Holy Communion in a time of COVID-19: How PC(USA) elders are being trained to serve increasingly small, virtual congregations

One of the lessons the COVID-19 pandemic has taught churches is this: For many Presbyterians, receiving communion is a powerful, precious part of worship, something they don’t want to give up. So, congregations have learned to improvise how they offer communion — buying single serve cups to use for socially distanced, in-person worship, reminding folks to get their juice and donuts ready for virtual worship at home.

Another innovation in recent years: some congregations and presbyteries are training elders to celebrate communion. Sometimes those elders just provide an extra pair of hands to help out the pastor. But the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a denomination of mostly small churches: about 40% have 50 members or fewer, and close to another quarter have 50 to 100 members. Increasingly, many Presbyterian churches cannot afford to pay a full-time minister, and some don’t have a pastor at all. For congregations in these situations, having an elder trained to celebrate communion and with the necessary authorization to preside at the Lord’s Table can make the difference between parishioners receiving communion at least once a month or going without.

Carl Matheny, a 65-year-old retired engineer, is an elder at Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church in West Virginia, in a small town on the state’s western border. On a typical Sunday, fewer than 30 attend worship.

“We are indeed without a pastor currently,” Matheny said. Since their former pastor left about a year and a half ago, the congregation has mostly relied on supply pastors. Matheny is one of three elders trained to serve Holy Communion, along with his wife, Elaine, and a friend.

Communion is so important to Matheny that he gets emotional — on a recent Sunday, “I started to get choked up, and my throat was dry and I couldn’t speak. … I did the Great Thanksgiving and, gracious, I just got choked up and struggled through it.” His wife told him later: “You’re fired from doing any more communion.”

But if no one else is available, Matheny says he’ll find a way to struggle through it. He knows how much it matters.

Centrality of communion

The PC(USA) Directory for Worship states that “when appropriately prepared and commissioned by the presbytery, ruling elders may proclaim the Word and administer the sacraments in a
particular congregation.”

The importance of regularly serving the Eucharist is deeply theological. When Protestant Reformer John Calvin was asked, “How do you identify a true church?” Calvin’s answer was “Wherever the Word is preached and heard, and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s institution,” said David Gambrell, associate for worship in the Office of Theology and Worship of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

“Both of those things together are how we identify Christ’s presence with the people of God. On a more personal, experiential level, I think it’s that people really do meet Jesus at the Table, and they are nourished by that experience of communion in the Spirit. When they miss that meal, they’re hungry for it. Something is missing.”

That centrality is why, in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the PC(USA)’s Stated Clerk
J. Herbert Nelson issued an advisory opinion in March 2020 authorizing Presbyterian congregations
to celebrate the Lord’s Supper virtually during emergency times.

In the Presbytery of West Virginia, most congregations are small and rural, with some served by lay pastors or ministers from other denominations, said Susan Sharp Campbell, the presbytery’s associate for educational ministries. In one rural church, the last pastor left a
decade ago.

Leaning on the approaches used to train commissioned lay pastors, Campbell designed a program to train elders to celebrate the Lord’s Table that covers scriptural references to communion and the theology of the sacrament as described in the Directory for Worship. The program also unpacks the sections of the worship service during which during communion is served, including the invitation, the Great Thanksgiving, the sharing of the elements and the final prayer.

West Virginia Presbytery is in the third year of offering the training to elders, whose participation must be approved by the sessions of their congregations. Due to the pandemic, the training is now offered via Zoom.

Campbell is convinced that receiving the Eucharist regularly matters deeply to many Presbyterians in these small churches. “The Lord’s Supper is important as a reminder that we are baptized into the family of faith, and God nourishes us and feeds us at the Table,” she said.

Training spiritual leaders

At Presbyterian United Church of Schaghticoke, a small congregation in upstate New York, Lynne Hardy serves as supply pastor, and three elders from the congregation have been trained to celebrate the Lord’s Supper — assisting her in worship on communion Sundays, and available as needed to provide home communion. Hardy works full time as a nurse consultant, so is only available to work at the church on Sundays.

Sandy Smaldone, 67, is clerk of the congregation’s session and one of the elders who’s been trained. “I wish in the Presbyterian Church they did it like the Catholic church – every week,” Smaldone said. “I hold it near and dear.”

