Virtual Comfort

Josh Tate considers himself an introvert. As such, self-quarantine doesn’t strike him as too bad. There’s a part of him that really doesn’t mind being in isolation. But he is also what he calls a “professional extrovert.” Tate is a pastor at State Road Advent Christian Church in Mapleton, Maine. “I think being a pastor is irreducibly relational,” Tate says.

Rapid policy changes in response to COVID-19 have caused upheaval in most sectors of life. Churches and other houses of worship find themselves in particularly strange circumstances.

State Road held its last normal Sunday service on March 15. During the service, Tate told worshippers that the church planned to keep meeting. By the middle of the next week, however, plans had totally changed. State Road canceled all church meetings.

Dale Charles is co-pastor of Ignite Church of Lancaster in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Ignite Church is a small, urban congregation. Charles described a similar change of plans. “When the coronavirus started coming, we decided we were going to have church anyway,” Charles said. “The next Sunday, we had double attendance because of other churches shutting down.” Charles hadn’t expected that surge. By the next Sunday, they too had canceled services.

Dale Charles at his new pulpit.

Many churches have started to livestream their services. Ignite Church worshippers have met via YouTube Live. The technology was glitchy at times. Lags and pauses complicated their simple Bible study. Charles wasn’t very happy with the setup.

State Road is much larger than Ignite Church. State Road has more resources available. The church recently spent around $2,000 to improve its streaming setup.

Sunday services are only a small part of church life. Pastoral visitation cannot continue. Children’s clubs are canceled. Pastors cannot meet with people they are advising. Church buildings sit empty. In times of upheaval, many people seek help from the church. In this situation, they can’t. At least, they can’t do it in traditional ways.

Charles has started calling and texting his church members regularly. It hasn’t been an easy adjustment for him, but he wants to keep checking in. He feels that he hasn’t cultivated online relationships very well in the past. He is trying to quickly strengthen his digital communication skills. “I’ve tended to see technology as a business tool, and not great for relationships,” Charles said. He’s trying to be more personable in texts and calls.

Tate has joined Facebook. He is using his statuses and posts to stay connected with his church members. He is doing much more phone conversation than before. In the absence of children’s clubs, he is using Facebook to encourage parents to fill these roles with their children. Tate sees these measures as ways to tide the congregation over. He looks forward to seeing his parishioners in person again. “My job is to be in relationships with people,” Tate said. “That’s made very difficult by isolation.”

Tate’s job itself is in an unusual position. “I want to work hard and earn my living – and I can’t do my job,” Tate said. As a full-time pastor, he has nothing else to fall back on. Tate has encouraged church members to consider redirecting their usual giving to needy members of the community instead of to the church. State Road also continues to employ its janitors. They now clean the empty building.

As co-pastor of a small church, Charles also works as an auto mechanic to support himself. This business is considered essential, but it has slowed down. Charles hopes to take this extra time to connect one-on-one with his church members.

Both pastors see hope in the situation. Charles senses a new thoughtfulness in his city. He hopes that he can use his extra time to help people. And even in uncertain times, Tate feels support by his community. “I think people are extending a lot of grace because of the current situation,” he said. It is the hope of both pastors that they can still bless their communities. They believe there is a purpose even in this crisis. All we have to do is find it.