Pastors Reflect on Ministry and the Future of Church
In 2020, soon after identifying COVID-19, the northeast portion of the U.S. was inundated with positive cases and deaths. Pastors in the Atlantic Union Conference and its six conferences faced the challenges surrounding the coronavirus pandemic head-on while continuing to minister to their congregations, communities, and even their families.
Like the rest of the country, New England is dealing with a resurgence of coronavirus cases. However, according to the Mayo Clinic’s COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker, this region is still the most heavily vaccinated in the United States, and hospitalizations continue to decline. As our churches acclimate to a “new normal,” we wanted to ask a different set of front-line workers—our church pastors serving the six conferences in the Atlantic Union—what lessons they learned from this pandemic and how it impacted their ministries.
Einar Rom, pastor of the College Church in Lancaster, Massachusetts, replied, “Crisis can be a blessing in disguise. Frankly, we needed to intentionally rethink church. This is a pivotal moment in church history where we can look at what is meaningful and essential in church life: relationally, spiritually, financially, emotionally, and even administratively.”
The pandemic reminded John Livergood, pastor of four churches in the North Central New York District (Fulton, Ellisburg, Roosevelt, and Pulaski churches), that “God is in control, and all things are possible through Him.”
Donna Holland, pastor of the White Memorial church in Portland, Maine, echoed Livergood’s sentiment with an added testimony. “God is still at work during COVID! We had 17 baptisms/professions of faith in 2020 with lots more interests, and have 30 Bible studies going. I’ve learned to keep expecting big things!” she exclaimed. “A lot of our new interests are families, so we are trying to do more things for children and youth. We are also spending a lot more on our Good Listener Program for kids.”
Thomas Dombrowski, who pastors two churches in Connecticut: the Middletown-Portland church in Portland and the Three Angels church in Newington, expressed, “It’s not so much a lesson learned as much as a lesson reinforced—the idea that the church is the people, not a building.”
The coronavirus pandemic brought many unforeseen hurdles that the pastors had to navigate. “At our church, we had challenges with illness and death, which led to a lot of stagnancy and overall emotional heaviness. It also created distance, and because I was new in my church, [COVID-19] made it very difficult for me to continue forming relationships with many of my members,” said Nicardo Delahaye, pastor of Faith church in Hartford, Connecticut.
Ulric Hetsberger, pastor of the Midland Heights and St. David’s churches in Bermuda, shared a challenge COVID-19 has had on pastoral ministry. “While we as ministers are looking out for the ‘wolves’ who would come into the flock and lead members astray, COVID-19 is different in ways that I could not have imagined,” Hetsberger said. “With the plethora of misinformation disseminated freely and easily accessible, compounded by the politicizing of public health policies and the divisive nature of lockdowns, mask mandates, and social distancing, the pastor’s role had to take on the added responsibility of protecting the entire congregation’s health, many of whom have conflicting views of the pandemic. Additionally, confidentiality dictates that when a member reports their positive status to their pastor, they must keep the information private and mentally run through the families that could possibly be affected and make a [potentially] unpopular decision. This is what makes protection hard. Protection rises to the level of obsession with every positive case and each funeral. The last thing I want to hear is that someone came to our church, was infected [with COVID-19], and died.”
Churches embraced the use of technology more than ever as members worshiped from the safety and comfort of their own homes until it was safe to resume in-person worship. “The upside is that [COVID-19] placed me in a place of desperation, and in that desperation, I relied on creativity,” Delahaye added. His creativity sparked meaningful interactions online and via telephone, as well as several outdoor events that brought church members together while their physical campus was closed.
Creativity and commitment motivated Samuel Masih, who pastors two southern Asian congregations in the Greater New York Conference: Richmond Hill and New York. Although both Masih and his wife contracted COVID-19, they stayed committed to a weekly ministry of prayer and worship that they began on Zoom at the start of the pandemic. “We never gave up on our commitment and continued meetings over Zoom, vigorously praying with fellow believers. Praise be to God; both my wife and I recovered within a few days and testified about this miracle! We continued to worship via Zoom, and, as a result, six individuals decided to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. Four out of the six individuals converted from Hinduism and were baptized. COVID-19 might have impacted our physical access to a church building, but, truthfully, it opened up a church in every believer’s house.”
Holland also reports an uptick in Bible study interests during the pandemic with additional unexpected blessings. “Many are interested in our school, so I’ve been taking lots of families up to see the school and helping them with the enrollment process. . . . The school has had to buy a full-size bus to carry all the students from the church to the school. [Compare that to] two years ago—we only had about four students being taken to the school from our church.”
Maintaining personal connection, focusing on discipleship, increased prayer, and the necessity of the Holy Spirit also came to the forefront as these seven pastors reflected on the past months. Livergood adds, “We need to continue to do ministry in person and virtually, meet together for worship, and to encourage each other because our time on this earth is very short.”
“As a pastor, I believe we need to help our churches follow a disciple-making pattern of doing church, rather than a program-oriented model of doing church. COVID can shut your programming down, but it can’t shut down a church making disciples,” said Dombrowski.
“The tithes and offerings during this time have increased exponentially, allowing the opportunity to be a blessing to others,” said Livergood. “Having funding for ministry is great, but funds without the Holy Spirit are useless. One of the greatest changes my churches made is to be intentional in praying for our members, their children, grandchildren, and missing members. In 2020, [during] a Labor Day weekend campout, Diane Harrington said, ‘We need to pray for our children.’ A list was started, and, each Sabbath, members meet and pray for family members by name. God has been faithful. [We] have seen the Holy Spirit work on the hearts of our children and spouses. This ministry has spread to other churches, as well.”
As we move forward into an unknown future shaped by COVID-19, Rom reminds us, “Every person counts. We need a correct understanding of the biblical teaching of the body of Christ and to implement that in each local church.” He adds, “Livestream ministry is here to stay; the impact is strong and lasting. . . . Passing the offering plate may never return. Meet and greet moments are on hold. With more food safety concerns, fellowship dinners (or planned meals) are done. Online prayer meetings may be ongoing. [Yet], seeing a smiling face, or smiling eyes, is [still] more beautiful than ever.”