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The coronavirus and its implications for PC(USA) ministry

Nearly 1,100 congregations and mid councils discuss both challenges and surprises

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Before the pandemic, Presbyterian Mission Agency Board members discussed the Seven Marks of Vital Congregations around their tables. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LOUISVILLE — An April survey by Research Services of nearly 1,100 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregations and mid councils revealed some surprising responses on how they’re dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Eighty-four percent did not offer online programming before the crisis.
  • Seventy-eight percent of congregations reported a decline in giving. Thirteen percent said giving had essentially ceased. More than half said finances “will be tight but we can manage.”
  • Ninety percent of congregations felt supported by their mid council leader.
  • Congregations have been innovating during the crisis. Some have created porch ministries, delivering food and other necessities to home-bound seniors. Others partner with like-minded organizations, using the church kitchen together to prepare food for people in need. Many have established wash stations in their parking lots, while others have coordinated childcare for the families of first responders or partnered with hospitals to use church facilities for testing, patient care — even for overflow beds.
  • Some of the responses are heartbreaking. “Our elderly are frightened and lonely,” one pastor wrote. “It takes me hours just to make a few phone ‘visits’ because people are so stressed and hungry for connection.” Said another: “The aftermath of this time will be a burden on pastors and presbyteries who are already doing some heavy lifting now. The backlog of memorial services and face-to-face visits, plus the churches that will not be able to stay open, will create a lot of long-term work for leadership. Please be prepared to help pastors and presbytery staff share this coming burden, have resources for self-care and renewal, and receive adequate support and flexibility for the different circumstances.” A third wrote this: “As terrible as this is, I already see a tremendous benefit: families (are) spending time together. Creative energy (is) being poured into (the) worship experience BY LAITY!!”

Meeting via Zoom Thursday, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board viewed this survey and heard brief reports from members of the national staff about how ministry is being done during the pandemic.

“We are definitely adapting daily,” said the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency. While taking solace in Paul’s assurance that “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose,” Moffett also said that “this virus will impact us for years to come.”

Sara Lisherness, director of Compassion, Peace & Justice and interim director of World Mission, discussed some of the recent behind-the-scenes work required to return the mission co-workers back to the United States who elected not to shelter in place. That work included several letters from Moffett to Sam Brownback, the United States Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, and other communications with U.S. embassy personnel.

The associate director of Racial Equity and Women’s Intercultural Ministries, the Rev. Amy Mendez, said the ministry is working to aid in translating COVID-19 resources into languages including Spanish, Arabic and Mandarin. It’s also helping congregations of color to access grants targeted at supporting ministry during the pandemic.

“A joyful surprise has been to see how creative constituents have been putting worship services together, and how communities are helping their neighbors,” she said. “We ask for prayers, because people of color and churches are being hit tremendously.”

Moffett said getting materials translated in a timely way has been difficult, mainly owing to staffing considerations.

“If we are going to be a diverse church, we have to think about how we communicate,” she said.

The Rev. Kevin Johnson, a member of the PMA Board and a pastor from Detroit, said a challenge moving forward will be “having conversations with impacted communities. I’m sure everyone’s thinking about that … It will be critical and devastating, losing vital and vibrant leadership, the pillars of congregational life … I think we can challenge one another to take personal responsibility and ownership and not count on anybody else to pick up the slack.”

Beginning at 10 a.m. Friday, the board will hear and vote on committee reports. At 11 a.m., they’ll listen to a presentation on the Stony Point Center Feasibility Study Report before adjourning at about noon.

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