Prudence or Panic?

A Letter to Pittsburgh Presbytery from
Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge
General Minister
March 12, 2020


Last week’s letter addressed the growing impact of the coronavirus epidemic on church gatherings. Registration for June’s General Assembly (GA) was supposed to open this week, but that opening has been postponed for at least two weeks while denominational leaders gauge the likely impact of the virus on GA attendance, as well as the safety concerns for all the travel that attendees must undertake. Some GA committees and task forces that would have met face to face are now meeting by teleconference. The GA Stated Clerk canceled indefinitely all international PCUSA travel early this week. Many educational institutions nationally and locally have taken strong measures to avoid spreading any viruses on their campuses, including suspension of classroom gatherings, and have restricted all foreign travel. An abundance of caution seems prudent.

There seems to be a long distance between prudence and panic. Yet the line can be crossed in very short order. Stock market trading was so volatile this past Monday, largely due to the unknowns concerning the coronavirus impact, that it had to be suspended for a while, as panic was taking over. Under such circumstances it is impossible to make good, well-reasoned decisions. Prudence requires that we step back, consider our long-term values, and in their light address our current situation carefully.

We sing often about trusting God in all circumstances, because we need constant reminders to keep us from panicking in the face of obstacles and dark uncertainties. We follow the lead of the psalmist, who declares, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change…” (Psalm 46:1-2) No need for alarm, when we are given refuge under the Lord’s wing. (Psalm 91:4) Right?

Faith calls us to trust God’s gracious Providence at all times. But it is not reckless in its trust. Prudence demands that we take sober account of the coronavirus crisis confronting us. The threat to public health is real, the economic consequences are deep and wide. Prudence directs us to engage the crisis rather than ignore it, and to do so with caution, insight, and faith when everything around us cries out for panic.

One sign of congregational vitality is that its leaders guide the congregation well in the face of crisis. Whatever the challenge we face, whether urgent or not, the job of church leaders is to point the way to the One who is always trustworthy in the face of crisis, who always assures our well-being no matter the depth of the difficulty we face.

This is a first-order task of church leaders – to point out where the Lord is present and active in every circumstance the congregation’s members and their communities face. This is the theological basis of what social systems theorists call “non-anxious presence.” It is critical to sound leadership.

The first mark of congregational vitality, according to the PCUSA Matthew 25 program prospectus, is that the church’s members “joyfully go out into the community and tackle the issues facing today’s culture.” Joy and panic are mutually exclusive. A Matthew 25 congregation does not sweep pressing social issues under the rug. It addresses them head-on, not in despair or gloom, but in the certain hope of the Gospel. No Matthew 25 congregation can either ignore the coronavirus threat, or get so worked up over it that it forgets the promises of the Lord who came to save us from all evil.

What difference does Jesus make in how we address the coronavirus? Jesus teaches us that every human individual is so treasured by God that even the hairs on our head are numbered. (Luke 12:7) Jesus, badly in need of personal respite, still responds with compassion to help those who seeks him out. (Matthew 14:13-14) Jesus is uncompromisingly committed to the health and welfare of every woman, man, and child, whether nearby or afar. In the swarming crowds of people in need he saw “sheep without a shepherd,” and so he had compassion on them. (Matthew 9:36)

Matthew 25:40 tells us that when we minister to people in need, we are ministering to Jesus himself. Jesus doesn’t need protection from the coronavirus, but the rest of us do. In offering shelter and security to those who are at risk (that is, to anyone and everyone), we are paradoxically doing it both to Jesus and with Jesus.

What are we doing to provide security for the vulnerable within our congregations? In our surrounding communities? And beyond? When we offer the hand sanitizer to people we care about, we are protecting Jesus’ hands. Vital congregations do this joyfully, addressing real-world issues not because they must, but because they can.

Yours in caring for each other,

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