My friend and colleague, pastor Tim Stobbe (senior pastor, WayPoint Church, WA) was kind enough to answer some questions related to his experience of pastoring during the lock-down, how it affected him and his congregation. Tim has been a pastor for twenty years.
My questions are in bold.
With face-to-face gatherings having been banned, how did you and your church found ways to maintain a sense of community?
During the ban, we worked pretty hard to do a couple things to help maintain that sense of togetherness. The first is that we encouraged our community groups (home groups) to continue checking in on each other and to use technology such as Zoom to try and continue meeting. For the people we were able to identify who weren’t actively connected to a group, we had elders and a few volunteers call and check in periodically. The second thing is that we intentionally sought to incorporate our people into our online church services; not just as observers but as participants. This didn’t always work but we tried to continue things like having different people read Scripture and send in video greetings. There is always a technology struggle to overcome but we felt like it was important to have more than just pastors appearing on people’s screens.
What has been the hardest thing for you during this pandemic?
Without a doubt, moving into the early stages of meeting together again has been the hardest. I think this has been in part because the rules keep changing but more than that, people feel differently about things like social distancing, wearing masks, and who the actual experts are.
During the ban, the hardest thing was wondering how effective the online services really were. I actually got used to speaking to a camera instead of people and that helped but the conversation was gone. I used to feel that preaching was mostly a one-way communication (and in many ways it is) but the congregation is a partner in the sermon. Their facial expressions, verbal responses, and their presence are all part of what is happening in that moment. There’s also this social contract when we’re in the same room together that is absent when people are watching a service from home. So much of what we do as the church built on physically gathering together.
Some pastors feel certain that if they don’t reopen soon, congregants will get used to virtual church and this change will negatively impact the future of their church, funding, and discipleship (as discipleship involves face to face interaction). Is this a valid concern?
I personally haven’t felt the same level of urgency as other pastors but as time goes on some of these concerns do grow. It’s one thing to just do church online for a few weeks but as weeks grow into months it is harder to make meaningful connections and to engage in discipleship. People can only handle so many virtual meetings.
One of the ways we are trying to respond to this concern is to try and get out of our own way. It looks like as the pandemic lessens and rules lighten up, it may be easier for people to meet in homes rather than us trying to get everyone into the sanctuary. It means decentralizing and entrusting more people with spiritual leadership. Valuing smaller gatherings over larger ones.
In regards to funding, we have not seen a significant negative impact. Giving has dropped a little but our expenses dropped more. In conversations with other pastors, most seem to be doing okay in this regard.
As a pastor, have you felt any pressure at all to reopen (including from other churches)?
A little, yes. There is definitely a significant group of people that believe our governor is overreaching with the restrictions still in place for churches and religious services. To add fuel to this, our community has not seen any new COVID-19 cases in several weeks. The pressure at this point is to ignore or at least relax some of the more burdensome requirements. I admit, the resistance to face coverings has surprised me but I kind of get it; wearing a mask is not enjoyable at all for many.
What advice would you give leaders and Christians who are in contexts which vehemently disagree about which course to take?
I suppose I’m advising myself a little here too. My belief is that people need to be heard and to have a stake in what’s happening. I would also say that it is important to frame conversations around this situation with the reminder that this is all temporary. It is one thing to be passionate and maybe even to part ways over significant doctrinal disagreements, it is another to become divided over a situation that is passing. Like most people, we should want to do the right thing in every circumstance but we shouldn’t lose sight of the long term. I’ve invested a lot of years into the people I serve and they have done the same for me. I would hate to die on a hill of shifting sand.
With there being no shortage of news updates about death tolls, and with seemingly no end in sight, it’s hard to maintain hope. What advice would you give the many who believe Jesus is Lord and yet are having trouble fully trusting him during this time?
This is such a good question. I would like to respond with something practical, something theological, and something contextual. The practical advice is set limits! You can usually learn what’s going on in the world within 30 minutes or less. The rest is just the same information with extra opinion and spin. On social media you can take control of what comes through your news feed; “snoozing” people who keep posting things that cause anxiety is a smart move. The theological advice is to connect with Christ as much as possible. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). Time with Jesus and time with people who emulate his peace is only going to help. Finally, the contextual thing is to look at this pandemic with historical eyes. This is a horrible disease, there’s no denying that, but we’re not the first generation to experience this and we likely won’t be the last. It may take a while but it will come to an end.
What do you think that God is saying during this time, if anything? To his Church? To his world?
I’m not sure I can totally answer this but I think it is safe to say that the commands to love one another, to love our enemies, to look out for the orphans and widows, and to be salt and light are all messages we need to receive. Perhaps there is a call here for us to set aside selfishness and the pursuit of empty pleasures so that we can actually notice our neighbors and love them the way Jesus intended.
Thank you, Tim!
Tim Stobbe is currently finishing his masters degree at Portland Seminary and is the senior Pastor of WayPoint Church in Washington.