[Photo Courtesy of Hagley Park and Oak Glades churches in the East Jamaica Conference]
Silver Spring, Maryland, United States | Maryellen Hacko

Over the past 18 months, Seventh-day Adventist pastors and church leaders have faced unprecedented challenges in the face of COVID-19, widespread lockdowns and other tragedies. As today is Pastor Appreciation Day (Sabbath, October 9), we would like to highlight and validate the resilience, determination and hard work that pastors have done, and continue to do, across the globe to spread the good news and care for their congregations. 
Having spent a total of 250 days in lockdown—more than any other city in the world[1]—pastors from Melbourne (Australia) have been innovating to continue church services, despite ongoing restrictions preventing any in-person contact.

“It’s been a real journey we’ve been on the last two years,” says associate ministerial director for the Victorian Conference, Pastor Justin Bone. “Pastors were incredibly resilient and flexible and they adapted so quickly. Within a week or two of lockdowns starting, just about every church service was online. I would sit at home and have ten pastors preaching on my screen at once!” he laughs. “It was really amazing. A phrase that came to mind was, ‘You can’t lock down the Holy Spirit!’”

Despite initial motivation and positivity, over time, constant opening and closing of the city and increasing controversy around the vaccine proved difficult. 

“We’re trying to keep our churches focused on the mission God has for us, but some of the pastors have described that they are ‘languishing’,” continues Pastor Bone. “They’re not depressed, but still filled with the feeling that there’s something missing; they’re not happy.”

Despite constant setbacks, disappointments and cancellations, Pastor Bone says that he has seen more creativity in this second wave of the pandemic. “I’ve seen churches hold creative Zoom sessions where they come together to do art. Other churches have run exercise programs, or held social activities online.”

Pastor Morgan Kochenower, lead pastor at Frederick Seventh-day Adventist Church in Maryland, USA, has also experienced this type of creativity first-hand, and says it has opened the doors to new contacts and opportunities. 

“COVID kept us from meeting in church like we were used to doing for about 6 to 7 months,” he explains. “For about 3 to 4 months I would visit multiple church members every Sabbath morning and take donuts to them. I probably visited 30 to 50 families in that time. I even got to know the cashier at Dunkin Donuts and invited her to church! Sweet lady. It was a hard time as people have different views and ideas on how to handle it, but I also saw people’s hearts opened to Jesus and longing for Him.” 

[Photo Courtesy of the Frederick Seventh-day Adventist Church]

[Photo Courtesy of the Frederick Seventh-day Adventist Church]

Although lockdown laws in Maryland prevented people from meeting together in churches, they were able to come together and fellowship in smaller groups, which opened new opportunities for people to connect, start a food pantry, and even organize a prayer service in response to the death of George Floyd. 

“Just like Samson ripped the doors off the Philistine city, I believe that through COVID, Jesus has ripped the doors off all our communities. God used some of our members to start a food pantry. We are now able to help at least 80 families once a month. We also rented out the local minor league baseball field and partnered with a Baptist Church across the street. The pastor’s name is Billy Graham!” he laughs. “It was powerful. God really blessed and His spirit was poured out. God has opened so many doors for this church to be involved in the community it isn’t funny.”

 

[Photo Courtesy of the Frederick Seventh-day Adventist Church]

[Photo Courtesy of the Frederick Seventh-day Adventist Church]

While COVID enabled Frederick Seventh-day Adventist Church to connect with their community in new ways, meeting together was much more difficult for pastors in Sydney, Australia, who have been in lockdown for more than 100 consecutive days and counting. 

“We used to organize events to connect with young people from across the Conference, but we haven’t been able to have a lot of those,” explains Greater Sydney Conference Youth director Pastor Simon Gigliotti. “They fuel our ministry, and most of them are designed to train young people in ministry at a local church level too. It’s been a real challenge to connect with people on the ground,” he explains. 

With so many options to watch worship services and consume Christian content online, Pastor Gigliotti says that consistent engagement as also proven difficult.

“We outright canceled certain events simply because we sensed that people didn’t want to be on Zoom any longer,” he says. “I mean, you could probably watch Craig Groeschel in the morning and go to the beach in the afternoon. You don’t need to go to church. It’s nowhere near the same as a youth rally where you can see people in person.”

When Pastor Gigliotti was able to run events in between lockdowns and restrictions, he says that it was a very taxing process. “Every single event now not only had normal logistics and risk management, but COVID logistics as well. Two years has felt like four years in this job!” he laughs. “Trying to run summer camps was really stressful with venue changes, cancellations, so much uncertainty. I’m still encouraged though because God knew this was all coming, I still feel like he’s got an overall plan. I’ve seen many blessings and wins amidst the struggles.”

Pastor Omar Oliphant, senior pastor of Hagley Park and Oak Glades churches in the East Jamaica Conference, agrees that trying to carve out a new ministry strategy in uncertain times has been very taxing. 

“The truth is, all these efforts in pivoting have taken an extraordinary toll on my time, family and personal wellbeing,” he explains. “Meetings now are almost always via technology and can be for the entire day. The pandemic affected our ministry due to restrictions imposed by the government on 60 persons and above,” he says. “Curfew orders impacted all our services, how we engaged with the community and collected tithes and offerings. Pastorally, we had to lead the church into embracing a multi-dimensional, collaborative approach.”

Pastor Oliphant says that his seven-pillar strategy greatly helped him in staying focused and aligning his mission, allowing him to oversee the distribution of more than 600 care packages, give leadership and skills training to church members, make physical improvements to the church building, upgrade the church’s technology, produce a new app, and baptize new members, among other things.

 

[Photo Courtesy of Hagley Park and Oak Glades churches in the East Jamaica Conference]

[Photo Courtesy of Hagley Park and Oak Glades churches in the East Jamaica Conference]

“There have been many times during the pandemic that I’ve felt tired, more than the normal, but the taking of breaks helps. My reading adds another dimension for stress relief and my family’s presence and bonding times have enabled me to stay afloat,” he says.

For Pastor Kochenower, family has also played a huge role in his ability to navigate the pandemic. “Jesus is faithful. He sustains us and we find our strength in Him. I have seen the greatest revelation of the love of Jesus through my wife, she is a full-time caregiver for her mom who has MS and is on hospice. Song of Songs says that wives are a wellspring. My wife has truly given me life and refreshed me,” he says. 

Pastor Gigliotti agrees that carving out intentional family time plays an important role in maintaining stability and mental health during crises. “I also do a devotional every day,” he says. “That’s the most important thing that helps me. Earlier in the pandemic, a mentor recognized some early stages of burnout in me, so I had to be more intentional about putting practices in place to prevent that. Now I mix “red” (full on) and “green”/”yellow” (slower) days in my schedule where I can. Since doing that my energy levels have started coming back. I also really prioritise my health and fitness!”

Overall, Pastor Bone says that while most pastors are conscious to put strategies in place to help them through the pandemic, that he has seen more pastors use counselling vouchers provided by his local conference. 

“There are pastors who are struggling. We don’t track who uses counselling vouchers, but they are being used a little more, as we would expect. I really encourage each church member to pray for their pastor, or simply give them a card saying thank you! I’ve got a collection. I’m a big fan of Pastor Appreciation Day, obviously. We just want to be seen and appreciated, and a simple thank you will often mean the world.”

For ideas and inspiration on how to show your pastor that you care today, please visit Elders Digest  

[1] https://www.theage.com.au/national/victoria/melbourne--the-worlds-most-locked-down-city-20211001-h1yx4h.html

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