It was September 2020. I had just ended a five-year stretch as a solo pastor, having ushered my small rural congregation through months of sheltering-in-place and worshipping online at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. My new call was a large Presbyterian congregation located in the center of suburban Wayne, just outside of Philadelphia. That day, I had arrived to record my first sermon, my only live audience being my new head of staff and a man sitting off to the side busily operating the recording equipment.
I stood for the first time in the vast empty sanctuary, marveling at the towering masterpiece of the gothic architecture surrounding me. Sunlight danced across the stunning stained-glass windows. Rows and rows of pews, all vacant, foretold the hope of smiling faces I would one day meet and hands I would one day shake.
I was thrilled to begin this next chapter in my ministry, enthusiastic to be joining a pastoral team and eager to accept the fresh challenges that awaited me. Little did I know that when I began this new call, I would be preaching to congregants whom I wouldn’t meet in person for months.
As our church facilities were closed to the public throughout the fall and winter – and our worship services remained online only – I met my new congregants through screens. We continued to record our worship services ahead of time and stream them live on Sundays. I found myself logging onto virtual committee meetings and Bible studies full of friendly, yet unfamiliar, faces.
Largely from my desk in New Jersey, I was welcomed with open arms by a church an hour away on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Over Zoom, my new congregation laughed and cried with me. They bore their soul to me. I led retreats, classes and even did pastoral visitations online. I came to be so grateful for the virtual spaces that brought me and parishioners together in a surprisingly authentic way.
Was this an ideal way to meet a church? Certainly not. Though genuinely grateful at the ability to connect with my new congregation from afar, I would so often click that “leave meeting” button feeling socially detached and emotionally spent. Screens bring us face-to-face with one another in real time: face-to-face with fellow broken and beloved children of God. Still, my days at home on Zoom left me craving the embodied, physical community of daily congregational life as much.
Virtual was so close to the real thing, it ached.
Yet I discovered something sacred in having to entrust my initial contact with a church family to imperfect and frequently unreliable technology. It meant having to place myself at the mercy of the Holy Spirit’s power to transcend the limitations of physical space and distance so that I might somehow be able to serve a new community of complete strangers. It was solely in God’s hands that my small, insignificant words might somehow speak the good news to even just one, unseen household after our worship service went live on a Sunday morning, despite the inevitable streaming lag, glitches and all. It was purely a testimony to the grace of God that my pixilated presence through a screen could somehow be of comfort to a grieving widow I had just met.
For even though I often felt disconnected from my new parish, I really wasn’t. The pandemic has taught pastors to trust that the vital work of relational and community building is still alive and well in our congregations, even when we don’t get to fully see or experience it for ourselves. Without having established any formative bonds with my parishioners prior to the pandemic, this lesson was particularly acute for me. Relying upon the limited capacity of screens to meet my new church family was a daily reminder that God’s power is limitless.
I believe those initial virtual encounters continue to shape my pastoral ministry for the better. On a video call, I was called to be this congregation’s new associate pastor. For the next several months, my new congregation and I would get to know each other in various Zoom rooms.
Now, a full year later, we are worshipping in-person again at long last. Currently, we are preparing our fall programming and the restart of two in-person worship services! Today, when I look around the sanctuary on Sunday mornings and see all the pews filled with faces that I first met over Zoom, I no longer feel like a stranger here. I feel at home.