By Dick Barrett
The past several months have certainly been a difficult time in our individual lives and in the lives of our churches throughout Ohio Conference of Mennonite Church USA. It seems like “a perfect storm” — a pandemic that almost none of us have ever experienced before, an economy that crashed with no one sure of what the long-term effects will be, and finally the coming to a head of racial tensions that have existed in our country since its formation hundreds of years ago.
I’ve heard it said, “Life as we knew it is gone,” and/or “There will be no going back to normal.” I would like to challenge us that just maybe the life that we have had to let go of was not as great as we thought it was, or at least not for all people. Most importantly we need to ask ourselves the question, “Did it glorify God?” The beloved disciple John wrote in his first letter, “Whoever claims to live in Christ must live as Jesus did” (1 John 2:6). While the four gospel accounts of Jesus’ life help us to know how Jesus lived back during his time here on earth, it becomes more difficult in trying to live as Jesus would want us to live in the situations we face today.
Three months ago our churches closed their doors to help prevent, or at least slow down, the spread of the COVID-19 virus, a virus which can have little or no effect on many, but very drastic and deadly effects on others, especially those who are most physically vulnerable and those age 65 and over. In the big picture, the closing of most businesses, organizations and churches in Ohio and throughout the country has had a very positive effect in preventing the spread of the virus and saving thousands, if not millions of lives.
Over the past several weeks many of our churches have begun to reopen. I have been impressed by the great thought, discernment, sensitivity, and care both our pastors and church leadership groups have put into their reopening plans. Recently I heard a pastor with more than 25 years of experience say, “Closing was the easy part; reopening is one of the greatest challenges I have experienced in my pastoral ministry.”
My encouragement to delegates, members, and attenders of Ohio Conference congregations is that you see this time of reopening as a special time to Be Jesus to a watching world. Trust that your church leaders have done their best to take into account the vast amount of differences that exist in your congregation and that their number one priority has been and will continue to be the life and safety of those whom they have been entrusted to protect, especially the most vulnerable.
I also want to encourage you to care deeply for your pastors during this time, and to recognize the toll that this time period has taken on them — physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. In a world that seems like it is spinning out of control, where people have so many different thoughts, ideas and opinions, and division and criticism of personhood seem to be the norm, pastoring a congregation has never been more difficult. In the past three months it has become exponentially more difficult.
I also want to remind us that we have hope and new opportunities in Christ. There is no “old normal” with God. In Christ we are called to be new creations to live as Christ would live in the time, place and whatever situations we find ourselves in today. When all is said and done, perhaps our churches will not look exactly like they did before the pandemic. But perhaps we have learned some new things during this time — like the importance of connecting with our people virtually in different ways while also recognizing that communicating with people virtually does not take the place of meeting with people in person. We should be asking ourselves the same question of our churches during and after this pandemic as we did before: “Does whatever we are doing — worship, ministry and mission — bring glory to God through Jesus Christ?”