Since the global pandemic began over a year ago, religious leaders have sought ways to support the larger community while providing for the needs of members of their congregations. For the next several weeks, we will publish pandemic stories from alumni of the Collegeville Institute’s programs, both in the United States and abroad.
This post was written by CJ Boettcher, a pastor at Zion Lutheran Church in Cloquet, Minnesota.
I remember that call. I remember the pain and anguish in her voice. She was longing for a return to church, longing to feel connected, longing to feel less alone. Her words weigh heavy on my heart, even these many months later: “Pastor, why can’t we have church like we used to? When will we get back in? I miss my friends.”
I’ve had many conversations like that since the Covid-19 pandemic started a year ago. There is often anger, of course. The anger is sometimes directed at me, sometimes the governor or the CDC, sometimes higher church authorities who rule on opening and closing worship in our region. Sometimes it’s all of them at once.
Yet underneath the anger is a familiar companion: grief. For this woman, we’ll call her Gloria, the grief is compounded. Not only is she locked out of her church sanctuary, but she also feels isolated from her faith community at Zion Lutheran Church altogether.
You see, Gloria doesn’t have a computer or a television. She struggles to operate a radio. Her eyesight is poor and she can’t easily read. How could we reach her?
Underneath the anger is a familiar companion: grief.
As it turns out, after that anguished phone call, we learned that Gloria loves audiobooks. They have been her means of maintaining some semblance of sanity. Paul, a member of our congregation, now burns a copy of the audio from our worship service onto a CD and hand-delivers it to Gloria, every week, without fail.
I’m not telling you something you don’t already know. This past year has been a grueling and soul crushing slog for everyone. It has been particularly so in churches as clergy, church staff, and lay leaders seek a way forward in an ever-evolving situation. Reflecting on this early in the pandemic, I found myself drawn to this passage from Jeremiah:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
– Jeremiah 29:4-8
Congregations everywhere, like the people of Judah, have experienced an exile of sorts. People like Gloria have been exiled from their sanctuary and, in a larger sense, from their worshipping community. It is unclear, as it was to the Jewish people, when we might be able to return to normal. Yet in all of this, Jeremiah’s words contain an exhortation to action and a word of hope. God calls us to make the best of our situation in our time and place, not only to survive, but thrive in this strange and foreign land. That, in this effort we, too, would find our welfare.
Which brings me back to my parishioner, Paul, the guy who brings Gloria her CD each week. Paul has been the “AV guy” in one form or another at Zion for over 20 years, including oversight of our worship recording ministries. Paul is a retired chemistry professor from the University of Minnesota Duluth. During his time at UMD he found he had an aptitude not only for chemistry but also for technology, integrating it effectively into his courses and graciously sharing those skills with the congregation.
I should mention that Paul is also a preacher’s kid. So, when everything came crashing down this past year, Paul not only had technological skills, but he also had a lot of experience living in a community of faith. He understood well the value of church in trying times. Paul took Jeremiah’s words to heart and made the best of our situation.
Paul burns a copy of the audio from our worship service onto a CD and hand-delivers it to Gloria, every week, without fail.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Paul reworked our recording ministry into a vehicle for connecting more meaningfully across a number of different platforms. To that end, Paul has personally recorded over three quarters of our worship services in this past year. He has been instrumental in reestablishing relationships with our local TV and radio stations and now sends files and disks to them every week in time to play on our Sunday broadcasts. Paul has learned new video editing software to add hymn lyrics and congregational responses to our digital worship offerings. Paul even researched how best to upgrade our camera and clean up our audio recordings to give members the opportunity to hear the service clearly. He also took it upon himself to train other parishioners how to record and upload services.
And he still makes time to burn and deliver a disk to Gloria every week.
In the past year, Zion Lutheran Church has done reasonably well to find new and creative ways to connect as a worshipping community. We, as a small congregation in rural Minnesota, did not turn into a digital media empire, but we have found ways to keep people connected over the internet, radio, television, telephone, and weekly mailings in addition to year-round outdoor worship opportunities.
Paul is not the only one who has caught the vision outlined in Jeremiah. Other members have stepped up and developed or enhanced our calling tree, prayer chain, and meal train ministries. I hear all the time about members checking in and caring for others, informally, without prompting from me or church staff. For me, this past year has driven home the point that ministry is not just done by paid professionals. It is the efforts of all members of a faith community working together to build up the Body of Christ in love.
We are hanging together at Zion not because of sage words, lofty wisdom, our dazzling worship, or large budget. It certainly wasn’t all my doing. Quite the contrary, in this past year things have gone best when I have gotten out of the way. I have been privileged to see God working through some incredible people, people like Paul.
Ministry is not just done by paid professionals. It is the efforts of all members of a faith community working together to build up the Body of Christ in love.
I won’t sugar coat it. Ministry during the pandemic is still a struggle and there is more struggle yet to come. Yet I think if we are to survive, even thrive as the church, we must make the best of wherever we find ourselves and trust that God is there with us.
It is important, too, that we not overthink it. It need not be more complicated than a CD burned and hand delivered each week to assure someone that in Christ no one is truly alone.