Due to spikes in Covid-19 cases, the state of California placed restrictions on indoor gatherings. The pastor of one church complied at first. But now he says he will defy these restrictions and hold services in the church building without social distancing or masks. As far as the risk to his congregation, he says it’s an acceptable level of risk, because the number of cases in California amounts to a very small percentage of the population. Besides, his people want to meet in church, so he is going to open the doors to them, regardless of the risk.

He said it was impossible to comply with the restrictions the state wanted, even though many other churches in California have complied. He said the state doesn’t have the authority to restrict the church in this way, even though the restrictions are for everyone, not just churches. He said it was unconstitutional, even though he is not a constitutional lawyer and not qualified to make that judgment. If you think it is unconstitutional, challenge it in court. Don’t just say, “We are not going to comply because we don’t agree with it.” If every single person got to decide for themselves what was constitutional or not, that would literally be what the Bible describes as everyone doing what is right in their own eyes. There are two words for that: anarchy and chaos. Avoiding anarchy and chaos is exactly why Paul said to obey the governing authorities.

He said, “I’m not convinced that what’s being propagated is actually true,” even though he is not a doctor, epidemiologist, or medical expert of any kind. He is not one of the front line health care workers who are bearing the brunt of this kind of irresponsibility. He said the state’s restrictions, “make ‘no sense’ in light of the actual numbers of death[s] his congregation has experienced,” because no one in his congregation has died from it. You mean no one in your congregation died when you were following the rules, so you’re not going to follow them anymore? That’s like saying, “No one in our congregation has died from a car accident in the last six months. Therefore, we are not going to wear seat belts anymore.”

Covid-19 response from another pastor

So that’s one pastor’s response. What about the other one I mentioned? Like the first pastor, he is also a bestselling author. When the state of California first announced the restrictions, I’m sure he did not like it either, but he closed the church to indoor services because one, the state ordered limits on all indoor gatherings (not just churches), and two, he wanted to protect the health and safety of his members and anyone who might wander in for the first time. Like the first pastor, he realized the restrictions would be too impractical for a church his size. But unlike the first pastor, he is still not having indoor services, because nothing about the pandemic has gotten any safer. And he has indicated he is willing to do so until the virus is under control. Instead of griping and moaning about how the state doesn’t have authority to give these orders, he asked, “Since people can’t come to the building anymore, how can we take church to the people?”

Instead of making spurious claims that this is unconstitutional, he complied and adapted. He has said it well in at least two sermons. Not a direct quote, but the gist is, it’s the job of doctors and medical professionals to guide us in treating and preventing the spread of the disease, and it’s the job of pastors and ministers like him to help people with the “dis-ease” — the stress, the frustration, the fear, the uncertainty, the financial worries people are experiencing with it, and that’s just for people who haven’t even caught it yet. What a contrast. One pastor thinks he knows better than the doctors and medical professionals what kind of threat this virus poses. He’s not a doctor, but he plays one in the pulpit. The other looks for ways he can help people using his experience as a pastor while listening to others who have more expertise on the medical side of the equation.

So the church did the obvious things, like broadcasting services online. I don’t remember the numbers exactly. But before the pandemic and quarantines started, they were averaging something like 15K views for each online sermon. Now, they are up to something like 60, maybe 90K views per episode. They are reaching more people now than they can even fit in their building.

But they did one more thing in particular I hope all churches and Christians stand up and take notice. Before the pandemic, they operated three food pantries. There were other community food banks, but with the increased demand, their shelves were empty at a time when record numbers of people needed them. He called on church members to do something about it. They volunteered, partnered with other churches, businesses, and government organizations to set up food banks to not only store food but deliver it to people. Last I checked, they had set up over 400 food distribution centers. 13K volunteers had distributed over 3 million pounds of food to around 250, maybe 300K people. And they received a letter from the state of California thanking them and telling them that in just six months, they had become the biggest distributor of free food in Southern California.

Wow! That is great, isn’t it? All I can think is, what a great response. What a Christian response to this pandemic. They are not just obeying the orders that are based on medical guidelines but actually doing something to help people through this crisis. A lot of people are worried about how are they going to pay for food, and they’ve helped people in a very tangible way.

It’s not religious freedom

To those who say it’s about religious freedom, I’m going to ask, If everyone has to follow the rules except you, is that freedom, or is that privilege? I used to respect this pastor, but since he has decided the state has no authority over the church … Look, I understand why some people think that. It appears to be a matter of religious freedom. When the state tells churches how and when they can gather, it sounds like they are overstepping their authority.

The thing is in California and in other states, they are responding to an emergency. 213,000 people have died from Covid-19 so far, and counting. There is like a thousand more each day dying all over the country. We’re not even talking about the rest of the world. The church should care about saving lives, not meeting in a building. The reason why it is not about religious freedom is everyone has to follow the same rules for indoor gatherings. If they said, “Everyone can meet indoors without masks, sanitizers, and social distancing, except churches,” that would be an attack on religious freedom. That is not what is happening. The rules the one pastor is saying don’t apply to him are rules everyone else has to follow. What he is arguing for is not freedom. It’s privilege. And I’m sorry, but the church does not have the right to claim privilege in this country. We are a democracy, not a theocracy.

