Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Pastoring People through Pandemics and Presidents: A Study ‘in locus’

Written by: on February 5, 2024

Hartford’s book is helping me make my world add up.

I have the great joy and privilege of being a pastor of a local church in the Northwest. I’ve been pastoring here for nearly 12 years and have pastored people through the highs and lows of their lives, my life, a global pandemic and presidential elections. I love the simplicity, beauty and immense complexity that comes from pastoring and preaching alongside people as week to faithfully follow Jesus and show his love in our community and our daily lives.

But as unique and specific the location and people that I share life with are, I recognized in Hartford’s book accurate descriptions of the pressures we as a community have felt over the past 12 years. With the use of “Fake news” as a doubt casting mechanism and the onslaught of statistics as weapons to destroy someone who thinks differently than me, we’ve been well trained over the last decade to reinforce the incessant tribalism that now tries to deepen a widening rift in our country and cultures as another American election looms.

Is there a better way to live? How can we navigate these complexities? How do we look behind the curtain of these weaponized statistics? Hartford gives us the tools to do so.

Each of his 10 commandments were extremely helpful to me and, I’m hoping, to others in my community as we walk through this year together. But it was his first two commandments that really resonated with me because I think so much of what is contributing to tribalism and incivility in our world today is the lack of awareness that we (including myself) have to my own personal feelings and echo-chamber reality that is curated for me by the media I consume and the world I swim in.

In his first commandment Hartford reminds us that, “when we encounter a statistical claim about our world, and we are thinking of sharing it on social media or typing a furious rebuttal, we should instead ask ourselves: ‘How does this make me feel’ then, ‘WHY does it make me feel that way’?” (49)

Those initial feelings we have tend to be a response of our ingrained need for protection and tribalism. In understanding our deep-seated need for tribalism, the book “Truth over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, not the donkey or the elephant” by Keith Simon and Patrick Miller, has been extremely helpful in suggesting a new way forward for followers of the Lamb. Simon proposes, similarly to Hartford, that we must use emotions as data, not directives, that then help us assess the information being shared so that we can process the idea itself isolated from its emotional load it carries. Simon says, “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish it away.”-Keith Simon. We must engage these ideas, rather than avoiding them.

I’ll admit as a pastor of a local church I’ve used avoidance as my primary survival tool in a world where every word you say from the pulpit could be used to cancel or dismiss you. But the problem with that course of action is two-fold. One, avoidance doesn’t actually ‘equip the saints for the work of ministry’ in this time and place. Saying nothing encourages disengagement with a world that desperately needs grace-filled, Christ-centered leadership and dialogue. Secondly, it assumes that the people that I am pastoring and preaching to are reactive and ready at any moment to cancel or dismiss me, which I have absolutely no evidence for in the last 12 years. I have been blessed to pastor in a church of people who are kind, thoughtful, gracious, intelligent and are earnestly wrestling with how to be Christ-like in a challenging era. I must do better. My avoidance comes, not from any actual evidence of crisis or conflict, but of my own need to be liked and fear of being rejected. This projection onto my church family does not equip them for the year in America or for the other issues that we are already facing in our world.

There are some potential ways forward and some signposts from the past, two of which I’ll mention here.

The first is advice from a major church influencer, John Wesley. While I think Wesley was far from perfect (which is ironic if you come from a holiness background like I do, because of our theology of entire sanctification), Wesley made significant theological and pastoral contributions during a time in the history of the Western world that was also divisive. He gave this advice in his journal on October 6, 1774:

“I met those of our society who had votes in the ensuing election, and advised them:
1. To vote, without fee or reward, for the person they judged most worthy
2. To speak no evil of the person they voted against, and
3. To take care their spirits were not sharpened against those that voted on the other side.”

The advice that Wesley gives here is still applicable today and seeks to also work against are desire for default tribalism. If these words of advice were followed today, I wonder how much different American politics would be, and more importantly, how different our faith communities would be.

I have also always admired Abraham Lincoln as a leader and a masterful orator and politician. While watching “Lincoln” with my son this week I was reminded of how Lincoln fought against the idea of naive realism mentioned in the 2nd commandment of Hartford’s book.

Lincoln surrounded himself with people who disagreed with him. He knew that in a radically divided country he had to model a way forward that would hold the country together in a time of its most serious testing. In Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, “Team of Rivals” she masterfully unpacks how Lincoln was able to accomplish this and suggests the key is integration of ideas and perspectives:

“Lincoln understood the importance, as one delegate put it, of integrating “all the elements of the Republican party—including the impracticable, the Pharisees, the better-than-thou declaimers, the long-haired men and the short-haired women.”-Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Doris Kearns Goodwin)

Lincoln had strong convictions about what is was he was called to do, but recognized the importance of integrating the realities and opinions of others in what he was doing. He could have set up an echo-chamber to alleviate the tremendous pressure he felt at the time of America’s greatest need. But, instead, he surrounded himself with people who would question, accuse, even reject the ideas and proposals he was making. This made him an even better leader.

