Rashad Clemons was in the middle of a major transition when the pandemic struck. He’d recently moved back to the east coast with his family to become the new pastor of Reality Church Boston. The plan was to do a one-year handoff, in which he would be the pastor-in-residence and slowly receive responsibilities and leadership as the planting-pastor transitioned out. When the pandemic hit in the middle of this year, the plan had to change.
Rashad remembers that he and the previous pastor had to wrestle through who should lead, especially as it became apparent they had different approaches to leadership in the midst of a crisis. They agreed that if he was to lead the church going forward and continuing through the unusual circumstances of a pandemic, he needed to step into full leadership. It wasn’t the transition they expected. The leadership team, he said, felt disoriented. “I think God really used it to gain trust and accelerate our relationship,” Rashad says, “but it was really challenging.”
One of the most challenging parts of stepping into a new pastoral role in the midst of a pandemic was that he didn’t know the church well yet. He suddenly became the voice and the face appearing on the screen for virtual church gatherings, but “There wasn’t the history, relational capital, or trust yet,” he reflects. “For many people, they didn’t see me as their pastor—I was just the new guy coming in. They’d never even had coffee with me. It was probably disorienting for a lot of people in a catastrophic moment to not have a familiar voice that they knew. And it was difficult for me too—I was offering words of comfort and assurance but without the relationship there. It was…awkward.”
Transitioning into a new ministry situation can be challenging enough, but in the midst of a pandemic, Rashad wondered if he had what it would take. “There was a real temptation to shrink back. There were days when I didn’t even want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to do an Instagram post of telling people it’s going to be okay. Doubts would plague my mind, and I had to honestly ask the question, ‘can I do this?’ I didn’t know how to lead in a time like this because this has never happened before.”
Since then, he’s been encouraged by hearing the “humanity” of other people in ministry he knows, as they keep saying, “We don’t know what we’re doing either.” He says, “It’s encouraging to know it’s not just me.”
In the moment, though, Rashad did the only thing he could do: take it one day at a time. “I like to plan things out,” he says, “but I can’t. We don’t even know what next week is going to look like.” In the midst of those day-in, day-out faithful steps, God sent little encouragements along the way. He found himself leaning into people who know him, who continued to encourage him in his calling. “I needed to allow them to speak into me and my situation and strengthen my hands.”
As he reflects on how this season has impacted his own walk with the Lord, he can’t help but notice how it’s increased his dependence on God and his desperate need for prayer. “I can read all the books and the blogs, but ultimately I need to pray and hear from the Lord in real time,” he says.
This season has also made him reflect as a shepherd and a leader about how his church is equipping disciples of Jesus. He says, “The pandemic revealed some anemia in our discipleship as a church. We’ve enabled people to be really good consumers, but many don’t know how to pursue the presence of God and get fed and partner with the Holy Spirit personally. We haven’t empowered and equipped them to lead out of their giftedness or to operate out of their authority as a part of the priesthood of all believers. We have to ask, ‘Are we equipping our people for life with Jesus without all the comforts?’”
He’s prayerfully thought about how he wants to lead his church in particular going forward. “We’re either going to wait this out and pick up where we left off,” he says. “Or we can have a paradigm shift. We need to pay attention to how we’re being formed as people and as a community.” In this sense, the pandemic is an opportunity to reevaluate the discipleship and mission of the church. It’s an opportunity for recalibration.
As a church, this has meant going back to the basics during this season, in which we’ve faced not only of a pandemic but also a vicious political cycle and important conversations about racial justice. “I’m sure some people were disappointed that we didn’t have something ‘new.’ It probably didn’t feel radical enough. But we needed to go back to the basics, back to our foundations. We needed to double down in praying and our reading and contemplative space. That’s more radical than people realize.”
They’ve been encouraging faithful spiritual practices in everyday life. “Every day: in the Word, in community, in prayer, even if you don’t feel like anything is happening,” Rashad repeats. “That’s challenging. What has our attention is headlines and unrest and politics. We can’t ignore those things, and we want to do something that says something to justice and the flourishing of God’s Kingdom. But if we’re going to march, we must do it from a place of prayer, intercession, and unity. We have to do it from a place of prayer and abiding. We need to be rooted in life.”
Faithfulness in a time of enduring uncertainty and transition takes great amount of resolve, Rashad admits. But he says in the midst of the doubt and uncertainty, he has found great hope in “doubling down on our experience of Jesus.” God calls his people often in the Bible to “remember.” As things are constantly shifting, we need to “hold on to and recite stories of God’s faithfulness, both in our own story and in the stories of God’s people. If our emotional health and spiritual wellbeing are subject to news headlines, we’ll be wreck—we need to anchor ourselves in the story of God.”
Even as we accept our limitations and the pain of this season, we can embrace some of the good things in the midst of this season. For him, one of those good things has been an opportunity to spend more time with his kids and be more personally hands-on in the discipleship of his own family. “We can still be anchored in deep-seated joy,” Rashad says. “We can still be the most joyous people, even in the midst of lament.”
Rashad Clemons is the Pastor of Vision and Teaching at Reality Church Boston. Diana Gruver (MA, Gordon-Conwell) writes about discipleship and spiritual formation in the every day. She is the author of Companions in the Darkness: Seven Saints who Struggled with Depression and Doubt. You can find her online at www.dianagruver.com or on Facebook or Twitter. Diana originally published this work with the Vere Institute (Oct 2014 – May 2021), which was founded to empower Christians to integrate their faith into everyday life. The Vere Institute’s legacy lives on through our Vere Library.