Attending to spiritual needs during the pandemic

I haven’t been to church since the first of March. That Sunday, Hoosiers were just starting to get sick from the coronavirus. We sent messages to all of our members discouraging them from hugging and even shaking hands. We didn’t pass the communion plates but rather asked people to come to the front to take the emblems, which elders handed them while wearing disposable gloves.

West Park Christian Church

The following week the state shut down, and so did we.

You may recall that we hired a pastor early in 2019 but by autumn it was clear we weren’t a mutual fit and he moved on. The elders, including me, had been sharing preaching duties with several guest preachers. Just before we shut down one of those guest preachers expressed interest in preaching for us every week until we found our new permanent pastor. We took him up on it.

We tried to offer worship and connection for our members. Our interim preacher recorded his weekly sermons on video and sent them to me for posting on Facebook. They went live every Sunday morning at 9 am. It wasn’t the same as worshiping in person, but many of our members appreciated the effort very much. We also began to have Zoom gatherings for our members, but they were poorly attended. Many of our members couldn’t make the technology work.

The city and state began to reopen in May. Curiously, they allowed churches to congregate well before they allowed any other large gatherings. We elders were not of one mind about how to proceed. A couple elders wanted to resume Sunday services right away so we could be in Christian community and take care of each other’s spiritual needs. I was staunch: reopening was irresponsible. To resume in-person services could result in our members becoming sick — and, given that many of our members are in high-risk categories, possibly even dying. The elders favoring reopening reasoned that our members should decide to opt in or out based on their own conscience and willingness to tolerate risk. There were good and valid points on both sides, but these difficult discussions were hard on the eldership.

We stayed closed for several weeks, reopening the first Sunday in July. But I and one other elder have not attended. We remain unwilling to place our families at risk.

Additionally, serious family stress has taken my attention almost fully away from West Park Christian Church. Except for the elders’ meetings over Zoom every couple weeks, I have neither time nor energy for the eldership.

Being an elder is not meant to be primarily an administrative role. Elders are meant to be involved with the congregation as shepherds. That was challenging enough for me before the pandemic because I live 30 minutes away from West Park, which is really a neighborhood church. It is impossible now.

I don’t know why it’s not been clear to me before, but it’s clear to me now: West Park’s elders really need to live in or near the neighborhood. Maybe the situation at West Park has evolved to this and I’m just now catching on. I don’t live in the neighborhood. I don’t believe I’m called to live in the neighborhood. I don’t want to live in the neighborhood.

Since lockdown Margaret and I have been watching the online services of North Point Church in Georgia together every Sunday morning. We both love the teaching of their pastor, Andy Stanley. He brings such a fresh perspective, always well reasoned from the Bible. We’ve benefited greatly from his sermons during these months.

But we both know we want to be in community with Christians again. We miss it greatly. But it’s not clear to us that we will return to West Park. We feel like our lives are leading us in a new direction, yet to be determined.


14 responses to “Attending to spiritual needs during the pandemic”

  1. Alec Avatar

    I know how you feel! While here in Canada at my church we are just starting to get people back into the building. I have been for about a month helped in running the service from home. Super weird!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Except for attending our granddaughter’s baptism last weekend, we haven’t set foot in a church since this all began. It just feels far too risky! But it’s also very challenging to have been away from church for so long. Online is no substitute.

  2. DougD Avatar

    Already on it Jim! Praying for you that the direction will be clarified. Others need your fellowship as much as you need it yourself.

    We’ve been doing church at under 30% capacity for some months, in fact we just played guitars this morning for the service. My biggest problem is my glasses fogging up with a mask on.

    There has been no disagreement on how or when to do it, since the government directives have been reasonable and clear, and everyone wants to be as safe as reasonably possible. Since we have about 10% of the Covid that the US does that mitigates the risk substantially.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thank you very much Doug! I have no idea what’s next for us. I’ve always sort of just waited for God to send me orders. He’s never failed to do that in his time.

  3. Doug Anderson Avatar

    Following the state-wide lockdown in March our parish church began online Sunday services on Facebook. Participation was low at first, and gradually declined from there.

    In April our priest began holding in-person outdoor services at private homes. They were invitation only and conducted with masks and social distancing. We had communion, but it was in one kind only (wafers). The priest was on his own, i.e., no acolytes, and sanitized his hands at each stage of the liturgy. Attendance started fairly low but grew and it looked like we might have to start turning some people away.

    Then, against his will, our governor gave in to complaints by Christian, Jewish and Muslim clergy that he was permitting indoor political gatherings, citing first amendment protection, but not permitting indoor religious gatherings. He allowed churches to open with the same restrictions that already applied to political gatherings. In early July our bishop followed suit and allowed the churches in his diocese to reopen, but with 35 pages of rules and regulations in the announcement.

