Pastoring in a pandemic: Ways to care for your church and yourself

April 3, 2020 by Sally Scherer

Editor’s note: Lee Hinson-Hasty will be in conversation on Wednesday, April 8, at 1 p.m. Eastern with Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Bullock, President of the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. Mark your calendar and visit the Theological Education Fund page to watch. The topic will be Leadership in a Pandemic. 

Church doors – usually open wide during this season of Lent and Easter – are now closed and locked and signs are posted, requesting people not enter.

The coronavirus pandemic has turned the world upside down, separating friends, families and faith communities. Social distancing is the new normal and church congregations are apart.

How do we worship when we can’t be together? How do we fellowship? How do we minister? How can we offer pastoral care?

The Revs. Beth Merrill and Gregg Neel, who co-pastor at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon, shared some ideas on a recent Facebook Live interview with the Rev. Dr. Lee Hinson-Hasty, senior director of the Theological Education Fund at the Presbyterian Foundation.

Virtual worship, prayer

The couple has reached out to its congregation in several ways. Each day at noon (Pacific Time), the Rev. Beth Merrill Neel offers daily prayers on the church’s Facebook page, though Facebook Live.

The response she received to the Monday through Saturday prayers is, “kind of overwhelming,” she said.

“As people join in and they comment, ‘so and so is here, and so and so is here,’” she said about viewers being able to see others join in the live daily prayer broadcast, “it’s like, oh, my gosh, the church is still out there.”

The church is offering virtual worship – mainly with iMovie – as well. With the help of their 14-year-old daughter, who the Neels say is serving as their technology consultant, they are producing 15 to 20-minute worship videos for the church’s website. Members of the congregation are videoed reading parts of the liturgy to allow members to see each other and not just the ministers.

A Facebook Live service each week at 10:30 a.m. Pacific time includes announcements, scripture, a sermon and prayers. The order of worship is available on the church’s website with links to the music the choir and organist would have been performing.

The shorter-than-a-normal worship service videos are getting good feedback, said the Rev. Gregg Neel, referencing what he calls the “Ted Talk model” where most videos are 18 minutes.

For those in the congregation without Internet access or savvy, a copy of the sermon manuscript and announcement are mailed on Mondays.

Pastoral needs

When it comes to meeting other pastoral needs, deacons and those with Stephen Ministers are calling church members using the church directory as a guide.

“They have stepped up in a way that is stunning,” she said.

Rev. Gregg Neel

“They are calling folks, checking in on them, finding out who wants to be called every week, every two weeks, doesn’t need another call, who needs pastoral follow up,” she said. “People have really appreciated getting that call.”

Ministers are sharing the information and prayer concerns from those calls.

“No matter the size church, someone in the congregation loves to talk on the phone,” the Rev. Gregg Neel said. “There are ways for us to use each other’s gifts. Its’ good for us to watch others give that good care. Or at least hear about it.”

Though they are no longer making hospital visits, they are in touch with chaplains at local hospitals who can visit with hospitalized members.

“We’re trying to model not going into hospitals and nursing homes and things like that,” the Rev. Gregg Neel said.

“For their sake and ours we’re not doing that, and that’s hard,” the Rev. Beth Neel added.

Administrative needs

Administrative matters of the church are being handled in two ways.

The church has created an administrative commission made up of the minsters, the treasurer, clerk of session and some elders who are making decisions about financial matters. The session has given them authority to do that. One person is in the office each day to get mail. They have staff meetings via Zoom.

The Rev. Gregg Neel has spent time recently writing thank you notes to those in the congregation who have recently made stewardship contributions.

“Find out who has given in the last month and send them a thank you. It’s worth, as a pastor, to reach out and say thank you,” he said.

While caring for their church is in the forefront of the Neel’s minds, they are not forgetting to care for themselves. Their self-care includes being prayer, rest, exercise and being creative. The Rev. Beth Merrill Neel is an artist and has a blog – Hold Fast to What is Good.”

Along with their daughter, they are watching “comfort” television shows and movies such as “The British Baking Show” “Jojo Rabbit” and “Knives Out.”

One last suggestion from the couple: While congregational members may make a lot of suggestions about what the ministers/staff of the church can or should be doing, “It’s OK to say no,” said the Rev. Beth Merill Neel.

Sally Scherer is a writer and communications consultant based in Lexington, Kentucky. She is a member of Second Presbyterian Church, where she is an elder and a member of the choir. Send comments on this article to Robyn Davis Sekula, Vice President of Communications and Marketing at the Presbyterian Foundation, at robyn.sekula@presbyterianfoundation.org.