“More Additional Duties as Required” – Ministry in a Pandemic

Question: What exactly do you do?

A while back, I wrote on the work clergy do behind the scenes: sermon writing, liturgical prep, home visits, and more.

As you might imagine, a lot of that has changed during the ongoing pandemic. Sure, there are still sermons to write and pastoral care to be done. At its most basic level, ministry goes on.

But the daily work of ministry? It’s different. In the ELCA, we call pastors “Ministers of Word and Sacrament” — but right now, the Word is proclaimed through a camera lens, and we’ve had difficult (at times, contentious) discussions about what Sacramental ministry looks like when the Church is meeting in cyberspace.

So what is it I’m doing now that I’m not behind the Altar and can’t climb into the pulpit?

Short Answer: “Additional Duties as Required”

Long Answer: To be honest, this is not anything I ever expected. There’s a lot that seminary doesn’t directly prepare clergy for but does help develop skills to learn. (Building and property maintenance come to mind; I can’t repair a roof, but I know how to work with a council to get it done.) Now, though, we’re in completely uncharted territory. It’s been a century since the last pandemic of this scale, and the world has changed drastically in that time. In 1918, pastors could not make weekly phone calls to parishioners, stream worship services, or use Excel spreadsheets to track the spread of the virus. Clergy and other church leaders have had to quickly adapt, scrambling to find new uses for old tools – and in small congregations like mine, it’s mean we’ve had to adopt tools that were previously beyond the scope of our ministry.

Many large parishes livestream or film their sermons (if not the entire service). These churches have dedicated filming and editing teams with the knowledge to get the job done quickly. But for those of us who were previously unable to afford the necessary equipment, COVID-tide has been a crash course with a steep learning curve. Back in mid-March (Is it still March? Is it still 2020? Who can say?), the governor asked all churches to close their doors. That request went out on a Saturday while I was at a church picnic. That night, I spent several hours learning how to use my DSLR to film video; I shot the service in one take and had to figure out how to trim the awkward few seconds of myself walking to and from the camera to hit record.

In the few weeks to follow, I spent tens of hours trying out various editing software, trying to learn how to put together different shots, researching affordable lighting rigs and microphones, and teaching myself the basics of film editing. In the end, I’ve managed to put together a bare-bones film studio in my home. Between midweek faith formation videos and Sunday morning worship services, filming and editing alone takes up more than a third of my work week (and that’s not including the research and writing that goes into each lesson and sermon).

But of course, there is always more to ministry than Bible study and Sunday morning. The pandemic has pushed most of us into prolonged periods of isolation. Even now, in August, most of us are still spending most of our time at home. (You are still avoiding crowded public places and wearing a mask when you go out, right? Good.)  This has been a one-two punch for those of us charged with the care of souls: as we have lost the normal opportunities to check in with members face-to-face, those same embers have faced prolonged periods of isolation. Early on, I spent most of my time trying to stay in touch with most of my members, especially those who live alone or in care homes. As lockdowns and public restrictions have lessened, the emphasis has shifted, but I still try to stay in touch with my homebound members on a weekly basis.

Even in the midst of this current mess, the business of the Church catholic continues. Committees, councils, and task forces continue to meet over the phone and using video-teleconferencing software. (Take a moment to pray for bishops and their staffs as they spend hour after hour, day after day, sitting in front of computer screens, doing the work of the Church through webcams and Zoom calls. Their poor retinas!) In my ministry, this has meant two candidacy committee meetings conducted over Zoom, working with clergy and laypersons to help candidates discerning a call to ordained ministry. And while many synod-wide events, including our annual assembly, were canceled, we have had a number of events over Zoom: film screenings and discussions about dismantling racism, workshops for pastors and deacons around self-care during this turbulent time, and more.

Other pastors have spent this pandemic finding new ways of doing ministry: streaming one of the daily offices online every day or hosting an online video discussion each evening. Others have worked with teams in their congregation to move worship services from the building to the parking lot like an old-fashioned drive-in theater or, as conditions allow, to chairs on the church lawn. And seeing these new innovations, we have all spent hours on the phone with friends and colleagues, learning from each other and trying to figure out how to adopt these best practices so that we might improve our ministry or start a new style of service by Christmas Eve.

But through the midst of this pandemic, perhaps the most difficult task has been following the data. Most bishops, pastors, and deacons have no background in epidemiology, virology, or public health. And yet we have had to make sense of mountains of data, to track rates of new infection, to find reliable sources of data when government entities have tried to obfuscate the true scale. Without adequate testing and accurate numbers, we cannot trust our own decision making. At the outset of this pandemic, I decided two things: first, that I could live with parishioners angry that I had been overly-cautious but two, I could not endure officiating a funeral for someone who died because I made a bad decision. Day after day, I pour over numbers for the counties around Macon, hoping that they’ll eventually start to go down and that we can reopen.

But throughout all the changes that this pandemic has forced upon us, one thing has not changed: I pray. A lot. At the end of my last article, I said:

Most of all, though, bishops, presbyters, and deacons pray. We pray as we drive to the hospital, as we write sermons, as we work on the budget. We pray when we’re “on the clock” and at home. Sometimes the prayers are thankful; other times, they’re laments and cries for help. (Occasionally, they are imprecatory prayers asking God to smite copy machines that jam up.) Some of these prayers are great works of the Tradition, written centuries ago; some of them are uttered spontaneously.

I pray for the Church, for my parish, and for my parishioners that we might continue to worship the Triune God and serve our neighbors.

And it’s even more true now: I pray for the leaders of our world at every level, that they might make wise decisions to fight this disease. I pray for leaders of the Church who are struggling to minister to a world in crisis. I pray for the health care workers and the essential workers at the grocery store who put their lives at risk to keep us safe and fed. I pray for those who are grieving, those who are sick, those who are recovering.

But most of all, I pray that the Lord will see us safely through this crisis to a time when we can gather again in person around the Altar to celebrate the Blessed Sacrament with all the saints.

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