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By Sue Sprang  

SYNOD – With the COVID-19 situation hitting us like a brick – quickly and with no time to duck out of its way – I’ve wondered about our ordained leaders and how they have been able to adapt to this strangeness in which we’ve found ourselves. With Michigan beginning to open up – cautiously and with baby steps – I took the opportunity to ask some of our pastors their take on the situation. I chose to include pastors who elected to conduct worship from home, for my own personal reasons. If you are an ordained leader who chose to stay home for worship, but didn’t hear from me and would like to be included in this series, please, my all means, do so. You will find the questions throughout the following article, or e-mail me and I will send them to you (mittenstories@gmail.com).

Pastor Jennifer Michael, St. Peter Lutheran Church, Battle Creek

Have you made any discoveries about yourself personally and/ or professionally?

“I’m not exactly certain that I have made any new discoveries about myself during this time. I live alone with my dogs and because of my congregational context, I would often work from home for at least half of my week, I would say that I have broadened my knowledge of working with videography and online meetings. I have used these platforms in the past, but because of the needs of my congregation I have pushed out beyond my previous knowledge and think it will be a good addition to my skills going forward.”

Have you made any discoveries about your congregation?

“My big surprise was how my congregation has a willingness to be connected at a distance via technology. We are a largely elderly group, but surprisingly agile on social media and other platforms. And even more encouraging and energizing is their eagerness to try even if they struggle.  

“I work hard with those who aren’t used to using technology (I call it their pastoral-technical support calls), but the great part is that even if they aren’t familiar they don’t give up and keep trying – even when they get kicked off a Zoom meeting or can’t get their video to work. They don’t give up in frustration, but instead are so interested in keeping up their relationships that they are willing to muddle through until they get it.”

What have been the challenges? How have you be able to work with/overcome them?

“The biggest challenge was at the beginning for me. 

“Just prior to the quarantine orders, I had been on vacation for two weeks in Florida to help my mother move. I came back just a few days before we went to a ‘shelter in place’.  So, while on vacation, I had to have many conversations with our church leadership about the growing crisis and what that meant for the church.  Then when I got back home, I had to scramble to catch up to a crisis for which my colleagues had been preparing for weeks before. 

“The reassuring part was that my congregation knew about my vacation and were patient in the beginning as we got our online worship up and running. And they have been very supportive of our ongoing efforts to stay connected.”

Have there been any positive surprise along the way? Please share.

“Pete’s Pantry has been a small food pantry effort from our congregation to support the local community.  However, with the pandemic, our congregation has felt called to widely expand this program to include curbside service, distribution of handmade masks when needed, as well as offering words of encouragement to people who come by for food. 

“We’ve seen an increase in monetary gifts to this ministry and a few people are so dedicated, they come in each week to prepare the boxes in advance so that they have time to sit for at least three days before they are given to the public – which helps to prevent spread of the virus. It has become a spiritual practice for these people and they tell me that as they build each box of food in the quiet fellowship hall all alone, they pray for those who will receive that box. 

“I know that there are many food pantries and food banks that are feeding people.  But for a congregation of our small size, the number of families we are helping is surprising.”

Do you want to share anything about leading worship from home?

“Find out what works for your congregation.  

“In my case, most of my congregation prefers a pre-recorded worship service because it allows them flexibility when their schedule is so fluid. Instead of having to show up online to worship at a specific time on a Sunday, they appreciate the benefit of being able to access the video on YouTube from wherever they are at what time is convenient.  

“Additionally, I have set up an ‘altar’ of sorts on my dining room table complete with fair linen, candles, a cross, and an icon of Jesus that I got last year in Greece.  I keep that space as sacred during the week and often sit there when I do my daily devotions and prayers. As I begin worship, I encourage everyone to create their own sacred space that they can use during worship.  

“Lastly, be you and your surroundings.  

“One of the delights I hear from my congregation is their joy and happiness when they can hear my pugs snoring in the background during my sermon or during the readings. They often comment more on that than my actual sermon! What brings them joy, they say, is that in those little noises they feel connected to me and feel more normal, like this is my life and they get to see me for who I am. I’m not sure they would like it as much if it were a crying baby or something, but still it does give them a chance to feel connected.”

Has this experience had an impact on how you view your congregation’s and/or the wider church’s mission and how it is carried out? Please share.

“In addition to worship online, I have been doing videos for what I call “FaithChats” that I post on our congregation’s Facebook page and YouTube. Just me in my office reading a bit of scripture or a poem and then adding a brief reflection as that relates to our current situation.  

“Since I have friends and family from all over the country, they are now able to see me provide these short devotions and hear me preach on a Sunday. Even friends of friends are emailing me with some comment or another about the message for that day or sharing my post on their own page to reach even more people. And on the flip side, I am able to see and hear from my own cadre of talented colleagues as well and how they are leading the church in innovative and imaginative ways. 

“So, I think that with all this online content, we can hear the Good News even louder than before and with a wider diversity. I believe that because worship has been pushed into our homes, people are yearning even more to hear God’s word. And in that yearning, the church is strengthened by the unanimity of voices that are preaching the Gospel without walls or buildings. This experience has bonded us with an expansion of our faith and a broadening of our understanding of how deeply we are connected as the body of Christ.”