Over the past couple of weeks as the impact of the coronavirus has increased in the United States, I have found myself wondering what the role of the minister is in all of this. Do pastors have any unique responsibilities in the midst of an outbreak?
For me, this question was spurred on by a comment made by Laurie Garrett, a former senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the book The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. Lamenting over the current politicization of the coronavirus and the dismissal of the severity of the virus by politicians and pundits, Garrett noted that in the past individuals could rely on profound religious leaders who set a moral standard and smart political leaders who set a sense of governance to be reliable sources of information. She said that today we don’t have either of those.
As a young minister who is overly conscious of the perception of pastors held by a large portion of my generation, Garrett’s frustration hits home. And while it is the case that televangelists like Jim Bakker are holding true to form, peddling to their audiences purported concoctions that cure the virus, I’m hoping that the rest of us will rise to the occasion and be “profound religious leaders” who speak truth during what is shaping up to be a chaotic time. This, I think, is our most essential role in the early days of this outbreak.
But telling the truth is easier said than done. Post-2016, the politicization of almost everything has made it nearly impossible to make a statement of fact without being accused of partisan politics. The coronavirus has proven to be nonexempt from our politically divided culture. Depending on the political flavor of your news source, you either expect that the virus will become an epidemic that threatens the lives of millions of Americans or that it is a joke and a hoax perpetuated by Democrats to bring down the president.
For pastors who are often tasked with ministering to folks from across the political spectrum, they must decide, at the risk of partisan accusations, whether to use their platform to dispel mistruths circulated about the coronavirus. While some pastors may have been willing to overlook some disinformation in an effort to keep the peace and, let’s be honest, the offering plate intact, this time lives are at stake.
At the onset of this outbreak, what we need the most from our pastors is to stand above the fray and be reliable sources of information. This starts by telling congregations the truth, which put simply is this: The coronavirus is not a hoax. The Centers for Disease Control has made plain their outlook on the disease.
“It is not if, but when,” said the CDC’s Dr. Nancy Messonnier when asked about spread of the disease in the United States. Public health officials agree that the potential for large portions of the American public to be infected are high. This means that normal life may be disrupted. Along with schools and businesses that reduce operations or even close to prevent further spreading of the virus, churches may have to alter their practices as well. There are a lot of unknowns, but this is no joke.
One of the most eye-opening comments that I’ve heard in recent weeks came from Donald G. McNeil Jr., a science and health reporter for The New York Times. After drawing parallels between the 1918 Spanish flu and the coronavirus, McNeil told the Daily’s Michael Barbaro: “I spend a lot of time thinking about whether I’m being too alarmist or whether I’m being not alarmist enough. And this is alarmist, but I think right now, it’s justified.” Pastors should take note. Raising the alarm and preparing a congregation is helpful.
There is a lot that we don’t know about how this virus may unfold. Early signs point to its inevitable spread. Yet, the World Health Organization said that while we're in uncharted territory with regard to handling the outbreak, the good news is that it appears that containment works with the right measures.
This is hopeful news, but it means taking measures to contain the virus and that can only happen if we are all on the same page — if we are all willing to accept at least the basic premise that this virus is real and is not a hoax. Pastors should not sidestep this one out of fear of appearing political. Affirm the facts and take measures to prevent the spread of the virus. Avoiding the use of a communal cup and the passing of the peace seem like no brainers. Cancel gatherings if it comes to it. But most importantly in these early days that this virus spreads, relay the facts. Relay the truth.