A screen shot from a YouTube video of Pastor Todd Bell’s morning service Sunday at the Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford.

God help Pastor Todd.

It’s hard to go anywhere in Maine these days without hearing about Pastor Todd Bell, the Sanford preacher with the pandemic-size chip on his shoulder. The same preacher who, in one way or another, now finds himself at the center of COVID-19 outbreaks at a wedding in Millinocket, a nursing home in Madison, the York County Jail in Alfred, and even his own Calvary Baptist Church in Sanford.

As of Thursday, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 144 cases of COVID-19 had been connected to what has ballooned into the largest outbreak in Maine since the pandemic began.

To most people involved, that would be a humbling, if not devastating, number. But to Pastor Todd, it’s fast becoming a badge of honor.

“I’ll tell you what the world wants all the churches to do,” he said during one of two in-person services he conducted Sunday. “They want us to shut down, go home and let people get used to that just long enough until we can finally stop the advancing of the Gospel.”

In the same sermons, the pastor pooh-poohed wearing masks during the pandemic, likening the widely prescribed precaution against the coronavirus to “trying to keep a mosquito out of a chain-link fence.”

He ridiculed people who might wear a “nuclear fallout suit” for protection, saying they’re free to do that, but “we will laugh at you.” (It made me think of my younger sister, a critical care nurse at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, who has worn too many full-body protection suits to count over the past six months. Nothing to laugh at there.)

According to The Boston Globe, Pastor Todd even said the Oxford Casino would “be a good place to spread” COVID-19, because, you know, “gambling is wicked.”

But of all the preacher’s utterances, this one stood out: Only God, he said, “has the power to remove pestilences.”

In other words, despite reams of scientific data to the contrary, we’re all just spinning our wheels when it comes to mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing, contact tracing and all the other earthly efforts to curtail the pandemic. As far as Pastor Todd is concerned, we should all just kick back and leave it all to the guy upstairs.

There’s actually a name for that kind of blind faith. It’s called “passive religious deferral” and, according to Dr. Kenneth Pargament, a nationally known professor and researcher who coined it, it can leave much to be desired when it comes to coping with a widespread crisis – in this case, a global pandemic.

In a phone interview Thursday from Ohio, Pargament called the pandemic “an unfortunate illustration of how religion can be both a resource for people in their most desperate times, and also a source of added distress and problems. We’re seeing both at play here.”

Pargament, a professor emeritus of psychology at Bowling Green State University, has spent 40 years studying the relationship between religion and how we deal with life’s difficulties. Central to his research have been three “styles” of coping – well or not so well – with stresses large and small.

The first is called “self-directing.” Those who use this strategy believe they can solve, or at least manage, their problems on their own. They may or may not be religious – but if they are, self-directing is akin to, as Pargament put it, realizing that “God gave you a brain and it’s up to you to use it.”

Second is the “collaborative” style. Here, people cope by essentially teaming up with God – they do their part to, say, avoid getting COVID-19 in their daily lives, while they also trust that God will help us get through the pandemic writ large.

Finally, there’s “passive deferral.” It assigns all problems to God, with nothing left for the individual but to wait submissively for rescue from on high.

“It’s basically deferring the responsibility for life’s events and the outcomes of these events to God in a way that does not allow for human action and initiative,” Pargament said.

Pargament’s research shows that the collaborative style produces the most positive states of mental health, including more self-esteem and less depression.

And the passive-deferral style, or giving it all over to God? Where does that leave one?

It depends.

“In some situations, when things are truly out of control – for instance, end of life, when you’ve done everything that you possibly can – you’d be able to say, ‘OK, God. It’s in your hands.’ It can be functional and helpful and reassuring,” Pargament said.

Not so much, though, for situations in which “it’s important that people do their part,” he continued. “And I think certainly COVID-19 is an example of that kind of situation. Deferral to God, to the exclusion of human activity and human responsibility, can be destructive, even deadly.”

On Sunday, in addition to railing against how “they” want to “finally stop the advancing of the Gospel” – a claim that’s remarkably close to what’s coming out of President Trump’s mouth these days – Pastor Todd also unwittingly confirmed what the physicians and epidemiologists have been saying all along: With unguarded close contact among humans, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 inevitably will spread.

“I officiated the wedding (in East Millinocket). It was a beautiful wedding,” he told his congregation. “Six families from our church went there. We never expected to get COVID. Nobody expected to experience the things that happened because you went to a beautiful wedding like that.”

But some of them got COVID-19, expected or not. And now that scores of other people have it too, the pastor’s only answer is to keep gathering, keep singing with no masks on, keep spreading the virus … but don’t worry, God has us all covered.

That’s not devout faith. That’s sinful negligence.

Thursday afternoon, during his daily COVID-19 briefing, Maine CDC Director Dr. Nirav Shah said his office has been in touch with Pastor Todd about the outbreak at his church.

“We’ve had good communication with the pastor and he’s been responsive,” Shah said. “But we also need to make sure that it’s more than just communication we’re having. We need to make sure that the communication is coupled with responsive action.”

To his call for “responsive action,” Shah should have added the words “by humans.”

Putting it on to God alone to “remove the pestilence” doesn’t qualify.

Correction: This story was updated at 9:53 a.m. on September 4, 2020 to correct the spelling of Dr. Kenneth Pargament’s name.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.