Maybe you’ve heard the saying but it bears repeating. Your right to swing your fist ends where another person’s nose begins.

What about the protestors?

But what about the protestors? They aren’t social distancing or wearing masks.

Where are people protesting? In a building? No, they are protesting outside. At least in all the footage I’ve seen, they are outside. The rules he’s complaining about apply to indoor gatherings, not outdoors. You can protest outside. You can have church outside. My church has done that for the past several weeks. It’s the same rules for everyone. Well, not everyone, according to him.

And what’s really ironic is in the past, he has argued that the United States is not a theocracy. It’s a democracy. But now he’s trying to claim a privilege for the church that is only appropriate in a theocracy. He is not standing for religious freedom. He is claiming persecution where none exists, and he is using religion to justify dangerous and reckless behavior that is illegal for everyone else. Tell me how that is not privilege.

Have there been times in history when the church had to disobey the state in favor of a higher moral law? Yes. This is not one of those times. This is not a time for asserting our personal freedom, whether it’s not wearing masks, not social distancing, or doing anything that could turn our churches into super-spreaders. This is the time to love our neighbors as ourselves. Do you remember Jesus saying love your neighbor as yourself and do to others as you would have them do to you? If you get Covid-19, you will spread it to others. I’m pretty sure you would not want anyone spreading a highly contagious, potentially deadly disease to you or your parents or grandparents. So don’t do it to others.

I know you miss the group worship experience. I do too. I will be happy when we can do it again without putting the lives of my friends at church at risk (not to mention my own. Or my wife’s). And Jesus said in John 4, God doesn’t care about any particular building, whether it’s on Mount Gerizim, the Temple in Jerusalem, or the church you’ve attended all your life. God wants God’s people to worship in spirit and in truth (John 4:24). And you can literally do that anywhere.

What about saving souls?

I’ve heard this argument. But what about people’s souls? What if someone wants to receive Christ that Sunday, but they can’t get into the church? You might have condemned that person to Hell, and you’re going to answer for it.

Well, I’m glad you brought that up. The second pastor didn’t stop preaching the Gospel. He just moved services online. He didn’t gripe about it or speculate on matters he doesn’t know, like medicine and constitutional law. He looked for ways to bring church to the people. And the church followed his lead in setting up these food distribution centers.

How is it working? I already told you the number of views they are getting of his services and sermons are three times as many as they could even fit inside the church building. In the period from March through September, they had 5,000 people accept the invitation to give their lives to Christ through the online services, and 10,000 give their lives to Christ in response to the food distribution service. The pastor said they have never in any six-month period seen that many people come to Christ under the umbrella of their ministry. So this argument about the government interfering with the preaching of the Gospel is a red herring.

So if you insist on holding indoor church services during a pandemic, in defiance of good medical practice and common sense, because you’re afraid people’s souls will be lost because they can’t come to the church building to give their life to Christ, there went your last excuse. Besides, if you insist on endangering people’s lives, why should they care what you say about their eternal souls?

Which one obeyed the Gospel?

So in one church, they defied state orders, claiming authority they don’t have to get preferential treatment, and in so doing endangered their lives and yours as well. Because if anyone picks it up in church, what happens after church when they go to the grocery store, to work, and to school? They spread it to others, who spread it to others, who spread it to others, until everyone who was exposed gets put into quarantine. The other fulfilled Jesus’ definition of righteousness found in Matthew 25:31–40. They saw a need, and they met it. “I was hungry, and you gave me food.” Look it up if you don’t remember it. In fact, why don’t I read it for you. I have it bookmarked here. Matthew 25:31–40, I’m reading from the New Revised Standard Version.

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. (Mat 25:31–33 NRSV).

So he’s talking about the final judgment. You want to know how he’s going to judge you and everyone else at the final judgment? Keep listening.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’

(Mat 25:34–40 NRSV).

Did you notice he called them righteous? Verse 37, Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food …” and so on.

These are the ones he welcomed into his kingdom. These are the ones he said loved him, because whenever they did it, whenever they saw someone in need, and responded with kindness and generosity, they did it to him. That’s how he saw it.

Now, I will ask, which church and which pastor gave a truer, more faithful witness of Jesus Christ and his Gospel? If these were our two candidates for pastor, which one would I vote for? Which one understands what it means to love God by loving your neighbor? Which one would I trust to counsel me in a crisis with wisdom and compassion from the word of God? What do you think? I don’t know about you, but for me it’s not even close.

I’ll end it there. There’s more to say, but I don’t want the video to get too long.

Closing

So Thanks for watching Almost Ordained. I hope this has been helpful to you. If so, please share it on your social media. If you want to be notified when new videos become available, click the bell. And click the like button. That will help it show up in people’s search results. Until next time, remember these words from Matthew 7:12,

“In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

Grace and peace to you.

David Anderson is a multi-passionate author of fiction and nonfiction. His latest book is Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain.

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