John Robbins arrived at his new appointment as senior pastor at Pulaski Heights United Methodist Church about five months ago. In any other time, a new leader at one of Little Rock’s most prominent churches would be met with celebration and eagerness. Of course, 2020 has been anything but normal. We talked with Robbins about what it means to be a spiritual leader during the time of COVID-19.
You started at Pulaski Heights Methodist Church five months ago, when the pandemic was well underway. A new pastor would have had at least a few meet-and-greet events with the congregation. Have you been able to have those events?
We had a drive-by meet and greet with the two new pastors in July. It was unusual because people simply drove by wearing masks and welcoming us. I appreciate the effort, however, very much. I have made countless phone calls and sent lots of emails trying to connect at some level with the membership. I teach an online bible study, but it’s me looking into a camera and teaching. There is no interaction.
Being on television is a huge advantage because it makes me much more visible. As a result, I think members feel as though “they know me” even though we haven’t met face to face. The challenge as a new pastor is that, ideally, I would be establishing personal relationships with members by visiting in their homes, places of employment, or over a cup of coffee somewhere. So it’s doubly hard to establish my vision or leadership style under the circumstances.
Pulaski Heights has continued to broadcast Sunday services on TV even as the pews are empty. Was there any thought to holding off on the broadcasts until the congregation was back?
Our lifeline to the membership of PHUMC is our television broadcast. In fact, our viewership has expanded greatly during the pandemic, as we are reaching lots of non-members who write to tell us how important our worship service is to them, since they cannot attend their respective church. It crosses all denominational lines. It is odd to preach to empty pews week after week. I did not receive training in seminary on how to preach to an empty sanctuary or how to lead a congregation through a pandemic, but I think we are doing a very fine job as a staff.
You’ve told me that preaching to an empty room is exhausting. Can you explain that?
I never realized how much energy I generated from an in-person audience. Facial expressions, laughter, and even body language play a huge role in how one delivers a sermon. With no feedback, it’s hard to determine whether or not I am “connecting” with anyone. However, I must say, we are getting lots and lots of letters and emails stating that we are connecting to our membership and others online and on television. The exhausting part is that, at some level, I am not able to fully be me. I cannot be as self-effacing or as humorous, or even as vulnerable with no one to feed off of in the sanctuary.
Did you notice that right away?
I noticed the first time I preached to an empty room how much more difficult it is to stay focused. However, as the weeks go by, it’s getting easier, but it will never be easy. I feel a profound sense of responsibility to proclaim the Gospel when there is so much fear and division right now. The message of Jesus Christ has to be the constant in such uncertainty.
Is there a temptation to make every sermon about coping with or trying to understand the pandemic?
I have mentioned numerous times issues regarding the pandemic in my sermons as an attempt to encourage. I have also preached a number of times and not mentioned the pandemic at all. It becomes emotionally and spiritually exhausting to focus on the pandemic every Sunday. Sometimes the best I can do for our viewership is to preach about matters that are important to them that are often overlooked because of our circumstances. I have preached on love, forgiveness, respect for creation and remembering the faithful who have gone before us without discussing COVID-19.
You were born and raised in Texas, and your last church was in Houston. How did you end up in Little Rock?
My wife, Susan, is from Little Rock. Our plan for years has been to one day retire in Little Rock. I have been coming here regularly since the late 1980s. I have also had a desire to serve PHUMC for a long time, so when the opportunity presented itself, I pursued it as quickly as possible. I am a Texan, but I love living in Arkansas. It’s a beautiful state, and the people having always been the most special part of my experience here.
I know you’re old enough to have been a pastor after national tragedies — Sept. 11, for example. Does that experience help you?
Sept. 11 was a great tragedy, but the church never stopped meeting for worship and never quarantined anyone. The pandemic has lasted so much longer than anyone expected, and there is still a long journey before us. Trying to keep the church from becoming “out of sight, out of mind” is a huge challenge. That’s why our visibility is so critical to the well-being of this congregation. We have to stay in front of our members and have to constantly provide them updates and current information about what ministries we are doing so they still feel a connection and ownership in all that we are about.