Can This Old Dog Learn New Tricks?

Ministry in the Age of COVID-19

My twenty-year-old son blames his twenty-three-year-old sister for everything that is happening in the world, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.  For Christmas, Margaret gave her brother a t-shirt from Venice, Italy (where she had lived in the fall).  It was a shirt that she had purchased at the 2019 Venice Biennale, with the theme blazoned on the front, “May You Live in Interesting Times.”  Here’s a photo of the theme, juxtaposed with a damaged vaporetto during November’s acqua alta:

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These are indeed interesting times.

I could use a little less interesting, actually.

Since there’s not any choice about it, we have in the midst of this crisis, opportunity (of course).  The question is, for an old, traditional, mainline church like the one I serve:  what sort of community can we be, will we be, in the midst of this new, ever changing and rapidly evolving (and scary) landscape in which we now find ourselves?

And, the even bigger question is this:  how well will I/we adapt?  How well will I be able to deliver meaningful guidance, leadership, and general faith connection, when I have I have to learn a whole bunch of new things?

Ministry in this new environment is no small thing.  For those of us in small, older churches, where there are still people who don’t even have email, let alone a decent computer or a smart phone, it’s simply overwhelming to begin to consider how in the world we are going to offer anything reasonable in terms of worship, meetings and gatherings for our church community.

Sure, I can try to learn how to provide online content.  I’ve subscribed to Zoom and I’ve created a YouTube channel.  I’ll start to update our webpage later today, and start working with the Music Director on what we can do about providing something that resembles worship for Sunday mornings for at least the next few weeks– for those who can access content online.

Can this old dog learn some new tricks?  And, even more than that: can I learn to deliver content effectively?

While there are some things that I think I can do without venturing too far from my comfort zone, I can’t help but worry about my ability to deliver good content.  Let’s take sermons, for one thing.  I know that I rely heavily on the in-person experience of delivering a sermon.  If those in the sanctuary start fidgeting early on, I know I need to just get to the point already. Or, if the sanctuary gets amazingly quiet, and I know that those present are all completely focused on what is coming out of my mouth, I may slow down, alter my voice, and extend for a bit, or simply provide a moment to take in that holy moment of quiet convergence, as if we can actually feel the Spirit tiptoeing through the sanctuary, drawing us in.

I rely a lot on the in-person dynamics of gathering, reading body language and facial expressions, and listening to comments and other sorts of utterances.  I’ve been at Old South a long time.  There’s an intimacy that’s been created over my many years with this congregation.  An intimacy that, as I reflect on it, makes me very nervous about our new life as a primarily online community– even if this time is relatively short-lived.

It’s not so much about the “tricks” of our twenty-first century world.  I use email and other social media platforms.  I can create online meetings, as well as worship.  But, will I be able to provide something meaningful and worthy in this very new way of being?  Will I ever feel the tiptoe of the Holy Spirit when we gather over Zoom?

I’ll admit my doubts.  But, I also need to admit that I know I must trust, trust that the Spirit will continue to make her/himself known.  When only two or three of us are gathered in Christ’s name, surely Christ is there as well.  Even through Zoom?

These are interesting times, that’s for sure.  But, may they be not only interesting, but holy and faithful.

About smaxreisert

I'm a United Church of Christ pastor serving the small, faithful Old South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, in Hallowell, Maine. I was ordained in Massachusetts in 1995, moved to Maine in 1997 and have served the Hallowell church since 2005.
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