By Jim Nieman
The coronavirus has proven to be a complex issue for churches and church leaders. And it can be further complicated—and even turn emotional—when there are COVID-19 diagnoses in leadership.
Johnson University professor Jody Owens recently interviewed two senior ministers, Matthew Sink and Greg Taylor, who have been personally affected by COVID-19 diagnoses.
Sink, senior minister with Pinedale Christian Church, Winston-Salem, N.C., is doing well after he and his three children, along with his parents—who live next door—contracted the disease. He has completed a two-week quarantine.
Taylor, lead minister with Second Church of Christ in Danville, Ill., didn’t contract the disease, but two members of his staff did . . . on the eve of a big elders’ meeting. He is thankful for a humble act that prevented a widespread outbreak among church leadership.
Here are some excerpts of that 25-minute video interview, available for viewing at Dr. Owens’s website.
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GREG TAYLOR: We went public with the news [of the church’s reopening plans] on Wednesday, and on Thursday we found out that one of our key ministry staff and his wife were COVID-positive. And the next day, our key tech person found out that he was COVID-positive. . . . It just happened like that.
MATTHEW SINK: I wasn’t the one whose staff member called and said we tested positive, I was the one calling the staff and saying I tested positive.
[After Sink and his children tested positive,] I spent the rest of that day calling every staff member and everyone I had had contact with the last 10 days. . . .
What you hear on the news is the physical part of the virus. That part in itself was scary. But then the emotional weight of having to spread the news to people that it is possible that “I could have infected you” . . . no kidding—I hate to be dramatic here—but that’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever experienced. Humbling. I felt shame. I don’t know if that made sense, but I did. I was embarrassed to have to make that call. There was just this incredible emotional weight. . . . And, honest to goodness, that’s the part that I wasn’t prepared for. The first days of that [the coronavirus], the emotional was far worse than the physical. And I don’t think that’s something that we talk a lot about. It was heavy.
There was a little bit of a feeling like being a leper. . . .
TAYLOR: [A staff member] had traveled to see family and was in one of the COVID hotspots. On the plane coming home, he and his wife made the decision [that] “We’re going to wear masks wherever we go.” And so, we had that big elders’ meeting that night [which all of the elders attended, along with many of the staff], and he wears a mask. . . .
Masks are super controversial where I’m at. Even many Christians have just come out and said, “If you’re wearing a mask, you have no faith.” I’ve had people say to me, when I had a mask, “Where’s your faith, Brother?” And I would tell you [that] my friend on staff was a hero for wearing a mask because, honestly, I don’t know what would have happened [if he hadn’t worn one at that meeting]. All of our elders, all of our staff have been tested. Praise the Lord, only the two staff were positive. . . .
. . . I just am so thankful that he put a mask on . . . [that he] humbled himself and put a mask on.
SINK: We were two weeks away from regathering the church. Obviously, [my testing positive] put a screeching halt on that. . . . We knew we couldn’t open . . . even if we opened without me. . . . Who would want to walk into the church two weeks after the senior minister tested positive for COVID? We just put the brakes on all of that. We’ll try again in July.
TAYLOR: I have received some of the harshest emails that I’ve received in ministry, honestly, on both sides [of the mask issue]. I think we as a leadership have come to the conclusion that . . . whatever decision we make, we’re going to have a portion of our people that are unhappy. [Among the leaders we’ve decided,] Let’s seek God’s will, let’s do what we think is right, let’s [determine] what is safest and most prudent for us. . . . Preachers and ministers much of the time fall into that trap of being people-pleasers. . . . You cannot be a people-pleaser in this time, I’m just convinced of that.
Ministers [are] caught in a tug-of-war [of] fired-up people loud on both sides. Don’t allow the loudest voices to be the voices that really shape decisions. Don’t be afraid to reach out to ministry friends.
SINK: I really unplugged for those two weeks [of recovering from the coronavirus]. . . . I decided no more social media. No more news. . . . It is the weirdest thing to say, but now, at the end of this, I don’t just feel physically good, I feel mentally good. I really feel refreshed.
Click here to hear more about the coronavirus experiences of Matthew Sink and Greg Taylor . . . how it has shaped the way they think, how they plan for face-to-face gatherings, and how they minister to others who test positive. (The interview file is titled “How Personal Experience with Covid Changed the Way I Lead My Congregation” from July 6.)
Jody Owens teaches at Johnson University and leads the Spiritual Formation Leadership Summit. We thank him for permission to share excerpts from his video interview.
The most telling thing around me (Raleigh, NC) is the way church messaging has left the proclamation of the gospel and order of services behind to focus on local Covid-19 practices. I think that fear of disease and government have displaced the primary mission of the Church, no matter the denomination.
Given the driving force of local and state governments in many states, including mine (NC), to close down church services, I believe Christians will be forced to make a decision in the very near future as to whom they will serve.
We still have neighbors to love and minister to. This should dominate our thinking along the lines that Jesus taught us to pray: “give us this day our daily bread and forgive our trespasses and we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” After all, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and constantly bear in mind the Scripture telling us that, “everything not done in faith is sin.” Certainly this is our challenge in the present disorder.