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A new day for the connectional church


How a virus is strengthening collegiality

By Mike Givler | Presbyterians Today

Jeff Jolly performs in front of technical crew Thomas Loyd (filming) and Seth Finch (in back) for Santa Fe Presbytery’s online worship video. Courtesy of Santa Fe Presbytery

Upon this rock I will build my church. That’s the first reference to “church” in the Bible, when Jesus declared this in Matthew 16. It’s been a year since congregations have had to rebuild or reinvent church on a new “rock,” as the coronavirus pandemic that forced them in March 2020 to shut sanctuary doors led to new avenues for online or outdoor worship, all in an effort to keep parishioners at home and healthy. While this has been an anxious and stressful time, it also has been a fruitful one — paving the way for new partnerships among ministers and congregations who, being Presbyterian, have always heard of the value of being a “connectional” church, but never fully embraced it.

“The work to plan everything [online] has become an opportunity to support one another,” said the Rev. Seth Finch, who is part of a cohort group in the Presbytery of Santa Fe that creates weekly online services that are shared throughout the region. “I don’t think I personally could have made it through this challenging time without these other leaders who have jumped in and helped.”

Leaning on others for respite

Finch, the pastor at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is the technical wizard behind the production of the weekly services. Each service involves church leaders from as many as a dozen congregations supplying different elements of the service, including Scripture readings in both Spanish and English. Some of the elements are recorded, but there are live videos that are part of the worship as well.

“For a good portion of our churches, this is their service from week to week,” said Finch. “Making this online service available has made it so that church leaders don’t have to be on every week and can take a breath between weeks to keep everyone a little saner through all of this.” Finch added that such a service was important because “some of our churches were prepared for this time of pandemic —  they had the technology, they had the people who are trained to do video editing and recording — and many of our churches weren’t.”

Like Covenant Presbyterian, close to two dozen churches use this collaborative worship as their weekly online service. But these churches aren’t just in the boundaries of Santa Fe Presbytery. There’s a congregation in Honduras where mission co-worker Dori Hjalmarson, who also takes part in the collaborative effort, is serving. The worship is livestreamed through YouTube, thus allowing for live chats and prayer requests to be seen. Individual congregations then share that feed through their Facebook pages or other electronic means. As many as 200 people watch the services live, and that number grows throughout the day and following week. “There are some really good collegial relationships between the pastors in this presbytery,” Finch said. “We’ve had a lot of fun over the years, but this was really a time to take it to the next level.”

On World Communion Sunday in October 2020, the Santa Fe cohort connected with clergy they knew globally, resulting in a service that included 20 different languages representing every continent but Antarctica. “We pulled in voices from the global church,” Finch said. “What has been exciting is this pandemic has allowed us to do things we could have never done before. It’s given us the opportunity to seriously work together in ways none of us could have ever imagined. Not one of us could have pulled this off on our own.”

Finch runs the weekly services through his church building. The live elements are broadcast from Covenant Presbyterian, and the recorded parts like the sermons are typically recorded in the specific pastor’s sanctuary so that it gives a “home” feel to those in that congregation who are watching. “The service looks so different from week to week depending on which pastor is preaching, depending on which congregation is doing music,” Finch said. “It’s given people different tastes of what church can be like. One of the gifts of this presbytery is that we have very multicultural churches. It really broadens a lot of our lay folks’ horizons to be able to see so many different ways of being church together.”

‘A silver lining of the pandemic’

In Heartland Presbytery, which has offices in Kansas City, Missouri, five pastors have combined efforts to do a handful of every-other-month, prerecorded services that are shared throughout the presbytery. Merging five different personalities and worship styles into one service might seem like a chore, but there’s a common bond among the group that allows things to flow smoothly.

“We’re not identical in theological perspectives, but we understand the importance of diversity and the value that each of us brings to our conversations. And there’s a degree of humility in front of one another,” said the Rev. Jason Carle, the pastor at Overland Park Presbyterian Church in Kansas.

The Rev. Rachel Dannar, pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Atchison, Kans., left, and the Rev. Nikki Cooley, pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Liberty, Mo., share communion online. Courtesy of Heartland Presbytery

The Rev. Rachel Dannar, pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Atchison, Kansas, added, “We have very open and honest ideas before we film anything. I don’t think we’ve fought for anything or had to grouse over anything. The dialog works.”

In fact, the actual planning and executing of the digital worship service has been as meaningful as the final product. “It seems when we film there are moments when I need affirmation that I’m not the only one emotionally and pastorally going through the garbage that I’m going through right now,” said the Rev. Scott Phillips, the pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, Missouri. “It seems like the Holy Spirit has brought us together at times when I really need a sense of collegial connection.” This collegiality is evident in the service that is created and shared throughout the region.

“I have gotten comments that it’s clear that we trust one another and know each other well, so that we can have this conversation,” said the Rev. Nikki Cooley, the pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Liberty, Missouri.

“The congregations mostly seem to enjoy it,” added the Rev. Elizabeth Meador, pastor at Blue Ridge Presbyterian Church in Raytown, Missouri. “We emphasize it as a silver lining of the pandemic that we get to gather on a Sunday morning as five churches from pretty different areas of Kansas City in a way that we wouldn’t be able to. We get to enjoy each other’s musicians and each other’s preachers. They [the congregations] seem to really like the smorgasbord of worship opportunities they get in just one service.”

