Guest commentary by Thomas Willadsen
“What would your ideal call be?” was the first question the pastoral nominating committee asked after we’d gotten the pleasantries out of the way. I was new to the game, interviewing for the position that would qualify me for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). So new, in fact, that I told the truth.
“$100,000 a year, no responsibilities and a nice office where I can think my thoughts.”
Their body language said it all. We would spend the next 45 minutes talking, but they had no interest in calling me as their next pastor. It’s just as well; their package was pennies above the presbytery minimum and I had student loan payments the size of Uncle Steve’s plate of shrimp on seafood night at the all-you- can-eat buffet.
A few years later, after losing the coin toss with my colleague and thus having to visit the least pleasant member of the church for her quarterly Communion visit, I said, “Ministry would be the perfect job, if it weren’t for the people.” I may not be the first person to make that observation; I’ve heard professionals in other fields say the same thing. In the age of COVID-19 I have found that it is true. Since March 16, 2020, I have been living the dream: ministry without the people.
I know, I know. These thoughts reek of privilege. Every second I know how blessed I am to be unscathed by this century’s pandemic. As pastor, I am blessed by skilled, dedicated, thoughtful worship leaders, staff and volunteers. We started live-streaming worship over Facebook using Bob’s cellphone guided by YouTube tutorials. John, the deacon moderator, arranged to set up a conference call so members who do not have access to computers or smartphones can listen to worship. A team of deacons delivered palm branches, worship bulletins and Communion elements to 60 households in two days. I “attend” Zoom meetings from my living room in my pajamas. The meetings are shorter and more draining, but also richer because it’s possible to see everyone’s facial expression.
Pre-COVID-19 weekly worship attendance was between 90 and 100. On Easter 484 people viewed our live-streamed worship on Facebook. The 67 comments and 41 emojis viewers posted easily topped the reaction to my most provocative in-person sermon. The following week I phoned the households who had participated in the conference call. I was curious about the sound quality, but I learned so much more. These 15-minute phone conversations were more one-on-one contact than I have with most members in a typical year.
There have been some adjustments required for leading worship focused on a camera rather than a sanctuary filled with people. I stopped reading my sermons and standing in the pulpit. Now my sermons are extemporaneous and delivered to the camera. I miss the feedback of a live congregation in real time. The only cues I get for how my remarks are being received are from watching the face of the guy who’s running the camera — and he’s wearing a mask these days.
Our members are appreciative and engaged. Several people have made comments about our live-streamed worship, each of which has been constructive and helpful. It’s as though grace and a presumption of goodwill is in the air we are breathing through our masks.
There’s no end to live-streamed worship in sight. A colleague observed last week that our sprint is really a marathon now. As we look ahead, there are obvious changes that we’ve adopted in response to COVID-19 that will continue. Even when people can sit in the sanctuary again, we will live-stream worship. We’ll have to find a new way to measure worship attendance; people in pews will only be part of the total. Having committee and board meetings remotely will improve attendance. Near the beginning of the pandemic, a session meeting was held during an 8-inch snowfall — and everyone was present! Perhaps less-mobile people will be able to serve on committees and boards because of remote meetings.
Since social distancing became a buzzword, I have used “physical distancing” in its place. COVID-19 has led the congregation I serve to use its existing infrastructure to connect to all our members. We’re using social media in new ways, but we’re also using the telephone and US mail more than we did a few months ago. We are connected to one another more frequently and deeply than we used to be. I could have called and asked our members “Do you have enough toilet paper?” laast year, but it would have been creepy. Now, it’s the most natural, kindest thing I can do. And, if in the course of the conversation, I hear about a sister-in-law’s gallbladder surgery or a grandson’s entry into treatment, we can pray about them immediately over the phone. Then in an hour, you can expect a deacon to leave your prescription and a package of Charmin on your front porch, because that’s what we do now.
THOMAS C. WILLADSEN is transitional pastor at Faith Presbyterian Church in La Vista, Nebraska.