Mostly, Smaldone brings communion elements to people who are too ill or frail to attend church, but who want the sacrament. For instance, a close friend, who was a Catholic, recently passed away. In the period before her death, she was too ill to go to mass. “She asked me to give her communion,” Smaldone said. “So I did. … I think she found solace.”

Generally, it’s up to presbyteries to determine what kind of training programs to offer and the exact requirements for authorizing elders to perform

“I do think we ought to think carefully about how folks are trained for that ministry,” Gambrell said. “It’s not formalized. And it probably would be good for us as more and more congregations are finding themselves in that situation (without regular pastoral leadership) to think about how ruling elders are prepared and equipped for that ministry. … But we leave it up to the presbyteries.”

In the Presbytery of Muskingum Valley, Jeff Bergeson, the pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church in Cambridge, Ohio, serves on Parish Elders — that presbytery’s version of the Committee on Ministry. A few years ago, he worked to revise some outdated training material used to prepare elders to serve communion — it’s now a 30-page document.

What does the Bible say about the Lord’s Supper? What does the PC(USA) Book of Order say about the role of elders in the church, about the theology and polity of the sacraments? The document also includes, from the Book of Common Worship, excerpts of liturgies that could be used to celebrate Holy Communion in different settings — a Sunday morning worship service, or when visiting someone in a hospital or nursing home.

Bergeson has also partnered with another minister to lead training sessions in which elders get a chance to practice — saying the words of institution and using an empty chalice and cup to walk through the motions. So far, he’s helped to train about 80 people, including 40 online this year during the pandemic.

Even in congregations that do have a minister, elders can play a role in serving communion, Bergeson contends. “My opinion is that that shouldn’t be just in emergency situations,” he said. Limiting it to that “I think robs the elders of the gifts and the callings to which they are called … to participate in ministry, and not simply just vote on stuff once a month” at session meetings. “They are spiritual leaders of the church.”

Bergeson also has trained elders and church members who are interested in sermon preparation — introducing them to techniques for Bible study and exegesis, and for creating a cohesive message. If he is on vacation or out of town, they step in to preach. “We have not used pulpit supply in several years now,” Bergeson said. “

When the pandemic came, Bergeson switched the sermon preparation training to Zoom — opening it up to the whole presbytery. He tells people “I’m not actually training you how to preach — that’s a whole other thing, the art of preaching. I’m teaching you how to prepare a sermon.”

For those filling such leadership roles, “the biggest concern is performance anxiety,” Bergeson said. Elders think: “I’ve got to be the person up front. There’s a nervousness, a bit of anxiety around that. But as with most things, once we actually do it a few times, it becomes less scary.”

One tip from Tim Coombs, who is co-pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Scotia, New York, and who has conducted training sessions for more than 40 elders from Albany Presbytery: “The gestures need to be bigger, the voices need to be larger.”

In practicing with elders, in pre-pandemic days, Coombs would sometimes throw a curveball: maybe filling the communion cup extra high. At one church, “they had this big pitcher, silver pitcher, that they put the grape juice in. They were a church that seemed to believe in scarcity. So they put just a little grape juice in it” — you practically had to turn it upside down before anything would pour out.

“You never know” what might happen, Coombs said. So, he encouraged the elders to “just have some fun with it” — to develop confidence that if something goes wrong, they’ll figure it out. “It’s not like this is Hogwarts and you’ve got to say the magic words just perfectly in order for it to work.”

Some elders question whether they are worthy to provide such leadership. Bergeson reads to them from the Directory for Worship, which says in section W-3.0409:

“The opportunity to eat and drink with Christ is not a right bestowed upon the worthy, but a privilege given to the undeserving who come in faith, repentance, and love. All who come to the table are offered the bread and cup, regardless of their age or understanding. … Even those who doubt may come to the table in order to be assured of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ.”

The practice in some Presbyterian churches used to be more restrictive. Some colonial congregations celebrated communion only once or twice a year — and beforehand, the minister and elders would question congregants about their beliefs and way of life. Only those who passed muster were given tokens required to receive the Lord’s Supper. The practice died away for most Presbyterian churches by the mid-1800s, although it persisted in some more conservative churches into the early 1900s.

Compare that to the Directory for Worship, which offers a message of welcome:

“The Lord’s Supper represents God’s gracious invitation to an everlasting covenant. The Lord’s Supper also reflects our calling to feed others as we have been fed, and offers a foretaste of that heavenly banquet when God will wipe away every tear and swallow up death forever.”