In the short run, the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating. It has caused unspeakable loss, harrowing illness, early death. It has plunged countless people around the world into depression, joblessness, and poverty. It has challenged even the best of our coping skills.
People are afraid.
And those things have happened just in the first half of 2020. What will the pandemic’s long-term impact be?
Now more than ever, the world needs the hope that the Gospel offers. The Gospel message is rooted in God’s love for humanity and care for the needs of his creation — both our physical and our spiritual needs. In particular, the Gospel provides all of creation with the opportunity to know God the Father, who provides for and protects the creation he has made, and through the Holy Spirit to know Jesus Christ, the life and light of the world.
The pandemic has made many of us feel as if we are prisoners of the disease. Yet when we feel we are prisoners without hope, the prophet Zechariah reminds us to return to God, our stronghold, who can make us prisoners of hope, locked into his divine love and protected in his providential care. There, even in the worst of times, hope can flourish.
While people around the globe are coping with the many challenges the pandemic is causing — while, with our faces covered, we alternate hand-washing and hand-wringing — the paradigm has shifted. In the new paradigm, churches are still carrying on ministry, but they are doing so in a different way. Humanity’s needs, God’s Word, and the Gospel remain the same, but pastors and church leaders are adapting. In particular, the pandemic is encouraging us, rather forcefully, to embrace the creative use of technology that the Holy Spirit uses to extend the Gospel message.
Seminary education has changed too. Over the course of two short weeks this spring, most seminaries moved their courses online. For faculty who have never before taught online, and for students who have never previously taken courses online, the learning curve has been steep. After shifting abruptly this spring, our educational models may never return to their previous patterns. The paradigm has shifted.
Similarly, boards and committees are being forced to make major decisions in a matter of weeks, and sometimes days — decisions that would ordinarily take months or years. It is almost as if God is giving us a rare opportunity to reconsider and change our systems and decision-making processes.
Once the dust has settled, we will need to decide which of these new systems to keep and which to let go — which are essential to our strategic priorities and which were useful for a limited time.
By shifting from the old paradigm, we are given the space to develop new things.
Not as those who have no hope
Because the crisis of the pandemic has stripped away most everything that is not essential, we are having to reckon with our core values. For many of us, that means focusing on Christ, the church, and our own particular expressions of faith. For me, this is a hopeful time. If the past looked bleak, this is a clarion call to make life in the new paradigm a better place. Reconstruction will require hopeful and committed input from everyone.
And who better to shape the new realities than our students? They have been formed and prepared for ministry in our institutions and are now entering their most productive years. I am beginning to see my new role as stepping out of the way, empowering students and graduates to lead and guide while still offering my help and support when it’s needed and requested.
I am convinced that right now, during this crisis, God is redefining and reshaping ministry.
Churches and pastors are adapting their strategies to ensure that the gospel message of salvation, hope, and healing is being shared — a message particularly appropriate for such a time as this. We are not stepping into the future alone, but rather as the hands and feet of the triune God: the Father, who has promised us (in the words of Jeremiah) “hope and a future.” Jesus Christ, the personification of a paradigm shift, who promised never to leave us or to forsake us. The Holy Spirit, who empowers us for the mission that points the world toward Christ, the resurrection and the life, who can do immeasurably more than we ask or imagine.
There may be many reasons for feeling as if hope is muted or diminished, but God has called us to step out of the boat and into an uncertain future, one that is safe only because of the certain grip of his graceful care.
When all is stripped away
What is the role of seminary leaders during this time? Perhaps more important than offering answers is the chance to raise questions and focus on the truly important components of leading a seminary. One way to approach this to follow a four-part process:
- Reflect on what is most important
- Release what is unnecessary
- Retain what is most needful
- Retool for what is essential in our mission and ministry
When problems are stripped to their core, when they are exposed, named, and assessed, we rely on God and the communion of saints to move forward as people of hope. If our core values still define us (and there is no better opportunity than now to ask that difficult question), then our core values can move us forward with hope to achieve what lies ahead.
This is a great time to consider what was, what currently is, and what will be. We must not think of ourselves as victims of circumstance but as proactive entrepreneurs.
What will the future ministry look like for churches and seminaries? Only God knows for certain, but most likely, each will retain the most important components of the past, and courageously move toward a hopeful future where, during a time of restoration and rebuilding, Christian leaders convey love, peace, and joy.
Ezra 3 tells the story of the rededication of the temple after the Babylonian exile. Most people celebrated with thanksgiving to God for restoring their fortunes. Yet, Ezra tells us there was also weeping — tears of sorrow from those who missed the glory of the old temple, and tears of joy from those who were hopeful in the new house of the Lord.
The weeping was mingled and indistinguishable, but it did not matter, because life went on.
In these days, there may be weeping from the old guard and from the young leaders alike. We can honor those who mourn the loss. But we are not a people without hope. New paradigms are under construction. God has raised up our students and our schools for such a time as this.