These past few months have been excruciatingly tough as a pastor. That’s difficult to admit. Last spring, I could see the light. Vaccines were rolling out. We were coming out of COVID and we were back in our beloved sanctuary. The nursery was beginning to fill again. Some Sundays we had twelve babies. Life was returning. But then I got the call, “Someone in the nursery had a case.” This happened on Mother’s Day. On Mother’s Day afternoon, our children’s staff had to call new moms and dads and tell them they would need to take off work and quarantine their kids for the next two weeks.
I was angry. Really angry. I felt terrible for these families. I felt terrible for our staff having to make these calls. I knew that the word would get out about our case in the nursery and the parents would stop bringing their babies.
By Wednesday, I mustered enough courage to mandate vaccines for all nursery workers. I reasoned that the kids couldn’t wear masks and that wasn’t fair to them. But I also felt ambivalent about the mandate. Because I knew our nursery workers loved our kids and had been faithful to us throughout the pandemic. I got calls from people thanking me for making the best decision for their children by the decision. I got calls of extreme disappointment. I wanted to agree both sets of calls. Pastors are usually pretty empathetic people. We try our best to understand the viewpoints of all sides.
This all happened in May. Then I took a big gulp of air and soldiered on with worship planning for the summer. I knew attendance would be sparse. It always is during June and July. I was pleasantly surprised that attendance was back to pre-covid levels for the summer. When we sang, Praise to the Lord the Almighty, our congregation did “let the amen sound from his people again.” Worship was lively and strong. Our choir was back in the chancel.
Just a few weeks later, I got to be the hero. I sent out the note they had been waiting to read. “Due to the new CDC guidelines, there are no more masks mandates for worship if you have been vaccinated. We look forward to seeing your faces this Sunday.” I received several emails telling me how grateful they were to the church for leadership during these times.
We had a backlog of baptisms for children born during the pandemic. We had baptisms almost every Sunday this summer. It all felt good. I had a vacation planned for the fourth of July. I pulled out of our driveway breathing a sigh of relief. I couldn’t wait to be with our family in the mountains and I knew when I returned we could start stoking the fires for the fall at church.
Sure enough, we began our work as a staff. It was early July. We set a date for early August for two welcome back events. We planned a welcome back Sunday and trivia night for Wednesday night dinners. The worship would included duets, stringed instruments, a full choir, a rousing sermon and a petting zoo with pony rides. Yes, I love Jesus and felt a little bit like a sell out for bribery for bringing the animals to get the families back to worship. But people have been away for a year. When in doubt, bring animals.
As the big worship day was approaching, I watched the COVID numbers ticking up. I’m checked every night and every night I was more disappointed. This was supposed to be our our big return. It’s time to get people reengaged with God. It’s time to get them back on their journey with Jesus. I’ve told me people time and again that the hardest part about being a church during a pandemic is we are a congregation. By nature, we congregate.
As our big day approached, there was no going back. Despite the rising numbers, we went full steam ahead. Yes, I reinstated the masks mandate for worship. We were following the CDC guidelines and the executive orders of our mayor. Let me say this. Living in Atlanta, has only amplified the complexity of matters as our political leaders continue to give different messages. You worry the decisions you make are going to get wrapped up in some larger political narrative that you don’t want to be a part of. You have to make these decisions but all you really want is for your people to be able to worship God and find some joy and hope on a Sunday morning. A good offering would be nice too.
We went full steam ahead with our big Sunday. We had quite the crowd and some glorious music. Our front yard was a zoo as we left worship. It was a beautiful day as we enjoyed ice cream sandwiches on the lawn and watched the kids riding ponies and parents snapping pictures with the cow.
Was I little reluctant to post much about it? A little. I wasn’t sure how some of my clergy friends would react. The last thing I needed was a thread of criticisms. This day gave me life and it gave our neighborhood life too.
As this awful Delta variant rages on, I find myself slipping again towards anger. We were supposed to experience a rebirth this fall. I hopeful we still can. Yes, I want to keep our children safe, but suspending children’s events is not the way to go. Children need church just as much as they need school. Families need dinners with other families. We’re going to give it our best shot.
To all my fellow clergy out there, whatever decision you make for your churches, I support you! I miss seeing you. Congregations, we thank you and continue to ask for your support. It may take a moment to remember some of your names. But we’ll get there. God is with us.