As the case is with probably most free-thinking Americans, I sit in shock and disbelief when I look at what is happening in our country. I prefer to think of myself as just an ordinary, everyday guy. I have a family, do my best to work hard and provide and I love this country. When I consider the situation that the COVID-19 has put our beloved Unites States of America in, many emotions and feelings flood my mind, such as How? What? Why?
HOW: how did something like this sickness plunge us into a sudden police state when other illnesses in the past did not bring about near the reaction this one did? How has the American economy been obliterated without the first shot being fired?
WHAT: what are we going to do when the next big sickness happens in, let’s say, two or three years from now? What should our first and automatic response be next time? What should we have done different in our response this time?
WHY: and trust me, there are a lot of why’s. Why did everything shut down? Why have government entities placed the citizens of this country in house arrest? Why has it taken so long for citizens to finally start fighting back? Why do other citizens believe the government is the best answer to fix this? And there are many others.
As a pastor of a local church in the woods of central Maine, I would like to offer my perspective on what I see happening thru those eyes.
In our churches (and probably society in general), everybody seems to take one of the following three positions to this “pandemic” and how the government is handling it. I have many close preacher friends who all hold one of these three positions and are very passionate about their stance.
The first position is the feeling of that of absolute government overreach when it comes to our liberties. They basically believe the various government entities (from local, regional, state and federal) have acted unconstitutionally and therefore can be defied because their actions, such as executive orders and guidelines, are unlawful.
The second position is that everybody should just sit back and let the government take the lead while every person and institution (from schools to businesses to churches, and so on) do whatever the officials dictate we do.
The third position lies somewhere in the middle. While people don’t like to be out of work, told to stay at home, are struggling in a multitude of areas, they are willing for a while to give up some liberties and wait to see how it plays out before they determine to either say “enough is enough” or just remain willing to follow the government’s lead for the foreseeable future or even indefinitely if that’s how it ends up.
No matter which position a pastor has, he more than likely by nature is very passionate about it.
At our church, in the beginning, we simply discouraged people from physical contact such as hugs or shaking hands. We asked folks to be mindful to wash their hands often, especially after using the restroom and to avail themselves of the many hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the building. Then the governor limited gatherings to 10 people. So, in our church services, we adjusted to that by doing what we needed to do to still accommodating for everyone to meet in person at church for the services while “obeying” the mandated limit of 10.
Then came the “stay at home” order for the month of April that basically “outlawed” all social gatherings no matter the number.
So, what does a pastor do? Does he obey the higher law of the U.S. Constitution and meet anyways believing the orders INFRINGED on that First Amendment right? Does he be the “good citizen” and play it safe not wanting to subject church goers to this dangerous unseen enemy known as the Coronavirus and shut the church down? Does he adjust and go to online-only services?
Then there are a host of other questions. How will these changes affect the spiritual welfare of those in his church which he is biblically responsible for? What about the liability of proceeding with “business as usual” and somebody contracts the virus at church? What about the people in the church (such as the elderly) who do not have social media and therefore not be able to stay connected by live-stream?
And there is another consideration. Some do not think a church should think of this, but just as a business owner has to consider the finances of his business, the pastor has to consider the finances of the church. What is going to happen with that if people are not coming?
Remember the three positions listed above that pastors have taken? It goes without saying that just about every member of society also holds one of those positions when it comes to their everyday lives. That taken into consideration, every pastor has people in his church who also hold to one of those positions and is passionate about it. This puts every pastor in a tight spot because no matter what decision he makes as to what course of action his church is to take, there will undoubtedly be some people in the church who will disagree with him. If he holds to position one, the folks who believe in position two or three won’t be happy. If he stands on position two, then those who stand on one or three won’t be happy. I am sure you get the picture.
The best the pastor can do is hope and pray that no matter what he has decided to do those who disagree with him will still decide to understand and support his decision. I am very thankful that as far as I know and can tell, those in our church have supported my decisions that I have had to make up to this point.
And let me just interject here that among my pastor friends, I understand all three sides and fault no one for whatever it is that they have decided to do in leading their church down Corona Boulevard. They have to lead their way in what they think is best for their church. Sadly, not everybody has offered the others the same respect for the decisions they have made that may be different than the ones others have made.
But no matter which one of the three positions held by pastors, one thing is for certain. We are all in pretty much total agreement that governments have overstepped their bounds in the handling of this virus and also that basic liberties have been unconstitutionally trampled on. Believe me when I say I have talked to pastors not just all over Maine, but literally all over the country.
Imagine being a pastor and you are told that a liquor store is an essential business, but the church is not. Pot stores are open, but the church is told to be closed. People can social distance at the grocery store or at Walmart but not at church. I cannot say strong enough that pot stores are NOT protected by the Constitution. Churches are. Period. Not even Walmart is protected.
And the governor of Maine on April 11th issued an official executive order declaring the Easter bunny and tooth fairy to be essential workers. While I obviously believe in neither, humanly speaking I get it. Do something cute to help the morale of the children. But let me tell you, being a pastor of some precious people who are near and dear to my heart, some of whom I have known for over 15 years, it is very disheartening to hear that legally – officially – a make-believe rabbit is declared to be essential while you are not.
In closing let me say the next couple of weeks are going to be very interesting. And as stay at home orders all over the country are likely to keep getting extended, pastors will be faced with even more decisions to make. I know where I stand, and I believe I have direction from God for what He wants me to do. I don’t know what He wants other pastors to do. I can only speak for what He has told me to do and by His grace, I plan to follow Him.
Craig Cobb served on staff at a Baptist church outside of Buffalo, New York for 23 years. He has pastored in Maine for almost two years. He also continues his ministry of evangelism traveling the United States and Europe which began 18 years ago. He currently pastors a church in central Maine.