By Rachael Keefe
I am very aware that if ventilators are in short supply, I am not high on the list of people who will receive one. Yes, I am under 60 though most of my parishioners are not. On the other hand, I have multiple autoimmune diseases that put me at huge risk for a fatal case of COVID-19. As a consequence of my health issues, I plan to continue to stay at home until there is a vaccine, effective treatment, or herd immunity. I only go out to walk my dog and even doing that I wear a mask and stay more than six feet away from others who are outside. Therefore, the congregation I serve could be remaining virtual for a long time. I hope they understand, and they are patient.
To facilitate understanding of the need to protect me as the pastor and to protect other vulnerable people in our midst, a theology of Christian community is helpful. I have an “as with one, so with all” perspective meaning that what affects one member affects us all. In other words, if one member of the Body of Christ has COVID-19, then the Body of Christ has COVID-19. Likewise, if one member of the Body of Christ is vulnerable to COVID-19, then the Body of Christ is vulnerable. This theology is grounded in Paul’s description of one body with many members in 1 Corinthians 12. This is my basic understanding of the Church.
Now if we look at what Church is about, we must consider Jesus’ commandment to “love one another” (John 13:34-35). This is expressed in many ways throughout scripture. Jesus quotes Leviticus (19:18) when he tells us to “love our neighbors as ourselves” (e.g. Mark 12:30-31). In practical terms we are to view and to respond to the needs of our neighbors with the same care and compassion with which we view and respond to our own needs and the needs of those we love.
This commandment to love as Jesus loves is built on thousands of years of tradition. Throughout scripture there is an implied or directly stated mandate to care for “the widow, the poor, the orphan, the alien…” (e.g. Zechariah 7:10). In other words, we are to care for the vulnerable among us. This is, after all, what Jesus did, isn’t it? Jesus cared for those whom society rejected as “unclean.” He met people where they were at and frequently offered healing which enabled the individuals to return to their communities. These moments of healing were literally acts of re-membrance; Jesus reconnected people to their communities. He re-membered them physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
If we combine a theology of community that says, “as with one, so with all” with an understanding that we are to care for the vulnerable among us, we might find a way through COVID-19 and the question of when to gather in person again. Paul spells out in 1 Corinthians 12 that we are to protect our vulnerable members. If it is our leaders who are vulnerable, then we are no less obligated to protect them, are we? Congregations are not accustomed to thinking about our clergy as being vulnerable, and yet we often are. Clergy are not exempt from any challenges to our physical, mental, or spiritual health just because we are clergy. Perhaps these days of pandemic will allow more clergy to freely (within the limits of healthy boundaries) share their vulnerabilities with the congregations they serve creating healthier, mutually supportive communities in which all are re-membered.
When considering the overall health and well-being of our congregations, we cannot leave out our leaders. It’s easy to recognize that most mainline congregations consist mostly of people over age 60, including many clergy and this is reason enough not to gather in person just yet, or for some time to come. Even if this were not the case and our congregations were majority young, healthy individuals and only the pastor had increased risk-factors, this should be enough to keep us from rushing back to in person gatherings. If one person among us has increased risk-factors for COVID-19, then the Body of Christ has increased risk factors and we are obligated to care for vulnerable members of the one body.
If this is not enough to delay the conversation about gathering in person for another few months, let’s think about this another way. Do you remember the old Sunday School song by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh, “I am the Church! You are the Church”? This song includes a verse that spells out very clearly that our capacity to be the church is not dependent on a building, it is dependent on people—you and me. As much as we long to resume meeting in person for worship and other church activities, we must remember that Church is not closed and so there is no rush to reopen. Yes, our buildings are not being used at the moment and our understanding of how to be church is being pushed beyond our perceived limits. This can be a good thing. Maybe in the midst of all the chaos and pain this pandemic continues to shower on us, the Holy Spirit is at work transforming the Church and raising us to new life. We won’t get to experience the fullness, the abundance, of this if we are too busy longing for our old life.
Change is hard. Thinking of our clergy as vulnerable is also a challenge. However, the Church has all that it needs to meet the difficulties presented by this pandemic. The Holy Spirit is imagination writ large. We are figuring this out. Virtual weddings have taken place. Virtual memorial services have taken place. We are finding ways to share communion while honoring our theological and denominational traditions. We are inventing ways to include the technologically challenged. We are being more intentional in how we reach out to those who have difficulty connecting electronically. We are asking ourselves how we can include those without a church home in our virtual gatherings. When we rely on the Holy Spirit, anything is possible.
Before we seek to gather in person again, let us think carefully and prayerfully. Who are we as the Body of Christ? Who among us is vulnerable? Is it safe for our pastor to lead even small in-person services? Is it safe for anyone to gather in small groups of less than 10? If we as the Church gather in small groups, does that put anyone else at risk (remember Paul’s advice in Roman’s 13:14 about causing others to stumble) if they do what the Church is doing?
While I have a vested, personal interest in holding off on in-person gatherings because I am at high risk when it comes to COVID-19, I truly take the mandate to love as Jesus loves and to care for the vulnerable among us very seriously. We are part of one body, the Body of Christ, and we are to be about healing and wholeness, and bringing Divine Love into the world. If we open our buildings too soon, we will end up dis-membering the vulnerable among us rather than following Jesus’ example of compassionate re-membering. May we be mindful of our Oneness and the needs of all our neighbors as we continue to discern how to be the Church in these days of pandemic.
Rev. Dr. Rachael A. Keefe is the author of The Lifesaving Church: Faith Communities and Suicide Prevention (Chalice, 2018) and the senior pastor of Living Table UCC in Minneapolis, MN. You can find out more about her books and her blog by visiting https://beachtheology.com/.
Photo by Lone Jensen