Pandemic Ponderings of the Transitional Executive Presbyter of the Presbytery of Sheppards and Lapsley/Sue Westfall
March 1, 2021
As more and more people are being vaccinated (thank you, God, for the work of scientists and public health officials!) we’re beginning to see the shape and contours of the church post-pandemic. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot and, although I do not see the church returning to “normal” I am excited about the church moving ahead in God’s hands. What have we learned in the pandemic? How does the church need to be re-positioning itself to meet the challenges and opportunities post-pandemic to fulfill our purpose of speaking and enacting Good News?
To kick off that conversation is the Rev. Dr. Ed Hurley (Pastor, South Highland, Birmingham) who has given permission to share a Q&A interview he did which will come out later this spring in Theology Matters where he is a regular contributor.
What Have We Learned Through The Covid Crisis? Dr. Edwin Gray Hurley, South Highland Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, AL
- What has been the greatest challenge for you as a minister during this crisis?
(e.g., What part of your vocation has been most difficult to fulfill? What aspect, function, or task of the ministry do you feel you have been least able to provide?)
Separation from our congregation has been my greatest challenge. I am a people person, and not being able to be with people of the congregation has been hard. While we have made regular efforts to reach out via phone to all members, there are many we are missing, or having only passing contact with. When we do make contact, however, there is always great appreciation felt. That separation is most keenly felt in absence in in person worship, as we have mostly offered worship only through live distant broadcast. Funerals have been so different, either nothing being done near time of death or very small graveside services.
- What do you think you and your congregation may have learned through this crisis? (e.g., Is there something you have learned about the Gospel? About the nature of the church? About discipleship or ministry?)
We have learned of the resiliency of the church. Jesus nailed it when he told Peter, “The gates hell shall not prevail against it.” We have adapted in creative ways with all small groups and classes being offered through Zoom, worship through live broadcast on Sunday morning. Providentially and independent of Covid, the very week we had to close the church last March new cameras and equipment were being installed through the generous gift of a member and former TV executive, so we were able to offer our first on-line service that very Sunday and have done so ever since. To paraphrase Martin Luther’s famous one-liner, “While I drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer, the gospel runs its course,” “While the Pandemic grips the world the gospel runs its course.” We have experienced just how durable the gospel and the church are.
- What do you see as the greatest challenge facing your congregation in the future? (e.g., What do you fear for the future of your congregation? Are there specific temptations that you think your congregation will have to overcome?)
People have grown accustomed to staying home, worshipping in their pj’s. We wonder how many will remain in that pattern? What will our re-opening look like? How will our future programing change? One fear that certainly did not materialize, when we worried about whether people would still give, has been that our giving has remained steady and even increased, both in our regular budget and an emergency capital funds drive that was actually over-subscribed.
- What good do you think might come from this crisis? (e.g., Might there be a silver lining here? If so, what do you think it might be? Has the pandemic afforded an opportunity for growth in some way?)
Our people have rediscovered the Main Thing. The purpose for which we exist- to worship the Living God and to make and grow disciples of Jesus Christ. Peripheral programing has gone away. Much of our community outreach as AA, Sunday Club for mentally challenged etc. have sadly had to be curtailed. Yet we have continued to worship and grow, and learned new ways to reach out to our neighbors, such as our every Wed. “Feed My Sheep” food ministry to the neighborhood. It is clear that people have a greater appreciation for their church through these hardships and recognize the difference this church is making in their lives and the lives of our community and world.
- What have been the greatest sources of encouragement for you during this crisis? (e.g., What have been the most important means of grace (ordinary or extraordinary) during this crisis? What role has the communion saints served? Are there ways that members of the church militant or triumphant have blessed you in this time?)
A few members have regularly called just to check on my wife Gayle and me, see how we are doing. Sadly, I have buried two of the most regular callers. Being on the receiving end of congregational compassion and care has been uplifting. People have consistently stepped forward giving their time, talents and treasure to a greater degree than before. On Easter Sunday I named some of our home-grown saints who have entered the life eternal recently. The connection of saints on earth and saints in heaven has been vivid for us.
I am inspired by these lines of Dietrich Bonhoeffer written from prison to his infant nephew Dietrich Bethge upon his baptism, “Are we moving towards an age of colossal organizations and collective institutions, or will the desire of innumerable people for small, manageable, personal relationships be satisfied? Must they be mutually exclusive? … We may have to face events and changes that take no account of our wishes and our rights. But if so, we shall not give way to embittered and barren pride, but consciously submit to divine judgment, and so prove ourselves worthy to survive by identifying ourselves generously and unselfishly with the life of the community, and the suffering of our fellow-men.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (p.299)
Thank you, Ed, for those thoughtful reflections. What are you thinking? Join Ed and me this Thursday (first Thursday of the month) at 4:00pm to talk about what we are seeing and experiencing about the church moving forward. What do we imagine God is up to? Here’s that link: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/83918333539
As ever in prayer,