In the mid-1300s there was a pandemic so virulent that it killed 75-200 million people in Asia and Europe. Called the Black Death, an estimated 40-50% of Europe’s population died from it during a four-year period. In certain countries the death toll was closer to 75-80% of the population. It took centuries for the population in some countries to return to pre-plague numbers

Not only was the disease itself lethal, but the discipline of science had not yet been developed to guide leadership decisions. Priests were the most educated leaders in the community, and people turned to them for advice on everything, not just on spiritual matters. People believed ministers were God’s spokespersons for truth, both sacred and material, so they relied on the priests for guidance about the terrible disease running rampant around the world.

Priests cared for the sick, administered last rites, and did the best they could with the knowledge they had at the time. Some priests fled their posts, but many continued ministering, baptizing, marrying, burying, and attending to the sick and dying. An estimated 40% of priests died from the Black Death. Their dedication serves as an example for ministers today.

However, because people relied so heavily on the priests to be their authority for all truth, the Church lost its influence when priests did not have answers for the pandemic crisis. The priests failed to offer meaningful help for the world’s suffering. Nothing they said or did made any significant difference, and sometimes their words and actions were harmful. Simply put, the priests did not know what to do.

There is nothing to be gained from second-guessing the actions of ministers and the Church during the Black Death. If I had lived during that time, more than likely I would have responded the same way, and I am not passing judgment. But we can learn from that time in history and apply those principles today. Here are my gleanings.

  1. Ministers are not superhuman and being a Christian doesn’t protect you from illness. Before and during the Black Death, the vast majority of Christians believed that if you followed the teachings of the Church, God would protect you. Devotion to the institutional church was thought to confer immunity from sickness. Further, priests acquired a touch of the superhuman when they were ordained, and parishioners believed priests had a special link with God. During the plague, the laity discovered that ministers were just as vulnerable to the disease as they were. Because priests didn’t practice social distancing as they visited the sick and administered the sacraments, they were highly susceptible to the disease and passed on the illness to others. When the prayers of religious leaders were unable to save people from the onslaught of the disease, they didn’t leave God, but they no longer turned to the institutional church for answers. They were spiritual, but not religious.

As they did during the time of the Black Death, many people today look to ministers for help. They trust them to speak truth. Yet when ministers speak of things outside their sphere of knowledge, they can damage their ministry and the name of Christ, as well as potentially cause harm to their followers. In our current crisis, stories are emerging of pastors who denied the seriousness of the coronavirus and called it a political ploy. Some pastors proclaimed that God would honor the faithful who attended church services, even after government officials warned of the danger and barred groups from gathering. Unfortunately, not only did those pastors put their flocks in danger, some of the pastors themselves fell victim. The underlying cause of this denial is mistrust. Some ministers mistrust anyone, even a verified expert, who has a different opinion from theirs. The Bible’s term for this is pride and arrogance. We need humility from our spiritual leaders.

  1. Don’t play the blame game. Europeans blamed Jews for the Black Death. Rumors circulated that Jews poisoned the water wells. Today, some people blame China for the coronavirus. Asians have been attacked and shunned. Others blame the president, the Republicans, the Democrats, and government leaders. It is a human trait to blame others for the wrongs in the world. Dualism is our mode of operation: us against them. Christ, however, called us to oneness with God and others.

Pope Clement VI, the pope at the time of the plague, condemned people who blamed the Jews for the suffering. He wrote, “It cannot be true that the Jews, by such a heinous crime, are the cause or occasion of the plague, because through many parts of the world the same plague, by the hidden judgment of God, has afflicted and afflicts the Jews themselves and many other races who have never lived alongside them.” There will be plenty of time after the coronavirus pandemic to examine our preparations and decisions. Let’s extend grace and mercy and work with others to solve the problem.

  1. Address theological questions without resorting to simplistic answers.

One erroneous message we hear is that this catastrophic event is God’s punishment for our sin. This message was also rampant during the Black Death, and 1300 years earlier, Jesus addressed that misconception as well (John 9:2). We hear this every time there is a hurricane, wildfire, or epidemic disease. But pandemics affect everyone–godly people suffer and die right along with those we might consider unrighteous. Innocent children die. Does God punish his good children because of the bad behavior of sisters and brothers? If parents do this, we call it abuse.

People are asking deep existential questions. Why is there pain and suffering? Why do good people die? Why is this happening? What is the purpose of life in general, and of my life specifically? One of the answers I hear often from my Christian friends is “God is in control.” While you and I agree with that assertion, this answer isn’t satisfactory to those who have sick or dying loved ones. It doesn’t alleviate the fear of people who are anxious about their next paycheck and their job security. Those struggling with their faith ask, “If God is in control why doesn’t he end this suffering? Would a loving God allow this?” Those questions demand more than simplistic answers.

