Pastoring Amid Pandemic (Part 2): Counsel from a Pastor in Italy
It’s been said that “missions is your ecclesiology armed with a passport.” The difference between what we pastors do in Genoa, Italy and what pastors do in the United States is geographical, not philosophical. Therefore, I want to share with you some truths we in Italy have leaned into in recent days of the COVID-19 epidemic.
COVID-19 CAN’T STOP THE GREAT COMMISSION
It would be easy to see COVID-19 as a hindrance to the progress of the Great Commission in Genoa. If you had asked me three weeks ago how ministry was going, my response would have likely included something about being encouraged by “momentum in ministry”—from evangelistic Bible studies to one-on-one discipleship; from counseling to the preparation of candidates for membership.
Yet our region, Liguria, was one of the first outside of the “red zone” to adopt containment measures. At first it seemed we would only be asked to forego our traditional Italian greeting (kissing on the cheek), but it quickly became apparent that everything I once called “momentum” would have to be put on hold.
Therefore, the arrival of COVID-19 in Italy has become an opportunity to renew our minds as to just how the Great Commission marches forward. Yes, we plant and water, “but [it is] God who causes the growth” (1 Cor 3:7). The man slumbers, yet the seed grows. He doesn’t even have the wherewithal to explain how it all happens (Mark 4:27). Jesus, having faithfully preached the Word, sleeps soundly—just like the man who sows the seed in the parable.
Meanwhile, the disciples, gripped by what they see and forgetful of who they’re with, call Christ’s character into question: “Teacher, do You not care that we are perishing?” (4:39).
Charles Bridges has famously noted, “Ministerial success must be viewed as extending beyond present appearances. The seed may lie under the clods till we lie there, and then spring up.” Present appearances can’t be the only criteria by which we assess what God is doing in our midst. Instead of viewing the pandemic as a hindrance to the church’s mission, we should beseech the Lord that he might be pleased to use it to cause the seeds we have planted in people’s hearts to sprout and grow.
GOD’S PROVIDENCE, OUR PREFERENCES
The cry across the nation is to “restare a casa” (stay home). This notion has now been codified in various decrees which have implemented nationwide restrictions in hopes to contain the spread of the virus. Although at the outset there were many in our region who seemed rather unconcerned by it all—a few Saturdays ago, several beaches bustled with crowds—now it seems that most people are convinced the situation is serious and that staying home is actually important. We’ve done our best to follow suit, trusting the Lord by submitting to the authorities he has put in place.
Faithfulness in ministry is always contingent upon God’s providence, not our preferences. We have to die to what we prefer and be faithful to what the Lord provides. As pastors, it isn’t enough for us to resign ourselves to waiting it out until we can gather again. We must eagerly embrace the ministry changes brought on by COVID-19, shepherding our people to see that “God has made everything beautiful in its time” (Eccl 3:11). Though life may be on hold amid this trial, Christian growth is not. Rather, this trial is God’s choice means to produce steadfastness in his people (James 1:2–4).
Calvin said that “ignorance of providence is the ultimate of all miseries; the highest blessedness lies in the knowledge of it.” Ignorance of providence is why COVID-19 is fuel for unabated fear. But the knowledge of it ensures us we are at home because God wants us there (James 4:13–17).
So let’s find creative ways to help our people process everything that’s thrown at them by the media. Practically, that’s looked like lots of WhatsApp messages (the preferred medium of most), discipleship over the phone, and prayer meetings on Skype. These aren’t replacements for the weekly corporate gathering on the Lord’s Day, but our prayer is that the Lord will use our efforts while we can’t meet to prepare us for the day when we can.
I realize that most ministries in America are significantly larger than ours, so perhaps pastoral faithfulness in this season will be even more complicated.
And yet, if the virus continues to make headway, the normal rhythms of life will continue to be thrown off and unique shepherding opportunities will abound. We should be alert. We shouldn’t miss an opportunity to spur people on to pray for open doors for the Word. We should ask the Lord for the grace to “walk in wisdom towards outsiders, making the best use of the time” (Col. 4:1–6). These opportunities may be different than we ever imagined, but we should embrace them with joy.
 Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry, section 76 (https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/bridges/The%20Christian%20Ministry%20-%20Charles%20Bridges.pdf)
 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.xvii.11.