    Per the rules and regulations, we developed and submitted a plan involving 25% occupancy, social distancing, masks, no-contact hand sanitizer dispensers, and a mandatory reservation system to aid contact tracing. Our church can legally accommodate 200 people which translates to 50 people permitted now, including the altar party and the organist. Attendance was 18 on our July 12 opening day, and has grown every week. This morning it was 44, including three people who had said earlier that they would not be back until there was a vaccine. We also broadcast the service live on Facebook.

    The wardens and vestry have yet to say how they will handle things when the number of people wanting to attend in-person exceeds 50. (Average Sunday attendance pre-lockdown was about 150 at two services.) The rigorous cleaning requirements from the diocese make a second Sunday service in the main worship space impractical. But we do have a large parish hall which has a legal capacity of 150 plus, and more than enough folding chairs. We even have a piano there and our organist is also an accomplished pianist.

    I sympathize with our friends at church who are not comfortable attending in-person services. That’s a tough spot to be in. My wife and I decided when the lockdown began to (1) wear masks when we are out of the house for any reason, (2) take social distancing seriously, (3) avoid situations when we would not be able to maintain social distances, (4) wash our hands per the current advice, (5) not do anything that might get others in trouble with the authorities, but otherwise (6) do whatever the heck we want, including going to church.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My wife has risk factors and so does our daughter, who lives with us. So we’ve taken extra measures to avoid getting this.

      It sounds like you all have your church operations figured out. That’s awesome.

  4. Mark Avatar

    Not a big go to church person but have much enjoyed bible and other classes. Now that service has gone to Zoom it is great. Can be kind of messy as some parts prerecorded and moderator has to click around for others to do their parts from home but it works.
    Best parts, various prayers and minister talk are sent out after -printed, no more note taking. The whole thing is recorded on Zoom and link sent. Now can watch when you can, skip parts, repeat parts. Yes you may miss seeing people but the msg and smiling faces still there

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      My wife and I have enjoyed being able to watch the sermons from North Point Church anytime we’re ready Sunday morning — sleep till 7, sleep till 9, just watch when we’re awake enough. It really is lovely. But it still doesn’t replace the Christian community you get when you attend in person!

  5. Darts and Letters Avatar
    Darts and Letters

    Your church has been lucky to have such a conscientious, thoughtful leader in you. Even in the best of times, contemplating a change like this can be extraordinarily complicated and hard.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      What a lovely thing to say! I feel like all I’ve been in our elders meetings is crabby. But we’re navigating challenging waters without a map.

  6. Steve Mitchell Avatar

    Yes indeed – I am chairman of Vestry at our church, and we are currently closed while others nearby are open. The reason is that our building is not very big, I suppose less than 150 people would fill it to capacity. We normally have about 50 in Sunday worship, and with the social distancing requirements at present we would not be able to accommodate them all safely.

    We have moved online, with the Vicar streaming a service every Sunday on both Zoom and Facebook live. While we have some folk who are unwilling or unable to meet in this way, we have been surprised to find that our reach has been far more than we normally see in church, and now we are considering how we can continue to reach these people in the future.

    I think we are all finding ourselves contemplating our place in life right now, as the things we have relied on and had faith in are being found to be unreliable, it is a bit like finally reaching the top of the ladder only to find it is leaning against the wrong wall! In my lifetime I suspect there will not be a similar opportunity to rethink, to rebuild, and to realign our communities and our priorities, and I do pray that as strengths and weaknesses in our spiritual lives, and in society as a whole are revealed to us, that we will seek and find positive ways forward to bring much needed change.

    May your search be rewarded with much blessing for you and yours!

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      We have experienced greater reach with our online sermons as well — in terms of numbers who started to view the video, at least. The vast majority have clicked away after 10 minutes.

      You make a great point about this being a time like no other to rethink everything. It’s my hope that, frankly, as the boomers die off and younger people find leadership positions in the world, that they will do just that.

  7. Ben Cotton Avatar

    I know the stress of making the decision about whether or not to send kids to school in person. I have to believe that being responsible for an entire congregation is many orders of magnitude more stressful. There are no right answers in 2020, only less-bad ones. It’s clear that you take your responsibilities for both the spiritual and physical safety of your church very seriously, and I have no doubt you’re doing the best you can with an impossible situation. I hope you can find the community you need soon.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      For me, the choice was easy. I can’t imagine God would want me to be such a poor shepherd of our congregation that I would put them at risk by opening the church! I’m not a very black-and-white guy but this issue was black and white for me. The hard part was the discussions with the elders who disagreed. We ended up with a compromise that opened us on July 5, with me and one other elder not attending.

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