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Regional Pastor Sees Churches Liberated, Mobilized amid Pandemic

 In All Church of God, CHOG, Great Lakes, The Way

By Joy Sherman

In a season when health concerns and government demands cause us to be more apart, regional pastor for Illinois State Ministries of the Church of God, Rev. Eric Livingston, is calling the pastors of his state to come together more often—with appropriate social distance, of course.

Around mid-March, Illinois governor J. B. Pritzker was among the early adopters of shelter-in-place policies. Livingston quickly saw the need for closing ranks with pastor-servants all over the state. He wanted to become a sounding board and encourager in confusing days. He organized several Zoom calls for pastors to gather and process concerns and express their emotions in a safe place.

“It was initially just about checking in,” Livingston recalls. “It was a time for starting a dialogue about things when we knew we could not come together,” he continues. “The second week the conversations shifted to, ‘How do we do Sundays services?’ I started pivoting ongoing conversations to what a new reality long-term might look like.”

Some Zoom gatherings included information on starting YouTube channels, utilizing Facebook Live, and creating online giving platforms. Other calls included providing resources from a network of other regional pastors. These resources included staying current with details of the CARES Act or considering the psychological impact of changing leadership paradigms on pastors. A critical conversation sparked from the question, “What is God doing in this process?”

Eric Livingston

Livingston recognizes the pandemic is forcing leaders to minister differently. This is experienced in privately streaming funeral services for families or Zoom wedding ceremonies. It also demands unique “pastoral care” when hospital and home visits are disallowed. He confides his personal ministry is different, as well. “Pastors are already at a distance from the state office and each other when you consider Illinois geography,” Livingston observes. “Ministry, in some forms, has always required Zoom gatherings, phone calls, or other distance-friendly connections. The urgency of helping pastors during COVID-19, however, has increased for me. I was considering how to provide pastoral care and support differently for some time. This situation has pushed me to get things in place more quickly.”

Livingston is not alone in feeling the push to offer pastoral care and ministry adapted to this pandemic. He has heard from many pastors who feel the same way. He is working to create a collective brain trust of meeting space where pastors might place ideas for ministry they find are working. It will also be a place where pastors might minister to each another.

One concern Livingston acknowledges is pastors falling into the comparison trap. A significant amount of ministry is currently taking place on social media. Many leaders are spending a lot of time on these platforms. It is easy seeing what others are doing and feel the pressure to match it, or at least attempt it. Livingston feels one of his responsibilities is to call pastors back to what is important.

“It is so easy to look at what other people are doing. Instead of shifting our ‘to-do’ lists to match what is posted everywhere, I want to help pastors pause and reflect,” he notes. “I am challenging pastors to ask, “What is God saying to you personally? What is he doing in your life? How is that reflected in your ministry?”

While Livingston believes this season of pause has brought more pastors to “being in Christ” instead of “doing for Christ,” he is aware pastors can get caught in a cycle. “Often out of our being,” he says, “we start doing again, forgetting once more about being.” His plan is for future state meetings to focus on helping leaders spend more time reflecting and less time “creating content.”

Livingston’s days are filled with significant electronic connections. He provides counsel during Zoom meetings, makes personal calls to pastors, sends e-mails and texts of encouragement, and “virtually” visits ten to fifteen congregations each weekend. In all of these interactions he has advice for both pastors and congregations.

“I remind pastors to realize how important their voice is to people during this time. Do not be silent,” he exhorts. “The power of your pastoral presence, delivered through whatever method, is vital.”

He also encourages congregations, reminding them “your pastor needs strong words of affirmation these days. This is all new to them,” he counsels. “Encourage, pray, participate, and jump in on what they are trying to do. They are trying to both love God and people in this difficult time. Join them.”

Livingston is learning important personal lessons during this pandemic. “I am learning to accept that I cannot control things, to remember that I have faced uncertainty before and I am still standing, and to look for opportunities to serve differently.” He believes what he and the pastors he serves learn now is essential for who the church will become in the days beyond the crisis.

“So many churches and pastors are providing care, and no one is coming to a building,” he reflects. “The church has been mobilized. Some of these things should not come to an end when the pandemic is over. This moment, in an odd way, is liberating us to see what the church can become in our day.”

To follow along with the resources Eric Livingston is providing to pastors, visit the Illinois Ministries of the Church of God group on Facebook.

Joy Sherman is lead pastor at Community Church of God in Mt. Carmel, Illinois. Along with husband Steve and son Elijah, Joy loves to share the Word, serve God’s church, and spend time with people.

Learn more about the response of Church of God Ministries to the coronavirus (COVID-19), including resources for you and your church, at www.jesusisthesubject.org/theway.

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