Pastoral Ministries And COVID-19

One of the aspects of pastoral ministries I take very seriously is the hospital visit. I know a lot of pastors do not do those any more, but I still think it is important. For most of my twenty five years of ministry, this has two phases. One phase is someone in a room, and in that room and it is just as you would expect, like a regular hospital visit. The biggest challenges in these situation are 1) getting them to turn the television down 2) finding a place to sit 3) not interfering with the medical folks coming and going. It is always important to remember, pastorally, you are on their turf when in the hospital and you must accommodate whatever they have going on.

The second phase of this, is what I think is the most important, and that is pre-op. I have never had any problem walking to the front desk, saying I am so-and so’s pastor, then calling down to get clearance from the patient, and then they walk me down — usually to the last stop before the patient goes in. It is in this setting that I read a little scripture, talk about eternal things, anoint them with oil, and then pray with them for a successful surgery, wisdom for the doctor, a speedy recovery, and no long term problems. The greatest challenges to this was 1) arriving at just the right time, 2) not staying too long, and 3) finding your way back out when finished because those places are a maze.

COVID-19 changed all of that.

I remember the visit I was trying to make the very day they changed the policies at one of our local hospitals and was denied access. I did leave behind a little “prayer bear” from one of our ministries that I take to patients in the hospital.

One of our little prayer bears

For over a year now, hospital visits have been prohibited across the board. In this in between time I have prayed on the phone with a lot of people and visited them in their yard the night before, all masked up and often wearing gloves. Sometimes people prefer to come by my study at church — it feels a little more official, I think for some folks.

Now, though, some hospitals are opening up, our local hospital is, for the Phase One kind of visit. I’ve been able to see people in their rooms the last three or four weeks and that is very nice. It feels almost normal.

The Phrase Two type, though, still seems out-of-reach. I was reminded of this yesterday when we called a hospital to find out if I would be able to do that and was told “You can pray in the lobby before the patient checks in.”

What I am wondering is, as a spiritual guide, if the hospitals will ever open this back up to us as a possibility. I feel like there is a good chance they will not, which is unfortunate. It deprives people of faith of a holistic approach to their well-being.

What I am working through is how this change will combine and steamroll with the rapidly increasing trend toward sending people home the same day of their procedure. More and more surgeries are ‘day surgeries’ or perhaps ‘overnight’ surgeries. The window of opportunity for seeing someone in the hospital has been shrinking steadily. When I first started pastoring in the mid-90s, if a woman had a hysterectomy she was often in the hospital fo a week. Now she is home that afternoon. Back surgeries were usually long stays, but now they schedule them at 6AM and have the patients out the for by four.

I am not complaining about this from a medical perspective — although we all know these rushed times are the result of insurance and not healthcare — but instead my concern is how do you do meaningful hospital ministry in these accelerated programs when COVID-19 protocols are in play? The answer will probably involve some kind of hybrid approach that involves the night before the surgery prayer in home, Sunday at church prayer, video-calling people in the hospital, and the incredibly rare opportunities to hold someones hadn’t, touch their forehead, and pray with them.

What I refuse to do is surrender the playing field, so to speak, and walk away from the sick, the hurting, and the afflicted. As things change, we who give pastoral care will have to work hard to stick our nosey little face in and ask the questions like, “If your surgery doesn’t work out the way we are hopeful it will, are you ready for eternity? Have you told the people you love all the things you need to tell them? What is your biggest fear going into this? How is your relationship with Jesus?” What is more, those we minister too will have to help us, because we’re navigating waters that are fresh and new to us and are contrary to both our training and our temperament.


I’ve written several blogs of late on “advice,” varying from money, marriage, children, and a few other things.  One thing I know a little something about is pastoring, so today’s blog is advice for pastors about pastoring.  So that probably makes for a smaller audience, but hey, it’s what I know so here we go.

1.  Make certain your children live in as normal a home as possible.  A pastor has a special responsibility to safeguard his or her children and spouse from the crazy, erratic, and emotionally depleting world they have to work in every day.

2.  Take a sabbath day once a week.  Sunday and Saturday do not count because you work very hard on those days.  I always took Friday, most people take Monday.  Monday never worked for me because I always felt so drained on Monday that when I took that day off I didn’t feel like enjoying anything.  That is when I decided to go on into work on Monday.  If I was going to feel bad I might as well not do it on my own time.  On your sabbath refuse to answer the phone, and train your spouse not to answer her’s/his either because they will call her/him to get to you.  I wish I’d had the strength to hang up the phone immediately whenever I answered and they said, “I know it is your day off but . . . ”   It always ruined my day.

3.  Read books, but don’t read so many churchy books.  I regret spending so much of my time reading one ‘how to do church book’ right after the other.  Maybe pick about five of them that others recommend and then stop, perhaps then reading one more every other year.  Instead read literature (Dickens, Poe, Dostoevsky, Wilde, Shakespeare) and current best sellers.  I also wish I’d read more history and thrillers and less about church.

4.  Accept the fact that church is a broken institution and live in the midst of that brokenness.  People are messed up (including you) and that makes it impossible to have the perfect church system, so stop trying to make it perfect.  You are only wasting your time.

5.  Work hard at pastoring on two fronts.  The most important front is learning to pastor the system(s) of your church.  I know that is counter-intuitive, but trust me it is the most important aspect of what you do regardless of your church’s size.  You have to learn to think systemically and then fix, repair, change, grow and adapt the systems of the church you lead.  The second front is learn to pastor people in their crisis moments.  It is faddish today, especially among those untucked goateed Calvinist pastors to neglect classic pastoral ministry but it is vital for the long term health, credibility, and integrity of people of faith.  Learn how to do a funeral the right way.  Go to the hospital.  Visit the nursing home.  Show up unannounced at a home in crisis.  Dedicate babies.  Learn some liturgy.  Conduct marriage counseling.  Be a pastor, not just a CEO.

