Churches have been mostly empty during COVID-19, forcing local pastors to be creative to stay in contact with parishioners.
“We have used a variety of methods: mail, phone, text, email, messenger and Facebook to stay connected,” said Kent Van Horn, pastor at Harvest Church in DeForest. “Our congregation has people of various ages and economic means so not everyone has a computer or knows how to use things like Facebook or Zoom. That has challenged our ability to use only digital means to connect.”
Still, they’ve found ways to keep in touch.
“Our folks love each other so they find ways to connect,” said Van Horn. “Some will drive to another’s house and sit in the driveway to talk from their car or go for a walk in the neighborhood 6 feet apart.”
For Penny Dahl, pastor at North Windsor United Methodist Church, she’s been going out every three weeks to deliver something to church members. Between Palm Sunday and Easter, she brought them a wooden coin with an Easter greeting, as well as a palm cross “since everyone missed getting those,” said Dahl.
Dahl added, “I mailed a few of those, but delivered the rest, chatting with folks from the front walk. Some, unfortunately, I missed, because they were either still working or were working from home and couldn’t answer the door.”
Dahl said she tries to make Facebook posts about what she dropped off, so those she missed can look for the items.
“I feel bad missing people when I stop,” said Dahl, “but it seems to work out that I catch them the next time.”
Around May 1, Dahl began delivering daily devotional books called “The Upper Room.” For kids of the church, she bought kites. She’s working on something else for June.
Technology has helped Norway Grove Memorial Lutheran Church Pastor Stacy Gahlman-Schroeder reach her congregation. Weekly e-newsletters, online worship services, video conference meetings, text messages, social media, phone calls, note cards, web page updates and the expansion of the church’s presence on Twitter and Instagram are all part of the effort.
The recent Clergy Caravan of Care drove through various local neighborhoods to see people in person. Still, Gahlman-Schroeder worries that it’s not enough.
“Personally I struggle with the assurance that everyone is remaining connected to one another because each contact is now on an individual or family level instead of contacting a number of families in one gathering where we are able to interact with each other,” said Gahlman-Schroeder.
The hardest part in all of this for Gahlman-Schroeder is complying with social distancing guidelines.
“Having a conversation from a safe distance is difficult,” said Gahlman-Schroeder. “I have heard from family members how difficult it has been having loved ones who are sick, and not being able to see them.”
Dahl is troubled by how some of the ceremonies in the church have changed. She mentioned a graveside ceremony she did for a member with just his daughter, son-in-law and daughter-in-law.
“They knew there were too many relatives to invite and stay under 10 persons, and were sad to have to do it alone,” said Dahl. “Celebrating a person’s life is such an important part of the grieving process that it should not be done alone, but to be safe we did.”
Other events like baptisms, confirmations and welcomes for new members are different now, too. “All one family, all in one Sunday,” said Dahl.
A new tradition Dahl brought with her to her church was having a baptism certificate where everyone who is present signs it “as a remembrance of who was there to welcome their child into God’s family,” said Dahl.
Now, on her visitation routes, Dahl stops and tries to get every family to sign. For those she doesn’t catch, the leadership team chair and Dahl sign for them.
Van Horn misses being around church members.
“It has been really hard for pastors and members not to be physically present with one another and not to benefit from physical touch like a handshake or hug,” said Van Horn. “People need physical touch as part of a healthy life because it provides love, compassion, encouragement and prayer. There was a death in my extended family, and I was called upon to help the family work through the grieving process and conduct the funeral. Showing compassion without physical touch leaves something important out of the human equation. It was really difficult to serve as a pastor in that capacity during a pandemic with all the restrictions.”
Clearing up misconceptions about the pandemic and everything happening in the world has also been a challenge.
“There is much misinformation out there in the media/social media and everyone has an opinion,” said Van Horn. “We have worked really hard to provide our folks objective, medically based information so that they stay safe and respect the authorities and rules where they live. We have also focused them on making sure that love for their neighbor is the guide to their decisions; not politics, pundits or social media.”
Services have changed for everyone. Live streaming church services is now the norm. For Van Horn, the foundation is the same. It’s just that the methods are different. Harvest Church holds a Facebook live interactive prayer session, along with a prerecorded sermon and worship songs posted to a Facebook platform so the congregation can join in remotely.
There’s more to Harvest Church’s program, however. A call list was drawn up so church leaders could contact all members at least once a week. Also offered are rides to grocery stores, purchasing gift certificates from local businesses to ensure they have some cash flow, ordering takeout from local restaurants, sending notecards to assisted living facilities, and a lot of social media interactions.
The pastors worry about the effects of the coronavirus quarantines on their parishioners’ mental health.
Gahlman-Schroeder has heard from those struggling with working from home while also helping their children continue with school work. She’s heard the youth talk of wanting to see friends again and how people who live alone have broken the rules to meet a friend for conversation. She’s also become aware of how exhausted people are from looking at computer screens all day.
Not everything has been negative, though.
“On the flip side, I’ve heard parents share appreciation for time with family because there aren’t practices, games, performances and tournaments,” said Gahlman-Schroeder.
Dahl said a third of her congregation is still working in public because of job demands, and are concerned about the welfare of their children and their extended family, as well as their church family.
The other two-thirds, Dahl said, are older members, who may not get out of their homes for two or three weeks, or more.
With the warmer weather, yard work, walks and bike rides are helpful. Others who don’t go out are having family or services deliver food, prescriptions and necessities. And yet, there’s still the matter of combating loneliness.
“Many are finding the time so isolating,” said Dahl. “The one comment that struck home to me was, ‘I stay home a lot, because I want to. But now when I have to, it seems so much harder to be home alone.’ That is the hardest, for me, for others. During our conversation we both agreed that we stay home now for others, to keep them safe, to keep ourselves safe, but that doesn’t make the loneliness any easier.”