For the sake of my congregation, Hartford’s book has challenged me again to think more deeply about how I can engage media and messaging rather than sticking my head in the sand. It has also challenged me to equip and encourage our church family to do the same.

A final reminder from Hartford: “When we slow down, control our emotions and our desire to signal partisan affiliation, and commit ourselves to calmly weighing the facts, we’re not just thinking more clearly–we are also modelling clear thinking for others.”-(49)

May God give us all, for the sake of the Church, the grace to do so.


About the Author


Ryan Thorson

Follower of Jesus. Husband. Father. Pastor. Coach. I am passionate about helping people discover the gift of Sabbath and slow down spirituality in the context of our busy world.

9 responses to “Pastoring People through Pandemics and Presidents: A Study ‘in locus’”

  1. mm Glyn Barrett says:

    Hi Ryan – thanks so much for your thoughts. As a Pastor, I resonate with many of your thoughts. Just a few questions as I read your blog.
    (I) How can pastors and church communities effectively navigate the divisive landscape of modern media messaging and politics while remaining faithful to the principles of Christ-centered leadership? (II) How can we learn from historical figures like John Wesley and Abraham Lincoln to transcend tribalism and engage with differing perspectives in a constructive manner?

    • mm Ryan Thorson says:

      Thanks Glynn. I think that graceful engagement with those that think and believe differently than me is essential. It sharpens my ability to love by listening and it also helps me test and clarify my own beliefs in light of Scripture. We’ve had “Fearless conversations” at our church where people can gather from all walks of life to discuss difficult issues as an attempt to practice civility. those that showed up said it was helpful, though they were already rather civil.

      Thanks for the questions.

  2. Adam Cheney says:

    I will say that I do not know how all of you who pastor and preach at a church regularly are able to navigate all the workload. Well done. I was having a discussion with a local pastor a month ago regarding this topic and the whole idea of disinformation. He had been preaching for a couple decades and he mentioned that he has a harder time preaching now than when he started. What has made it harder over time is that he has a more skeptical audience, one who has developed deeper levels of mistrust among anyone in a position of power. Have you experienced a deeper level of unjustified skepticism simply because we now live in a society in which fake news reigns?

    • mm Ryan Thorson says:

      Hey Adam great question. I often will delay telling new people what I do for a vocation as long as I can, because once they found out I’m a pastor it usually goes one of two ways. First they think its cool and ask more about my church, which is fine. But more often than not in the pagan Northwest 🙂 they look at me with skepticism and mistrust.

      I’ve realized that there is no more positional authority or equity that exists in ministry anymore, maybe even in our culture as a whole. Instead, people distrust those who would be seen in authoritative roles. Some of that has been earned by pastors, politicians or others who have abused power and misused trust.

      My hope is to build relational equity with people so that I have earned the right to be heard in their lives and that the living out of my own faith and life in the complexity of our world might bring credibility to the things I say on a sunday.

      Thanks for the thoughtful question.

  3. mm Chris Blackman says:

    Lots of great thoughts here Ryan.
    I smiled as I read your statement about Lincoln and being with people who disagree with him. When we were involved in the church plant in LA, the pastor approached me and asked me to be part of his leadership team. To his dismay, I turned him down. When asked why, I replied that he had surrounded himself with all yes men, and I would not be part of it. A few weeks later, he returned to me, brought in a woman I respected, and knew she would not say anything to please him. Needless to say, she and I were an annoyance to the rest of the team.
    Because I am not a pastor, there are things that I don’t think about – like having to shoulder the burden of personal lives, political movements, disasters and all the other fun stuff. So thank you for reminding me of that.
    How does Lincoln’s leadership style teach pastors to handle conflict and differing opinions?

  4. Julie O'Hara says:

    Ryan, Thanks for your great post. I was all in and loving it and then you brought in one of my favorite books, Team of Rivals” and it got even better! What practical means have you considered to equip your congregation to engage media and messaging more positively? How do you imagine that might look?

  5. Chad Warren says:

    Thank you for bringing some insight from both Wesley and Lincoln. Being a pastor in a situation similar to yours, I can appreciate the temptation to go head first into the sand. The potential ways forward you mention seem like fantastic ways of guiding people towards unity. I am curious if there are any specific rules from Harford that resonated more strongly than the others in the way you might lead your congregation?

  6. mm Kari says:

    Ryan, thank you for your transparency. I commend you for your courage in pushing against. your default of avoidance.

    I am curious what you believe is your first practical action step forward for you desire to “equip and encourage” your church family to do the same?

  7. Elysse Burns says:

    Ryan, this was a very thoughtful post. I appreciate the ways you are holding yourself accountable to do better. You are living out the Hero’s Journey! I have been asking myself the same questions as I know I can be more courageous in my North African context. What truthful information (or promises) has God given you as you seek to best equip the congregation you serve?

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