COMING-THROUGH COVID, 2020-2021
(Intro) Timing of Confirmation.
The official beginning of lock-down for COVID began the third week in March, 2020. Coincidentally, that was the last Sunday of our Confirmation Classes for our 18 jr. high & high-schoolers. I had worried that we didn’t take enough time – maybe three more weeks would have been better. COVID put an end to any concerns: no use worrying over something that would have been disconnected, anyway. The only other questions was, “When would we confirm the youth?” And the only answer available: “Time will tell us.”
This was the first reality of the situation: If we hadn’t thought it seriously before now, truly, We are in God’s hands, now.
The second reality hit when I learned that all the hospitals were closing down waiting rooms, lobbies, halls, visitations from outside. This was coinciding with certain patients not being able to get into hospitals for long-scheduled procedures. The first rudiments of social-distancing and masking were instigated everywhere – including churches. Thus began the regular phoning of members, especially older members, since they were seemingly the most vulnerable to infection.
The third reality was that deaths continue even when everything is halted or diminished by pandemic. The funeral homes went into a critical masking / limited social distancing process for conducting business with families and the public. And so did our churches. I remember visiting a family to work out funeral details – fully masked and distanced, even in their home. An unwelcome awkwardness, that only love and care could smooth out. Funerals, at least, for the first while, were graveside services, where the air could scatter and diminish our potential germs.
The fourth reality was that I had all sorts of time on my hands, and some days I would sit, alone and bored, in my office, waiting for the phone to ring with anything.
The fifth reality was later in coming: I was getting a taste of retirement, in my last year before retirement.
So began the feelings of exile – being sequestered and alone in a church that is ‘dead-silent’ — and the reality of diaspora, with our members far-flung and restricted from church. Periodically, to relieve boredom and commit some exercise, I would walk the halls and climb the stairs, sometimes adjusting the AC to give some ventilation against mustiness. When I passed a drinking fountain, I would let it run for a minute-or-so, to keep it stirred and the compressor engaged. I would stir the ice machine and dump some of the ice, to let it run again.
Since Koger had retired just prior to the pandemic, Debra had taken up the slack, so that often there were two of us in and out of the office, manning the phones, usually in our separate corners, masked and social-distanced. Debra took on a lot of the secretarial/office-communications work while doing here financial work; and I took on the bulletin/worship work.
About the only phone work was the occasional member’s inquiries, and an increase in ‘missional phoning’ once connections were made with COVID-mobile testing and blood-donations-representatives. Their teams were welcome breaks from the silence of the building. And they were the re-assurance that something was being done to curb the effects of the pandemic and hasten our ‘return to church’. Our parking lot and facility
became a prominent place in Batesburg-Leesville for essential medical workers!
Ron and Deborah, our custodians, continued to work each week, since there were still dust and roaches to contend with. The Felders were a welcome presence in the otherwise quiet and stillness. And they made us feel clean and inoculated against dangerous and unpredictable disease.
The one common thread woven through our 3,000-year+ Judeo-Christian history is the continuation of worship, not matter the circumstances. Our forebears found mechanisms for prayer and devotion, individually and communally. The Israelites formed synagogues (“gatherings”) in exile, and used that time to re-write their religious tradition and Story. The early Christians formed house-churches, in secret, away from Roman and pagan attentions, to write their Story and practice it.
The first “gift” the pandemic gave us was the commitment of Tripp, Becky and Rodger Williamson to organize a real production ‘studio’ in our fellowship hall, for weekly on-line worship broadcasting. Steve and Wendy Zwart joined in and a Tech Team was formed. Members of the Praise Team were summoned back, and Joel was enlisted from 11 AM worship, and without one week being lost, we had a rotating schedule of worship leadership and program being engineered to be sent out from our church, not only to our members, but to anyone with internet. The second “gift” was the beginning the one last goal I wished for before I left this appointment: tele-ministry! We already had the capabilities to tape our worship; now, with the purchase of new equipment, we could broadcast it on the internet. (This would be grandly realized with the Good Friday Service, April 2, 2021, teaming several preachers and musicians from our Ministerial Alliance churches, here in our fellowship hall, and streamed live to the community.)
We cut back our Sunday schedule to one service, only, with the Praise Band and Joel alternating Sundays, so that we had both contemporary and traditional offerings.
No live congregation, only the techs and musicians were our ‘live studio congregation’, and it became a close-knit, agreeable group, each week. We had a few scheduling snags to iron out, occasionally, as we adjusted to fit people’s routines; and we enlisted the participation of paid, professional musicians to join the program.