During a crisis, Christian leaders need, as Henri Nouwen wrote, “the discipline of strenuous theological reflection [which] will allow us to discern critically where we are being led.” We need to think with the mind of Christ and connect with the Spirit of God. We need to humbly acknowledge that our opinions are not infallible. We need to think deeply about how our teaching honors God’s character.

  1. Don’t use fear to further the cause of Christ and the Church.

Fear was rampant during the Black Death. People feared the transition from the world of the living to the afterlife. Confession, last rites, and funeral services were important to mental and psychological health. Religious rituals helped restore mental and social equilibria.

A theological theme heard in the Black Death and in our pandemic today is “Don’t fear, have faith.” This message is on target. Of all people, those who are connected with God should turn from fear to faith. We should always extend the invitation to follow Jesus. But some leaders have used fear of the disease to manipulate others to ask Jesus into their heart. Decisions made through manipulation usually don’t last long. Manipulation is never love.

During the coronavirus pandemic, we can teach people how to reject the false narratives of fear and anxiety and how to connect with the Creator of the universe. Instead of emphasizing the correct beliefs about faith and crises, we can demonstrate how to experience God’s presence. We can teach people HOW to pray. Contemplative prayer is the most significant thing the Church should be doing right now.

  1. Don’t use the circumstance to ask for money just for your church.

During the Black Death, priests charged extra for their ministry. Call it hazard pay. Church leaders became rich by serving private family chapels where wealthy patrons paid great amounts for private masses. New stress was put on indulgences: “Pay us and you will escape eternal damnation.” As a result, the Church became wealthy on the backs of the suffering. One of the motivations for the Reformation and the emergence of the Protestant Church was the sale of indulgences. Priests became greedy. Laymen expected priests to be selfless and benevolent, exemplars of the Christian life. Greedy, immoral, and self-indulgent Christian leaders led people to lose trust in the institutional church.

While a few Christian leaders might use the crisis to their financial advantage, the overwhelming majority of today’s churches will not gouge their parishioners for money. Unlike some priests during the Black Death, ministers are not going to become rich because of the coronavirus. However, if church leaders want to be an influence in their community, they need to be careful about how they address financial needs.

Churches today, just like businesses, will suffer financially in the current pandemic. But rather than calling on laymen to keep the church afloat, churches could revamp their budget and ask people to contribute to help people in the community, providing direction on how they can help. Much of our time and money is spent on weekend services. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t provide online worship services–we need inspiration during this time. But many people are not going to give to simply keep a church solvent. Community members, even those who are not members of your congregation, will give to alleviate the suffering in their community.

  1. Prepare to train pastors and support small churches.

Many churches during and after the Black Plague closed their doors and never reopened. This was particularly prevalent in small towns. The reasons for church closings were a shortage of trained ministers and the economic downturn that accompanied the Black Death. The hardest hit churches were those in rural areas composed of the working class.

Rural churches in America are already struggling to find competent, educated pastors to shepherd churches. Many small churches are already on the financial bubble, with little to no margin to operate. Denominational leaders predict language churches, those whose primary language is not English, will be the first to close their doors. Small churches composed of members with lower socioeconomic status will be the hardest hit.

Denominations, church networks, larger churches, and seminaries can begin now to address this growing need. Large urban churches should consider partnering with churches in rural areas. More bivocational pastors will be needed. Retired ministers could be redeployed for service in small towns. The Church needs to hear sermons that call people to the pastorate. Churches can assist in the training of ministers by financially supporting their members to attend seminaries.

  1. Think outside the box on how to help the suffering.

Because so many priests died from the Black Death, there were not enough priests to hear confessions and administer the sacraments. Pope Clement VI went against tradition and granted remission of sins to all who had died from the Black Death. He also went against social practice and allowed members to confess their sins to male laity and, in the absence of a man, to a woman. In doing this he gave comfort to the dying and their families.

I am impressed with the creative ways churches are responding to the needs of the people in their community during the current pandemic. Churches are providing virtual marital counseling, care response teams, food distribution, medication delivery, and help for the elderly. Small groups are using Zoom to study the Bible and pray for others. Churches are contacting every member by personal texting and phone. This is God visible.


Due to some priests’ actions during the Black Death, the Church lost influence. For many people, their view of the world changed dramatically, and they never returned to the Church. Today, the Church has an opportunity to bring help and hope to the world. Let’s learn from the past and embrace Ephesians 5:16 to “make the most of every opportunity in these evil days.”