Written by Marsha MacKinnon, Webmaster for the Presbytery of Lake Erie
The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed our lives. Changes that are now necessary to remain safe. Our households, workplaces and houses of worship have had to adapt daily and sometimes hourly. During a crisis, there are many challenges and yet at the same time numerous opportunities are revealed in unexpected ways.
I have asked three pastors in the Presbytery of Lake Erie for their insights on pastoring in a time of pandemic. All are embracing the day-to-day challenges, pastoring in new and creative ways, and guiding their congregations with hope and faith not fear.
Rev. Gregg Townsend is the Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of North East. He was installed at North East in 2008 and has 34 years experience in the pulpit. North East is in Erie County near the Pennsylvania-New York state line. Since the Coronavirus crisis began Pastor Gregg says the challenges have been many. “Not being able to personally visit home-bound members. Not worshiping with and preaching to people in-person, says Pastor Gregg. “However, when we all get to heaven and you see an iPhone there, it’s mine — that little thing has come to know Jesus these past months!”
In Warren County, Rev. Rebecca Taylor is the Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in the city of Warren. She has been pastoring for nearly 40 years.“One of the biggest challenges is overcoming a feeling of helplessness,” says Pastor Rebecca. “Feeling inadequate with technology and feeling sad not being able to visit!”
Rev. Dr. Tim Harmon is the Pastor of the Second Presbyterian Church of Oil City in Venango County. He answered a call to Oil City about a year ago and has been pastoring for 11 years. He agrees with the other pastors that effectively communicating with all church members during a pandemic has been especially difficult.
“Connecting with people in many different ways has been the hardest thing, as so many folks do not communicate in the same platform, says Pastor Tim. “Many without any online (access) at all, many who do not answer phones, and some who only pick up mail once or twice a month! There are some who will not text or email, so communicating and touching base without the in-person worship has been very difficult.”
Learning and embracing new technology and getting it up and running quickly is a common theme across the Presbytery of Lake Erie. Many churches are now live-streaming worship services and bible studies on Facebook Live or on their own YouTube channels. Yet despite the many challenges over the last five months, there have also been many unexpected benefits and new insights into pastoring since the Coronavirus pandemic began.
“God’s work among us in Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, is not bound by church buildings and in-person worship,” says Pastor Gregg. “It has been inspiring and humbling to speak with numerous members of our congregation whose participation was previously almost completely inactive now experiencing a reinvigorated faith. There are also old friends (who live thousands of miles away!) that have wandered from the Christian faith and have now returned and are starting to take discipleship seriously. The Holy Spirit is happy to use Facebook Live-Streaming!”
Using internet technology has brought virtual worship to North East, Warren, Oil City, and many other churches across the Presbytery of Lake Erie and across the country. Those churches are not only connecting with members who cannot gather for in-person worship because of COVID-19, they are now connected to the world and now have global reach. That is an unanticipated benefit of pastoring in a time of pandemic.
“It’s the power and pleasure of connectionalism,” says Pastor Gregg. “Beyond our local congregation, ministry and outreach have continued and thrived. Each week during this pandemic period encouragement has come from colleagues in the presbytery, challenges to support missional efforts overseas have been met (for example, financially supporting a congregation in Ghana), and local mission outreach is continuing (for example, we are currently preparing backpacks and clothing for students in need). Pandemics do not stop mission. They help us do mission imaginatively and give us the gift of relying ever more on God’s loving power.”
Pastor Rebecca admits to gaining a new appreciation for the little things. “I do believe this has opened many eyes to how comfortable and complacent we had become, especially about our faith and about being in community!”
While the new technology has presented new mission and ministry opportunities, old technology is steadfastly reliable in making people feel connected with another human voice. Many churches have revived the phone-tree, where a personal call is placed to connect with members.
“I was so very impressed with how well the deacons reached out to folks naturally, says Pastor Tim Harmon. “With the deacons calling, it made me very aware at how we leaders need to make more regular and natural connections within the life of the church.”
Pastor Gregg says “for generations, God has been graciously and powerfully binding us together in Christ. Now that we cannot be together, the strength of those ties is proving itself. Prayer and pastoral care, for instance, have not stopped. Some members have been busy doing grocery shopping for the more vulnerable members of our congregation who are not comfortable going out. Fellowship has continued in different ways, but perhaps with more sensitivity and concern than ever.”
The Coronavirus pandemic has created numerous challenges for our pastors, our faith communities, and our individual households. Some people are now very fearful, and others are extremely anxious about the impact the pandemic is having on their lives.
All three pastors agree this is not the time for fear, but for trust.
Pastor Tim Harmon: “Jesus is really here with us and we are not alone. But it feels like it sometimes. God does not shame or ridicule or downplay or sideline things but stands in it with us. And it is faithful to stand there, to admit the fears, to reach out to others, and to place our anxieties out there.”
Pastor Gregg Townsend: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6,7)
Pastor Rebecca Taylor: “God understands and hasn’t abandoned us! God is grieved by the loss of life and by the insensitivity of some toward others! And God can bring good out of even the most difficult circumstances!! (Romans 8:28)”