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Presbyterian co-pastors ‘fill the church’ with members’ photographs during livestreamed services

Worship, prayer — and yes, committee meetings — are all doable via videoconference

by Gregg Brekke for the Presbyterian Foundation | Special to the Presbyterian News Service

If people can’t join for in-person worship at First Presbyterian Church in Yorktown, New York, at least their pictures can. (Photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown)

JEFFERSONVILLE, Indiana — There’s no need to have an empty church on Sunday mornings, even in the midst of coronavirus social distancing directives.

Co-pastors Tami Seidel and Chip Low of First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown, New York, aren’t encouraging disobedience to stay-at-home orders. Rather, they’ve placed photos of church members in the pews for them to look out on as they offer livestreamed Sunday morning services from the church sanctuary.

Tami was inspired by a social media post from a Catholic priest who had done the same for his virtual services. The husband-and-wife team sent a note to congregation members two weeks ago requesting pictures and were able to “fill the pews” with many peoples’ printed images in their familiar places on Sunday, March 29.

“Even though people weren’t physically in the building, in some ways it was like everyone was present,” Seidel said. “Being able to look out on the church and see their photos was a really powerful experience. I knew it would be meaningful, but I wasn’t prepared for how much it meant for me to see them.”

Low agreed, adding the congregation responded quickly and creatively to the request for photographs. Some sent individual images, others with their family and pets. One couple even sent in a photo of themselves wearing their favorite Star Wars T-shirts. For those unable to take and send a picture quickly, a recent photo from the church directory was printed and put up.

Livestreaming already in place

As the church adjusts to ministry under the gathering restrictions put in place to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, Low and Seidel said they’re fortunate that the mechanism for broadcasting their services was already in place. Although March 22 was the first Sunday the church “met” without a congregation present in the sanctuary, it has been livestreaming services for more than two years.

But other ways of reaching out and being a faith community have changed. Visits to care centers and hospitals are no longer possible. Lenten Bible studies didn’t at the church. And the weekly connections made in church and during social times simply aren’t possible. Still, the co-pastors said the adaptations to these challenges have had a positive effect on church members, activating them in outreach and providing opportunities to serve in new ways.

“Our elders and deacons have each been assigned a neighborhood of other members to be in touch with,” Low said. “They call and check in on them — some are isolated or living alone. It’s about more than a check-in or seeing how people are doing. We are encouraging callers to have real and meaningful conversations, to spend some time and get to know the people they are calling.”

It’s also an opportunity to revive what some people saw as dated practices, like the prayer chain calling list, Seidel said.

“Of course, we want to know what people need — groceries, medicine, other errands or supplies,” she said. “But we also want to hear prayer requests and be able to keep track of how people are doing.”

To that end, the church has set up an online shared document where callers can enter these requests after each call. That enables the church to rally resources and consistently respond to physical and spiritual requests.

Although a very small group gathers to livestream Sunday morning services — including the co-pastors, a musician, and the technical director — they’re adhering to distancing practices even in this setting. For other church business, the congregation is utilizing Zoom to conduct online events.

“We haven’t missed a committee meeting yet,” Low said, chuckling. “The session and other groups are committed to continuing the ministry of this church during the shutdown and beyond by whatever means necessary.”

They both feel the church has an important role to play in continuing to provide these connections, and to offer hope, even as dire news dominates the headlines and people in their community are being affected by the coronavirus.

“We have several medical workers in our congregation — whether in hospitals or care facilities, or other first responders — who need our prayers, gratitude, and care right now,” Seidel said.

Drive-through palms

For many people, hope is in short supply at this time, Low said. But for church members and those he mentors in his private coaching practice, he believes working toward a common goal is an important part of providing hope and offering gratitude.

“There’s no telling how long this time of social distancing is going to last,” he said. “Having something constructive to focus on is going to help a lot of people get through this with a positive outlook. Not that there won’t be loss or grieving along the way, because that’s part of what is being felt right now. But having connections and a sense of purpose is a big help.”

Members and friends at First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown, New York, took communion virtually on April 5, the first Sunday of the month. They also collected no-touch palms that same Sunday. (Contributed photo)

The church observed virtual communion on Palm Sunday, keeping with its practice of communion on the first Sunday of each month and on special religious days. They also provided drive-thru touch-free pick up of communion elements and palms outside the church. These are just a few ways First Presbyterian Church of Yorktown is meeting the spiritual needs of its community.

“We’re going to continue doing the ministry we’re called to do,” Seidel said, reflecting on the photographs sitting in the pews and other ways of creating meaningful connections outside of church gatherings. “It’s going to look different, but God has called the church to serve its people in all seasons, and that’s what we’ll keep doing.”

Gregg Brekke is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, photographer and videographer. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation, at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.


Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

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