TECHNOLOGICAL OPPORTUNITIES /CHALLENGES
Fellowship Hall-as-studio meant that we could not accommodate other groups such as Red Cross, without plenty of advance warning, so that the tech equipment could be stored away – and then re-assembled for the next Sunday. But it was managed. Fortunately, all our church groups were not meeting, early on, so they did not contribute to scheduling needs.
I rather liked preaching in moccasins/slippers/jeans, since the camera was ‘waist-up’; I was very informal – no jacket or tie – even with the traditional services. The informality spoiled me.
Getting used to camera-awareness took practice, almost as much concentration as preaching. Watching each week’s production became my Monday morning routine, making notes about looking into the camera, speaking with my eyes-closed (thinking what I’m saying), keeping gestures to a minimum, pronunciation, and voice-inflection and modulation. I re-read a biography on Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood) – which contained a couple of chapters on how he prepared and performed for camera presentation.
It was all-new and something of a dream-come-true; we studied these kinds of churches in seminary, never dreaming this would be status-quo.
Fortunately, we were able to hire a new office administrator – Anna Moore – and her husband, David (youth ministries) just as our church was coming back-into-routine. Now that the youth were back, we needed a youth coordinator and children’s coordinator. The timing of all this was wonderful and miraculous – God-gifted.
Our church council was able to re-convene, in –person, so that the church’s business could continue, on May 21, 2020. But most of the church’s business –and a good deal of its financial giving — was still conducted on-line. Amazingly, our offerings actually improved during the pandemic.
Bishop Holston and our annual conference offices kept us apprised of the latest COVID protocols and guidelines for local churches; and they gave us the second Sunday in June, 2020, as the first day to re-open our sanctuaries, with all the appropriate restrictions in place, regarding social-distancing, masking, and sanitation.
Our Leadership Team – Worship, Trustees, Finance, Lay Leader, Tech Team chairpersons – met with other interested members, to devise the parameters of our re-opening; and we began the process of re-arranging our worship spaces to accommodate our regular two services, again, but in socially-distanced space. We managed to stay close to the conference guidelines, and made our own adaptations as the team felt safe to do.
Sanctuary pews were taped-off, every-other-one, but without hymnals and Bibles; the fellowship hall setting was rows of chairs, and no tables, so that people could safely-distance; collection plates were placed at main entrances to catch offerings coming and going. The 9 AM contemporary service took on some of its pre-COVID character, just socially-distanced. The coffee and breakfast snacks were not yet put back in the routine,
and the rows of tables were not put back, so that persons/families could maintain safe-distancing. The Praise Team was back-in-full, and congregational singing resumed, and the service seemed welcomely-familiar. The 11 AM traditional service had no singing except for soloists Joel provided at $100/person; and no choir – Joel and soloists did all the music. We did a single-page service order with hymn words to follow-along silently; the creeds were prompted by a simple leader/people “Do you believe in. . .?” and the response was a simple “I believe”. (This is the way the early Christians did it!) I even scrounged out my robe, so our 11 AM service seemed almost traditionally done-the-way-we-used-to.
All of the shifts, from one protocol to another, were handled by the Leadership Team and Worship Committee,
and we remained fairly close to the conference guidelines.
As of June, 2021, according to the latest conference guidelines (no longer called “protocols”), both worship spaces are back to pre-COVID conditions and arrangements, with row seating AND tables/chairs in the fellowship hall, and coffee and breakfast snacks; and bulletins, hymnals, Bibles and all-pews-open in the sanctuary. Joel has re-constituted the choir and bell choir. Collection plates are now passed, again; only Holy Communion remains ‘individualized’ in both services. Nurseries are now available for infants, again.
DISTRICT / CONFERENCE
Zooming has become the annual conference way of doing business, for now; we are growing close to the time of “letting go”, and getting back to in-person meetings, conferences, councils and missional programs. Fortunately, one-on-ones with the DS’s and other conference officers have been possible since the beginnings of vaccinations; but only now are we coming out from behind masks in certain situations.
Our 2021 annual conference was still an on-line occasion, and severely brief; I suspect it will be back in-person, in Florence, next summer.
We are back. God has brought us through, and with the steady march of our Leadership Team and conference guidelines leading the journey. It surely is good to see familiar faces, unmasked, up-close and personal, so that my time here can end back-to-normal.