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, by 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 Rachel Laughlin, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church. Portage:

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

“I’ve been telling people all along that I never wanted to be or signed up to be a televangelist. I’ve been incredibly nervous about recording myself and posting it on the internet for the world to see. That part, I expected. 

“What surprised me is how draining it is to preach to a camera in an empty room. I’m an introvert. I’m used to being tired after being with a lot of people and craving alone time to recharge. 

“But this experience has made me realize in a deeper way that when I lead God’s people in worship, we’re in it together. The energy I’m expending leading, they’re giving right back to me. It’s not the same when it it’s just me and the camera.

“I’ve also been incredibly grateful for the technology and skilled volunteers who have made it possible to include multiple voices in worship. We pre-record our services so we can include video clips of music, readers, and prayer leaders. 

“I probably would have told you before all this that it is important to have multiple voices leading worship because of diversity, developing lay leaders, etc… but the importance hasn’t really hit home for me before now. 

“It’s not just a nice or appropriate thing to include others in worship leadership, it is a necessary thing. Each gift, each voice, is another embodiment of God’s grace for us all. Could I record the whole service myself? Sure. And God could work through that, too. But when we’re in it together, the height and breadth and depth of God’s love at work among us is more evident.”

Have you made any discoveries about your congregation?

“I’ve been serving Prince of Peace for three years, so there’s lots we’re still discovering about each other. I’d say this crisis has brought out their ability to adapt and willingness to try new things. 

“We went from in-person worship to a live-stream from the sanctuary to a pre-recorded video in less than a month as the virus began shutting everything down. When I asked people to call 5-10 others from a list of members we thought would be most vulnerable during this crisis, they didn’t hesitate. Even now the Care Callers are reaching out every week and sending me updates. Together we are caring for our community. 

“Our musicians (staff and volunteers) have stepped up to learn how to record themselves so they can participate in virtual ensembles for the worship videos. They have been so brave!

“I’ve also been overwhelmed by their generosity. 

“A ministry partner who works with those in our community who are experiencing homelessness needs 100 homemade masks? Done. 

“A sister congregation needs help paying for custodial help? We’ve got them covered.

“Somebody needs meals delivered? Tell us when to drop them off. 

“Plans for how we’re going to do Holy Week have changed 47 times this week? Don’t worry, Pastor, we’ll just roll with it. 

“Everyone’s uncertain about the future and nervous about finances? We’ll pay our staff and we’ll pay our mission support because those are the two most important things and we’ll figure out the rest later. 

“We’re even trying to figure out ways to let those in our community who aren’t members of Prince of Peace know that we’re here for them and willing to help however we can. I’ve been blown away by the congregation’s compassion, grace, and strength.”

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

“We’ve had some technology challenges trying to help some of our less tech-savvy members get connected when there are so few non-digital ways we can do so safely. The Care Callers I mentioned have helped. 

“We’re working on putting together a team of volunteers who are willing and able to assist people over the phone if they want to learn how to use their devices to connect. For those who don’t have devices, we’re considering other options. 

“We created Wilderness Worship boxes at the very beginning that contained a lot of resources for home worship and prayer. We’re mailing updated resources every so often, along with newsletters and other resources. The longer this goes on, the more creative we’ve had to be.”

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

“The biggest positive in all this is how much more connected some of our shut-in members are feeling.

“One woman in particular sent me an e-mail after the first couple of worship videos went up telling me how wonderful it was to be able to see people and participate in worship beyond just listening to the gospel and sermon audio we’d been posting on our website for years. She said she hadn’t felt so connected to her faith community in years and hoped we’d continue with video of some kind even after this is all over. 

“Council has made it clear that we’ll be making that happen.”

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

“As much fun as it has been to have worship videos featuring my cats and, on Good Shepherd Sunday, my spinning wheel and craft room, I miss my people terribly and am looking forward to the day when we can all be together again in the sanctuary. ‘Guest Room Studios’ is a pretty lonely place.”

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.

“Before all this, much of our congregation’s mission was tied to the building. It was, and I hope will continue to be after all this, a community center; a place where all kinds of groups could meet to learn and grow together. But sometimes that meant we didn’t focus as much on outreach or things beyond our doors. 

“This crisis has helped strengthen the parts of our mission that don’t involve the building. Our mission statement is, ‘Touched by the gospel, we seek to be instruments of God’s peace for the sake of the world.’ We’ve had to get creative in how we live that out now and it’s been fun to see that happen!”

What are some things you will be carrying into the future?

“We’ll certainly be keeping a worship video of some kind into the future – probably live-streamed right from the sanctuary when it becomes possible to safely gather again. And I hope we’ll keep the creativity and spirit of grace we’ve been leaning on so heavily as we’ve had to adapt and overcome challenges along the way.

“Oh – and learning how to use Zoom might just mean fewer late night commutes after evening meetings for everyone involved.”

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