Pastoring in a time of a pandemic

Faiths United Parish at Niobrara, like other churches throughout the country, has not held worship services for the past three weeks. While providing an online sermon isn’t something new for Pastor Martha Atkins, preparing it in an empty church is.

“Pastoring in a time of a pandemic is not a course offered at seminaries, at least not yet,” said Atkins. “Like my Protestant colleagues, this is all new and unfamiliar territory. With that said, we are equipped to lead through these uncharted times. We know we are. It’s the putting it all together in place and in a timely manner for those we are called to serve,” she said.

When the pandemic started here, the season of Lent was just getting underway. “Where to begin and how do we make it holy and honored in this time of separation” she pondered at that time.

The challenge she has faced, Atkins said, has been to connect with “all” of her congregation members.

In this age of technology, those who have internet, and cell phones, etc., are much more easily accessible through those means, allowing her to record her children’s Sunday School stories and worship services-that by the way could only last 23 minutes, 15 seconds, or so, she said., referring to recording capabilities. “That in itself is challenging,” she said. “Learning to be a YouTube presence is only a little terrifying,” she admitted, adding that she is thankful for her husband, Ron, who does all of the camera work and the downloading of all of the services and stands in as the “congregation,” in the church’s empty sanctuary.

“What troubles me most are my members who have no access to internet, who have no computers and who have no cell phones. Yes, there really are people who do not, cannot, or choose not to, have these luxuries,” she said. She admitted to losing sleep over wondering how she can make sure they are feeling included and not excluded.

“Yes, it would be nice if I could broadcast over a radio channel or on some local T.V. station, etc., but none of that is in my wheelhouse. So, I write. I write out our bulletins, our Lenten services, our hymns and anything else I hope they find holy and good and find inclusion in all of it,” she said. “I rely on our faithful mail carriers and our postal system to get this all to my much beloved members. Through phone calls and distant waving, I can at least still see they are alive and doing well. Okay, maybe they would be better with a little more chocolate!” she quips. “Are they feeling part of the whole, though we are separate? I pray they are.”

Atkins has been offering a children’s sermon online each week, as well, and lines up stuffed animals, to fill in for the children who aren’t able to attend worship services. “Something I, as well as my colleagues, are challenged with is communion,” Atkins explained. “We miss it so very much. We miss being the intercessory who offers the communion elements to our parishioners. We know our parishioners are also missing this beautiful sacrament. There is no such thing as ‘virtual communion,” she said. “Like everyone, we will all wait for that glorious Sunday when we are once again gathered together as a whole body of Christ, that the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, Communion will be that much more meaningful when we experience it together.”

Last Sunday was Palm Sunday, and it was not forgotten at Faiths United Parish. On Saturday, in keeping with social distancing rules, Atkins left palm leaves on the doorsteps of her parishioners, and left some at the church fellowship hall, for those who she wasn’t able to reach.

“After surviving Palm Sunday, we follow our Lord through Holy Week and celebrate the Easter of our Lord, the resurrection of our Lord,” she said.

“Remember your pastors in your prayers, as we most certainly hold you in our prayers,” she said. “We will continue to faithfully walk this beautiful, bizarre, life-changing experience together and we will celebrate in due time our reuniting of all of God’s children.”