By Carol Vaughn
Eastern Shore clergy are responding to a challenge unlike any they’ve faced before — how to minister to their congregations while they are unable to meet together in person, due to restrictions intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The timing, during Lent and with just over two weeks remaining until Easter, is especially poignant.
Clergy in recent days found new ways to connect with their flocks, including livestreaming services on Facebook, and holding virtual meetings using Zoom or other apps.
Gov. Ralph Northam and his cabinet held a conference call with around 2,500 Virginia clergy of different faiths Monday.
“I’m grateful for their leadership in bringing people together spiritually, while remaining physically apart,” he said in a Facebook post.
“This virus does not care who we pray to or how we worship –– we must all work together in fighting against it,” Northam said.
The governor’s executive order 53, issued Monday, prohibits gatherings of more than 10 people through April 23.
The Rev. Monica Gould and the Rev. Alex Joyner, superintendent for the Eastern Shore District of the Virginia Conference of United Methodist Churches, were among those on the conference call.
Gould is minister of Naomi Makemie Presbyterian Church in Onancock and Francis Makemie Presbyterian Church in Accomac.
She was impressed “that the governor’s office recognized the importance of faith leadership in the community by making the decision to have their first-ever faith leadership conference call. … Their objective was to bring us together, to give us information — understanding that we were a conduit, of knowing our communities, to be able to disseminate the information — but to also know what the needs of our communities are, and to let them (state officials) know what the needs are,” Gould said.
Among items discussed was the surge in applications for unemployment benefits, including by workers who never had to apply for them before, and how to address financial needs of contract workers, including some church employees.
The clergy were surveyed about what services their faith communities already provide and how they could be expanded, as well as how church facilities could be useful to help communities in the months ahead, according to Gould.
Gould has been leading worship via Facebook Live in recent weeks.
“Up until Sunday, I felt like we were just on the big scramble: that it was like scrambling to try to make sense of it; scrambling to get information; scrambling to be with our parishioners, but without being with them — and how to make that work,” Gould said, adding, “…I learned how to use Zoom in an afternoon,” in order to be able to meet electronically with church leaders.
A Facebook group for women pastors, of which Gould is a member, also began sharing information about how to minister during the pandemic.
“So, thanks to social media, the resource links are in abundance,” Gould said.
In more time-tested methods, church leaders are making weekly telephone calls and sending out cards to all members.
Gould plans to set up virtual meetings, via Zoom, with different groups in the church.
“One of our members said she just had a Zoom conference call with her girlfriends — so, instead of getting together, they got together electronically.”
Gould asked her 92-year-old mother, who is staying with her now and who lived through the Depression and World War II in occupied Holland, how she coped with those dire circumstances.
“Look to the best, but you don’t worry about the worst,” her mother told her.
While no one would have asked for the present circumstance, there is a silver lining, according to Gould.
“The exciting thing for us is that …as difficult as this is, we are discovering that there is a unique and powerful commitment to being connected that there never was before,” Gould said, adding, “… It’s our opportunity to listen, and to discover what there is for us, as God’s people, in new and different ways that we never would have discovered on our own.”
Citing the Apostle Paul’s biblical letters — written from isolation in prison, but full of hope and encouragement — Gould said, “I honestly believe that we are going to emerge stronger from this.”
Joyner has met virtually with his denomination’s pastors on the Shore twice, and once with lay leaders, to discuss how to “do church” under the circumstances.
There are 49 United Methodist Churches in Accomack and Northampton counties.
He encouraged pastors to develop an eight-week plan for how to proceed — including everything from worship, to congregational care, to how to conduct weddings and funerals.
The district has an abundance of information and resources online, including a list of churches holding online worship and Bible study, at https://www.easternshoredistrictumc.org/corona-virus-2020.html
Last week, seven UMC church services were streamed online, according to the website.
“I think of this as kind of a stress test for churches — for us to remember what we are about, why we are doing what we do,” Joyner said.
While the virus is disrupting the churches’ normal way of doing things, “we are learning a whole lot of new ways to be connected,” he said.
The churches’ mission, in particular at a time when many are anxious and insecure, “is to hold on to the Good News in the midst of the darkness, and try to be the light where we can,” Joyner said.
He is encouraged by how pastors and their congregations are adapting to the crisis.
“A lot of us are rediscovering the phone as an instrument of ministry,” he said.
Churches that did not have phone trees to share news or prayer requests are creating them now, along with church leaders learning new technologies, including apps like Zoom, to communicate.
The situation reminds him of Hurricane Irene, when he was still minister at Franktown United Methodist Church, and church leaders called everyone in the church directory, whether they were regular attendees or not, to make sure all were okay.
“The connections we made just through that experience were invaluable, so I’m hoping that we are going to have some of that same kind of connection happen,” he said.
Joyner said he appreciates the governor and his cabinet holding the conference call, and the fact that they “see the faith community as partners in this effort.”
In an increasingly polarized society, Joyner said, “churches still occupy an interesting space, and I think there is a possibility for people to trust church information a little more — which puts more responsibility on us to be responsible in how we respond, too.”
Additional clergy responded to an Eastern Shore Post inquiry on Facebook about how churches are adapting to the pandemic restrictions. They had these comments:
The Rev. Lisa Cropper Johnson: Tabernacle Baptist Church, Horntown, will use teleconference and Facebook Live streaming again this week for Wednesday Bible Study and Saturday Prayer as well as Sunday School and Worship Service on Sunday. Updates will be made later this month for April.
Pastor Rob Fletcher: Baptist Bible Church, in Accomac, is live-streaming from our church on Sunday AM and PM. Wednesday Bible study Facebook live. I am doing a daily time of encouragement on Facebook for our church until the quarantine passes.
Pastor John Gillespie: Bethel Baptist Church in Bloxom has been prerecording announcements, a hymn, and a preaching message and posting it on our Facebook page. This week we’ll be going live on Facebook from my home. “Home Church.”
Pastor Mary Charlotte Elia: I’m the pastor at Holmes Presbyterian Church in Cheriton. We have been having worship services through Zoom, and we have added online topical adult classes on issues like God & Evil and Revelation in response to questions that have arisen from this crisis.
We have been able to continue confirmation classes online, and upcoming classes on Christian Ethics will be held online until it is safe again to meet in person.
I have held “drive-thru” office hours, during which parishioners can pull through the circular driveway at the manse and have a chat with me from their cars.
We’ve also been using the phone tree as a means to regularly check on people and connect them to volunteers willing to run errands and such.
We’ve added mid-week coffee chats online as well to help some with folks suffering from isolation. We are also inviting students who need access to wifi to contact us for information on using our church’s internet connection.
I have never been this busy in my life.
One of my greatest challenges right now concerns members hospitalized whom we cannot visit because of COVID-19 related restrictions. I am dependent on chaplains at those facilities to help care for those folks and to channel information to us.
That has been a very difficult situation for families and loved ones.
I’ve also changed the charge at the end of the service to “Stay calm. Stay safe. Stay home. Wash your hands. Wash your hands again.”
I just don’t feel like folks can hear that too often.
By Carol Vaughn