Thin resources and thin places: Doing ministry in troubled times

March 24th, 2020
This article is featured in the Offering Hospitality issue of Ministry During The Pandemic

In the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, what are we as pastors to do? We have concerns for ourselves and our families, plus similar concerns for our congregations. We did not take the course in seminary on "Ministry in a Pandemic." We may feel stretched to our limits and thin in resources upon which to draw, yet we are called to lead our people where none of us has been before.

All of this seems new, but that is not quite true. We are vocational experts in dealing with people in crisis, in coping at times with thin personal and/or community resources. If these were the only resources we had to draw upon, we would be as Paul said, “of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19). Yet we have God in Christ through the Holy Spirit to call upon. With God we have everything we need to shepherd our people in this time and perhaps even to help them be more aware of what the ancient Celts of the British and Irish Isles called ‘thin places’ between earth and heaven.

Yesterday I led a virtual gathering of pastors on Zoom on the subject of ministry and the novel coronavirus. Each minister spoke in turn of anxieties. Many feel like their personal resources are running thin. Several people spoke movingly about not being able, for reasons of social distancing, to be with new-born grandchildren, or to be available for childcare when schools are closed. Some are worried that most of their congregants are older and many are not connected to internet. Members are in nursing homes that are locked down. A pastor from Chicago spoke about this sobering irony: In ministry, we are called to love our people by being with them. Now we are best to love them by not being with them, by staying away. This goes against what is central to our being and spiritual formation. No wonder we are anxious.

Others are worried about: children in their area who do not have computers or internet access to allow them to continue their schooling at home; people in the community who cannot afford to be out of work; and the poor or homeless who rely upon food kitchens, clothing depots, and shelters. One pastor confessed to not being tech-savvy so even trying to connect remotely with people is stressful. Another pastor from Pennsylvania marveled at Jesus saying, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.” (Matthew 6:25.) She said, “Don’t worry? That is what I do best!” She is worried about conducting a funeral that a family insists on having in spite of public health warnings that have not yet become mandatory. Several pastors wonder what their church communities will look like after this crisis has passed, and whether it will survive.

"The Four Pages of the Sermon" by Paul Scott Wilson. Order here:

The ancient Celts and early Christians spoke poetically of thin places where heaven seems especially close. Thin places are where God’s presence is experienced to be near―places that inspire awe, majesty, peace, and gratitude. In thin places the Celts perceived the meaning of life more deeply. Space between earth and heaven was collapsed, affording new ways of seeing and a greater awareness of the sacred and transcendent. Our own thin places might include where we experienced a call to ordered ministry; or certain places and times of prayer, healing, or forgiveness; or the beauty of a particular worship service in a hillside chapel or a recital in a great cathedral. I love the poetry of the Celtic vision of thin places, though I more normally speak of the nearness of the kingdom or realm of God. It is wherever Jesus is.

In our current times, everywhere is a thin place. Every place is thin in being not far from death. In this pandemic, everyone is vulnerable, and there will be much suffering, economic hardship, and mourning. But every place is also thin especially in being under Christ’s rule and intimate with life because of death overcome. Jesus said, “The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4:14.) The fountain of water we experience here is unbroken to the realm beyond. There is no space between us and the care and mercy of God, no space between our needs and God’s response. There is no stopping the powerful flow of God’s love. And there is no space we may enter in our ministries that Christ has not gone ahead of us. In the Holy Spirit, he offers all the resources we need, each day sufficient unto itself.

Now everywhere is a thin place where God’s activity may be found. The pastors yesterday spoke of God’s action in surprising places and ways. One pastor called a florist to see what it would cost for the church to send flowers to each shut-in. The florist had so many paid orders for cancelled events that they were pleased to offer free flowers. Another minister arranged for the congregation to buy computers for children in a public school class so they could work at home on assignments. Other pastors were surprised how many people came out to help distribute meals and care packages. Some churches are already thinking out-of-the-box to see what church might become beyond the immediate peril.

In ordinary times, people would take spiritual retreats to experience the Celtic thin places. We can encourage our people to make this a time not just of retreat but of deepening faith and understanding. It can be a time to read the Bible. Refer those with internet access to sites that list what the Bible says about peace, hope, anxiety, fear, and so on. It can be a time to pray. Offer them guidelines on how to pray, including thanksgiving, supplication, intercession, and listening. We can give them practical things to do in their spiritual retreats that may involve art, listening to music, writing cards to loved ones, or lighting a candle to remind them that, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it” (John 1:5).

This Easter we could focus on John 20:19-29, where the disciples are in self-isolation, as some pastors noted yesterday. They were locked in a room with their fear, but the ceiling and walls were thin to Jesus. He came to them as he comes to us in our isolation, and says, “Peace be with you….Peace be with you.” And he gives us his Spirit anew.

comments powered by Disqus