Adaptability has been the key for pastors trying to serve and stay connected to their congregations during the pandemic.
By Jim Carlisle
The effect on life during the pandemic has been so pervasive, it has even shaken how we worship God.
But the need was seen as vital, and those in charge of campus ministry at Cal Lutheran and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary made sure it could still happen.
Chapel services and other events have continued to take place online during the past year at both campuses.
“As soon as the pandemic became a reality and we were going to be disallowed from gathering as a community, our office made a swift decision to become highly adaptable and that adaptability has served us well,” said university pastor the Rev. Scott Maxwell-Doherty ’76, MDiv ’81 (PLTS).
For many, coping with the coronavirus would have been unimaginable without the church.
“It’s not a moment, when trauma hits, for the church to shrink back and say, ‘We don’t know what the heck we’re doing, so we’re just going to wait and see what rolls out,’ ” Maxwell-Doherty said. “No, whether we’re right or wrong, we’re going to step to the front of the line and say we’re called to serve, we’re called to engage people, we’re called to meet with people. So we just kept the worshiping practice going week after week after week.”
In addition to Cal Lutheran’s Thursday chapel and Sunday night Lord of Life services, many other regular activities involving a number of religious groups have continued online. And, following chapel services at both Cal Lutheran and PLTS, participants are invited to stay logged in to chat and check in with each other.
“Those have been magnificent moments of how to engage with each other when there’s so much around us that’s uncertain and unstable,” Maxwell-Doherty said.
Cal Lutheran campus minister the Rev. Hazel Salazar-Davidson TEEM ’17 (PLTS) said when she is preparing a sermon that will be delivered in an empty chapel, she tries to envision some of those who will be hearing it.
“I create little Post-it notes,” she said. “I write their name, and I try to meditate on that for a minute, and then I begin my sermon-writing so that when I walk into the room, I’ve seen and visualized those people there and I want to speak to their hearts.”
Both schools have benefited from tech support as well as from student musicians, who have prerecorded hymns. Jessica Helms ’04, Cal Lutheran’s coordinator of chapel music, and administrative assistant Elizabeth Lohr-Myers added video technology tasks to their regular duties.
At PLTS in Berkeley, Eucharist has not been celebrated since services have gone online. But for Ash Wednesday, associate director of seminary relations Sara Wilson, MDiv ’13 (PLTS), who serves as pastor for worship, prepared ashes and invitation to Lent kits for Bay Area students. Similar arrangements were made at Cal Lutheran.
Wilson said the pandemic caused her to postpone her ordination service for five months. Then, after she planned to move it outdoors to a Lutheran camp, Northern California wildfires forced another change: indoors on Zoom and Facebook Live with only 12 attendees.
“When I had two days to replan my ordination, I got the experience of the PLTS and Cal Lutheran communities, my friends and bishops who rallied around me and honestly carried me through. It was my ‘Footprints in the Sand’ moment with Jesus.”
Wilson said seminary alumni now serving as pastors are enduring burnout, financial difficulties and other challenges. Some attendees lack internet access. PLTS and other ministries are offering congregations prerecorded worship services.
Even while trying to care for their flocks, the ministers are also trying to care for each other.
“To ask people how they are at the beginning of a staff meeting, it’s no longer the casual question where everybody usually says, ‘I’m fine,’ ” Maxwell-Doherty said. “We realize we can tend to the community better if we’re tending to our own spiritual economies around the staff table.”
But the pastors also expect to keep many of the virtual offerings in place. There are PLTS students in Russia and Lebanon who have joined worship through Zoom.
Salazar-Davidson said meeting virtually has helped people feel more involved.
“I hope that we can go back to life as normal, but life is not normal,” she said. “Life has people who have not been included and we didn’t even realize that we were excluding.”
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Jim Carlisle is a former sports columnist and reporter for the Ventura County Star. He has been the public address announcer for Cal Lutheran football since 2001 and lives in Simi Valley, California.