The Three Saints Parish is made up of three small town and rural congregations in central Illinois. The parish officially formed four years ago, when they called me to be their first pastor. Since this is also my first call, we have been figuring things out and learning together along the way. My previous vocation was in education as a special educator and school counselor. Therefore, I came with the skills to make plans, along with enough wisdom to know that it is usually best to write those plans in pencil! Little did I know upon arriving to share ministry with Jesus’ disciples in the Three Saints Parish, just how flexible we would be called to be!
Creating a shared parish life
Pre-pandemic, we had settled into a nice pattern of worship, thanks to our team of regular preaching ministers. I would be at one or two congregations each Sunday morning, and one of the preaching ministers would lead worship and preside at the other church(es). This arrangement was especially helpful in the beginning because it provided a sense of stability and eased the transition into our shared parish life. After a couple of years together, the pattern became quite comfortable for almost everyone—for almost everyone but the pastor, that is. I was exhausted.
The parish leaders have worried from the beginning that one pastor for three congregations might be a recipe for burnout, especially if the pastor is not given adequate support. Therefore, last spring we were just getting ready to engage in serious conversation about the direction of our ministries together and how best to allocate our resources. We scheduled a joint meeting for all three congregational councils, and then the pandemic hit; the meeting was put on hold.
Pandemic successes for the “parish identity”
When the shelter-in-place order began in Illinois, I asked a few people to attend an online prayer meeting, so we could experiment with Zoom. It was super easy, so I hastily set up a Zoom meeting for worship the following Sunday, sent out the link and the instructions via email, and we were off! I was surprised and delighted that 37 people worshiped together that first Sunday, most of whom were senior citizens with little technology expertise. After worship, I received text after text.
“That Zoom is great!”
“We can use the same thing in the winter instead of cancelling worship for bad weather.”
“I can’t believe how easy that was.”
“Thank you for putting this together for us.”
What we initially thought would be a few weeks of Zoom worship turned into an entire year. The technical aspects of worship improved as I learned how to tweak sound, create videos, and incorporate the gifts of the community into our services. We maintained an average attendance of about 50 worshipers, and we even had some new faces join us. We also used Zoom for council meetings, Bible studies, and catechism classes.
Even though we missed gathering in person, Zoom served as the platform for numerous blessings from God. It held us together as a community throughout the pandemic. In fact, I think it made our parish identity stronger, because members of all three congregations were worshiping together every week, not just for occasional “special” services.
- There were people who logged on early every week so they could enjoy fellowship before worship.
- Likewise, some of our members whose health concerns had previously made it impossible for them to worship regularly were able to worship every week for the first time in years.
- Zoom worship offered me the opportunity to introduce some new and different music and liturgies.
- And Zoom reminded all of us that worship is possible apart from our church buildings.
Just as work and school life merged with home life during the pandemic, church life did too. And isn’t that how it ought to be? Isn’t it good and healthy to “take our faith home” with us?
Tough stories too
Still, the pandemic was hard on our little parish. We had several funerals along the way—three of them because of COVID. And of course, not everyone was interested in or able to worship via Zoom. Even though we did what we could to stay connected with those who were not digitally connected, we fear that some will not return. Our financial outlook, along with our aging and shrinking congregations and communities, present us with even greater challenges than they did before the pandemic.
Even challenges like funerals, though, caused us to rethink how we might connect for worship. We live-streamed a couple funeral services for relatives and friends who were not able to attend because of COVID restrictions. This experience got our parish leaders thinking that live-streaming might allow us to use our resources more wisely. So, on Easter Sunday, we rolled out a new worship schedule, a combination of live streamed and in-person worship opportunities. The new schedule also includes an in-person service at 11:00 AM every Wednesday at one of the church buildings; we are hoping to make this service into an outreach to seniors who would like to worship and share a free community meal.
In the meantime, we watch, we wait, we wrestle, and we try not to worry too much. We know that we are not alone, that countless congregations and parishes are also watching, waiting, wrestling, and trying not to worry. New things are hard, and we have had to adjust to so many new things in the past year. The “new normal” is likely to require us to continue to adapt. We may not know where God is leading us, but we do know this: we can trust that we will end up exactly where we started—in the arms of Jesus.