So, the country is going into a 21-day National Lockdown – the crisis precipitated by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, with no end to the siege predicted. It’s all so surreal – the swathe of the virus moving stealthily yet swiftly from Wuhan city in China to Italy and across Europe, across the seas to North and South America and making its presence felt here now in Africa. In its wake it has claimed thousands of lives, hospitalised tens of thousands, shut down businesses, halted travel and international trade, closed borders between countries and, the most devastating of all – the lockdown. Amongst the many other interventions taken, countries have seen this as a way to curb the spread of this deadly pandemic – to contain and prevent.
This has had an effect on the religious sector of society as well. Firstly, all gatherings of a 100 people or more were prohibited by the State President of South Africa on Sunday 15th March. This and many other steps were announced as part of the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic when he declared a National State of Disaster. The limitations to assembly and meetings restricted all gatherings and in effect many churches were affected.
Many churches responded by closing their doors and asking their congregants to worship at home. Others employed creative means: having multiple services in keeping with the number allowed for gatherings, home cells or connect groups, live streaming and other online interventions.
In just over a week, the situation has changed drastically – we’re now in a lockdown! Gatherings are no longer allowed, everyone’s restricted to their homes. They may only leave to go the shop, the pharmacy or to the hospital. Social interactions are limited and confined to one’s household.
In the midst of this, pastors are still called to shepherd God’s people (1 Peter 5:2). Preaching is only one part of shepherding and is often seen by many as the pastor’s main occupation. Effective shepherding includes interacting, engaging, visiting, counselling, discipling and praying with congregants. How does one fulfil these shepherding and pastoral roles when there’s a lockdown? Can we still be effective? If anything, now is the time for pastors, and the clergy in general, to be able to interface with their congregations effectively.
Some ways to be effective (this will depend on your context, the size of your congregation and may be adapted accordingly):
- Divide the congregants into groups of 10-12 and assign a leader to each group. These leaders may be your deacons, elders, associate pastors or other lay leaders.
- Leaders need to connect with those in their groups at least once a week. They must serve as the point of contact between the congregants and the local church.
- Leaders can connect using technology and via the many social media apps available. These can include text, voice or video modes.
- Pastors can get feedback from their leadership and they in turn can follow up with those cases which need their direct attention.
- Keeping the local congregation updated and informed using SMS’s, via the WhatsApp chat groups or podcasts. These, if done judicially, will congregants a sense of community.
- Post short encouraging messages either audio, video or podcasts. There are many media platforms which can do this. Messages should be a balance between spiritual and practical. These are helpful – the sheep need to hear the shepherd’s voice (and, if possible, see him).
- Provide links to sermons or other resources which people could use when they want to.
- Call congregants to pray for them or just to chat – be real, be human, be available.
- Some apps like WhatsApp, Zoom, Google Hangouts, etc. allow for conference calls. These are with or without video capability. A great way for people to connect, pray together and encourage each other.
- Organise virtual services, prayer meetings, Bible Studies, forums, discussion groups, etc. These can be pre-recorded but best if it is live or real-time.
- There are many free online Bible courses available through reputable institutions or organisations which you may direct your congregants to, and encourage them to take up.
- Offer practical help and hints for families to manage this time together. This always seems better coming from their spiritual leader, rather than from one of the family.
- Throw out challenges for people to read or study the Bible, memorise scripture, write sketches or plays, create games, etc.
- Recommend a selection of books to read.
- Keep an online presence. While this has benefits for your congregants, it also helps to keep you occupied and busy – thus fulfilling your shepherding role.
The apostle Paul used the technology of his day (letter-writing) to shepherd the churches he planted and also to mentor pastors. In some cases, he was in “lockdown” – put in prison, yet he communicated and pastored effectively.
As pastors, this crisis presents us with a great opportunity to connect with and shepherd our people making use of the ideas above and with the various means at our disposal.
The crisis will pass – let’s shepherd God’s people as we depend on our Good Shepherd, our Great Shepherd and our Chief Shepherd to shepherd us.
Louie serves as a fulltime pastor of the Queensburgh Evangelical Bible Church in Durban. After completing his BTh Hon with SATS he was invited to join them as a part time lecturer. He currently teaches courses in New Testament and Systematic Theology. He is passionate about missions and church-planting. Louie also serves in many leadership roles both in church and para-church organisations. He comes from a mathematics education background and lectures part-time at UKZN in their PGCE Mathematics program.