6.  Watch your back, at all times and really, I mean this, trust no one.  If you want an example, just read the Bible.  My small group right now is learning about Moses.  Yeah, you see how the people he led treated him.  They will do no better by you.  Love them, but don’t trust them.  Jesus didn’t trust the people around him either (John 2:24).

7.  Learn to say no.

8.  Don’t be afraid to say yes.

9.  You’re not the solution to every problem.

10.  Make decisions and stick with them.  One of the greatest defects I saw in pastors and in churches was their inability to make a decision about most anything.

11.  Never use shame, guilt, or manipulation to get people to do things.  That is not how the Kingdom of God works.

12.  One more–enjoy what you do, this divine calling that is also our daily work, or else it will become a bitter pill.  I decided a long time ago that I would have fun, always, because I couldn’t control other people’s enjoyment level anyway.  Therefore, I might as well have a good time.  Yeah, there will be hard times and difficult moments but there must be a level of satisfaction, deep in your soul, that the work you are doing matters.


imagesThe feature article in this months CT (Christianity Today) is about pastoral power in the local church.  The author, Andy Crouch, does a very fine job of discussing the differences and similarities between high power churches (think Roman Catholic or megachurches) and low power churches (think Quaker, congregational Baptists) and how power is neutral–it can be either good or bad depending on the user.  The best paragraph in the whole article, though, is almost lost because it is buried in the deep middle.  We all know that most people just skim these things–but they might miss this:

One prescription for power’s right use in high power distance communities is vulnerability and accountability.  If your church is one where the pastor dwells in unapproachable, sanctified splendor, it becomes all the more crucial that known elders and friends hold your pastor accountable.

This, sadly is about all Crouch says about the prevention of pastoral power abuse and that is a shame because abuse of power is a terrible situation that occurs far too often because what passes for church more often than not is merely a cult of personality.  As individuals, pastors should not matter that much–they are only servants doing their job.  Should they be respected?  Yes.  Should they be heeded as experts?  Yes.  Should they be revered as special?  No, absolutely not.  Should they be out of reach of the people they lead?  Never.

I wish Crouch would have said something like “pastors should not dwell in unapproachable, sanctified splendor,” but he didn’t.  I also wish he would have spilled more ink about how abuse of power can be prevented.  Since he didn’t I will.

1.  Ultimate financial power should be vested in a team of people whom the pastor must plead with to get funding.  For me it was the finance team in our church.  Often I would go round-and-round with them about how I wanted to spend money only to have them deny me again and again.  It was frustrating, but it kept my power in check and that was a good thing.

2.  Elders are all the rage now, but I still believe in congregational polity.  However, it is impossible for a congregation to keep a pastor in check.  My deacons always did this for me.  There was always one or two deacons in this small group who despised me, and that was actually a good thing.  Too many churches that have elders as their main body of decision makers have elders hand picked by the pastor.  This is very bad.  Deacons, by contrast, accumulate over the years and gather independent of a pastor’s selection so it provides a good balance.

3.  Money is a great temptation, but the greatest abuse of power in a church is sexual.  No pastor is beyond the realm of temptation and sin.  That is why the greatest tools for the prevention of abuse of power are simple things like windows and agreed upon protocols.  A window in every door is a must.  Again, my property people often did not understand this, but it is vital to have windows and see through glass.  If I could have, I would have made every wall for every room in the church (except bathrooms!) see through glass.  Protocols help to.  I once had a person ask me to pick up their 17 year old daughter from school because their car broke down.  No way.  It is just not negotiable.  I’d rather give her cab money or be judged uncaring.  By the way, things like this are a great reason why female pastors and deacons are not only biblical but sociologically necessary.

It is the church’s responsibility to keep the pastor’s power in check.  I do not mean to torment the pastor or to make life unbearable but I do mean that that the polity and the culture of a congregation should be such that abuse of power, though not impossible, would be difficult.


Rob Pochek recently wrote an article (read it here from SermonCentral.com) which found its way to my inbox.  The article described five things he wish he’d known when he started pastoring.  Here is his list:

1.  You are pastoring a parade.

2.  The people who demand the most serve the least.

3.  You will see ugly behavior.

4.  You are irreplaceable (But not at Church)

5.  Preach the Word

Rob’s list is great.  His first one hits really close to home and reminds me of a recent blog by my friend Pastor Joe at Above Tree Line (The Sea Takes the Rest).  Numbers 2 and 3 are undeniably true.  Not only have I found that the biggest troublemakers give the least in terms of service, they usually contribute less in terms of financial resources.

#4 is powerful.  The only place I am irreplaceable is in my family.  Only I can be a husband to my beautiful Mrs. Greenbean and be a father to the Sprouts.

#5–Yeah baby!  What he alludes to is that fads come and go as to how to “do” church and there is never a shortage of new ideas.  These are okay to try and to implement, but in the midst of it don’t forget that Scripture, theology, doctrine, and preaching for life-change are always the centerpiece of pastoral ministry.

Now, I like his five, but I couldn’t help myself.  His are so serious and well meaning.  I, however, have found that there are five other things I would have preferred someone tell me before I started in pastoral ministry.

1.  How to baptize.  No one teaches you this.  I almost killed the first person I baptized.

2.  Most Bible study curriculum is awful and never actually teaches anything other than truisms.

3.  There are options to hard-tack Communion wafers.  Man shall not live by cardboard alone.

4.  You will always be at the mercy of audio-visual people in the back.  They control your destiny.

5.  Most people who come to you and say, “I feel called to the ministry” aren’t.

Okay, that is my five.  I’m off to do something fun now.