Pastoring while Positive

By Lindsay Peyton

Pastors are usually the caregivers – tending to the well-being of their flock. Seeking care for themselves can be a challenge. But there are times when clergy do not have a choice, especially if they test positive for COVID-19. In the past few months, Pastors Ray Hughes and Carmen Rickel in the Texas Annual Conference had that experience firsthand. Now fully recovered, both have gained insights from their time as patients.

Rev. Ray Hughes, Lead Pastor at The Foundry in Houston, was diagnosed with the coronavirus in July. He had trouble breathing, chills and headaches. When he began gasping for air, he headed to the emergency room and remained in the hospital for three days.

“All the signs were there,” Hughes said. “I had it pretty severely.”

After returning homes, recovery from the virus took a couple of months. “The most frustrating part was how long it took to get back my strength,” he said. “I was so tired.”

Luckily, Hughes said that he did not have to worry about who would cover for him during worship. There are a team of pastors at The Foundry, and at the time, they were still pre-recording and holding services virtually.

“Preaching wasn’t a challenge,” he said. “They picked up the slack.”

On the other hand, there was no antidote for being away from his congregation. Hughes felt isolated, but church members lifted his spirits.

“I was so grateful for all the people in the church, all their cards and letters and texts,” Hughes said. “I still have a stack. It means a lot. It gave me strength to know I wasn’t alone.”

At one point, he watched a live-streamed worship while recovering at home and heard the congregation praying for him. “That was very moving,” he said.

Once Hughes returned to the pulpit, he shared his experience of being infected with being infected the virus in a sermon. He recalled feeling so worn down that all he could do was flip on some worship music.

“I let those words really cover me,” he said. “I shared that as a way to encourage others, that when we’re at our low points, God is there with us. There’s a moment when you need that strength that comes from the Lord.”

By sharing his own experience, the pastor hopes to connect more with his congregation. “I want people to see me as a real person, not just as a leader but as a follower of Jesus,” he said.

Hope is what helped him persevere – and that’s something he wants to pass on to his congregation.

Pastor Carmen Rickel at Elkhart FUMC also ended up in the hospital with COVID-19. She was placed on oxygen when she returned home and also learned that she was diabetic while undergoing treatment.

Before Rickel went to the hospital, she prepared notes for a substitute pastor. “My first thought was I’ve got to find someone to sub for me at the church,” she said. “A lot of people cancel services, but I didn’t want to do that.”

Rickel only missed worship a couple of weeks while she recovered. She said that her experience proved the power of the Methodist connectional system, with friends dropping off food and medicine, helping in whatever way they could.

For instance, Rev. Morris Matthis at the Conference office in Houston was instrumental in helping to help her find care. “He was a rock star through all of this,” she recalled.

Rickel said that being part of a community is important. “Things happen,” she said. “What do you do? You’ve got to stay connected.”

When Rickel returned to preach, she made worship a top priority and let other activities wait until she regained her strength and energy.

In a sermon, she used herself as an example of being stubborn, not asking for help when she needed it and preferring to be independent instead. “People get frustrated with others, because they’re stubborn. Look at what I did when I had COVID?” she recalled with a laugh.

Rickel used Facebook to keep her congregation posted with her recovery process. She wanted to model staying positive and hopeful in the midst of COVID-19 – and the importance of not letting fear become the focus.

“Staying positive with any disease is half the battle,” she said. “Staying positive keeps your immune system up.”

Before the diagnosis, Rickel admitted to being afraid to go to the hospital, worried what would happen while she was away.

Now she knows – and it’s exactly what she expected all along. “God provided everything,” she said.