This sentiment is not only felt by the congregations who have leaders constructing the service, but also by the other congregations in the presbytery that broadcasts the service. “It’s been great to not feel as distanced physically and geographically and to find that this experience really has brought our presbytery and our people together,” Dannar said. “It really has become a collegial experience throughout the presbytery and the synod that we can be a part of and that has been really spiritually helpful and filling in its own way.”

Slowly coming together

While the Heartland Presbytery clergy co-op has been running smoothly since day one of the pandemic, in another part of the country, it has taken a little longer for the collegiality of pastors to form. The Rev. Sarah Bigwood is the pastor at Southampton Presbyterian Church on the east end of Long Island, New York. When she approached other neighboring pastors about working together to create online services, there wasn’t a lot of energy behind the idea. “I’m not sure if that was because they were so overwhelmed and tired, and thinking of something new was just too much,” she said.

Forty voices from around the country make up a virtual choir that is shared regularly by the Rev. Sarah Bigwood with her congregation at Southampton Presbyterian Church in Long Island, N.Y. Sarah Bigwood

Bigwood had an aspiration to create an online choir using the 10 members of her own church group for Southampton’s online worship services. Bigwood’s idea, though, was met with some apprehension. That didn’t stop her. She continued looking for ecumenical partners elsewhere, turning to a Facebook group she is a member of that includes clergy of different denominations from around the country. When the idea of a collaborative service was floated among them and was met with an overwhelming response, she chimed in and asked about a virtual choir. She received positive reactions, and soon Bigwood had the groundwork for something that had been missing in her services.

“In the midst of crisis and chaos, we need to sing. That is one of the ways we can restore our souls,” said Bigwood, adding, “I didn’t realize how much I missed the singing.”

It was the first Sunday of Advent 2020 that Bigwood introduced the online choir to her congregation through a sermon that she preached on Mary’s “Song of Praise,” known also as “The Magnificat.” When members of the Southampton choir saw how well the production turned out, several of them decided to join in. “They fell in love with this choir,” Bigwood said of her congregants. “The congregation has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It was a whole level of technology that they weren’t going to be able to control or understand,” she said, explaining the original hesitation among her own choir members to joining the virtual production.

Bigwood now has about 40 voices from churches all across the country to work with. She collects the soundtracks and pieces them together weekly. It takes roughly 24 hours to create a single five-minute hymn, she says. That may sound incredibly labor intensive to some, but not for Bigwood. “Every minute I spend on it is a lovely minute,” she said. “It’s almost been therapeutic for me because you get to interact with these people and their voices. You get to create something whole from something that comes to you in pieces. It feels like you are actually putting things together in the midst of all of the stuff that’s been torn apart. In some way, I’m connecting with it spiritually. It has really been a balm for my soul.”

‘A further step from normalcy’

While coming together to help one another worship digitally has been a balm for pastors like Bigwood, for others it has been yet another reminder for their congregations that returning to pre-COVID-19 days is becoming more elusive. At Grace Presbyterian Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the congregation jumped on board early in the COVID-19 crisis with a shared online worship service that also included a nearby Presbyterian church and a Disciples of Christ church. The pastors worked together for two months on the weekly collaborative services, rotating responsibilities of creating the elements of the service.

“This not only took some [worship planning] weight off of our shoulders, but also gave us an opportunity to chat about things and support each other,” said the Rev. Robert Brown, pastor of Grace Presbyterian. “I had a lot of positive feedback towards the beginning from my congregation about how it was nice to see additional people and get some different perspectives.” But soon Grace decided this joint service wasn’t the right formula for them.

“We felt like we needed to speak personally to our congregations and some things we were used to were being lost,” said Brown. After a couple of months, the Grace Presbyterian congregation was “less hip,” says Brown, on doing things together. Soon the joint worshiping stopped. The pastors, though, came together again for the 2020 Advent and Christmas seasons.

“Before the pandemic, one of the things the congregation was actively working on was to be physically incarnate with our neighbors and one another,” Brown said. “Then all of a sudden, we lost our worship service, Easter egg hunt, then eventually our Halloween event and all of our fellowship events with one another. They just wanted some normalcy back. The collegiality had been wonderful, but it ultimately fell apart because it was a further step from normalcy.”

Treasure your differences

Apprehension to collaborative work is something the Rev. Cyndi Wunder, pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Lodi, Wisconsin, has experienced during her time in church leadership in different parts of the country — and not just during a pandemic. “The biggest fear I’ve seen is that our congregants will shift their allegiance,” she said. “I was once told by a southern Black Baptist minister near Jasper, Texas, that, ‘We don’t use hymnals in worship. We teach our congregants what we want them to sing, and that way they won’t be able to move easily from one church to another.’ While this was tongue-in-cheek I’m sure, it points to the fear that if we expose our congregants to someone else’s lively worship, great preaching, etc., they might leave.”

Ownership is another question that is raised when congregations work together. Wunder has seen this in joint program ministry, especially with youth, as questions such as “Who ‘owns’ the program?” and “Who is in charge?” are asked.

“I’ve always enjoyed working with youth and would always go with them when we would be doing youth projects at another congregation. Sometimes this was perceived as my imposing a leadership role on their activities,” she said. However, learning from the “outside voice” of a different leader who might even be from a different denomination can also have a positive effect.

“Our mission, to the local community especially, is deeply enhanced and strengthened when we coordinate with one another. My experience is more of a, ‘We can do so much more and be more effective when we work together,’” said Wunder. “I firmly believe our Christian witness is strengthened when we are able to work together across denominational lines, not homogenizing ourselves in order to fit in, but treasuring our differences.”

Mike Givler is the communications coordinator for the Synod of the Trinity.

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