My journal entry from January 1, 2020 read, “Thank you, God, for a new year – and all of the opportunities it offers. Opportunities about which I know nothing. Challenges that lie before me. I’m glad I don’t know the challenges or the risks, but I know there will be many. How I respond to them is the act of faith….”
I could not possibly have imagined how prophetic those words would become as the world was plunged into the COVID-19 pandemic. There have been challenges and risks in abundance; there have also been opportunities beyond numbering. How we, as the church, have responded has become the act of faith and the witness of God’s guidance and grace. How did the church respond?
During the week of March 9, as news of COVID spread, I spoke with the province’s IT Manager and said, “Whatever else you have been working on, stop now and begin doing whatever it takes to prepare our staff to work from home.” That Friday, March 13, the staff at 1021 Center St. did a “practice” work-from-home so that we would be ready in case we had to close the office. We have not yet returned 100% to the building as of October 1.
That same week, Justin Rabbach and Dan Miller, founders of Moravian Church Without Walls, asked if I would preach on March 15, via Zoom, as the world started shutting down and staying at home. That first worship service was a bit rough around the edges; its very imperfection was a gift to pastors and leaders who were emboldened to take a risk and give Zoom worship a try.
Since that week, I have watched every corner of the church respond to challenges with courage, creativity and faith. The provincial staff, using their personal computers, learned how to work from home and continue to serve the wider church. The Interprovincial Board of Communication began making resources available online, as they researched every possible liturgy and hymn that was not copyright protected. The Board of World Mission made $200 grants available to any congregation who applied; many used the funds to purchase Zoom accounts or buy extra paper and stamps to communicate more thoroughly with parishioners.
The Moravian Music Foundation curated resources that they could make available for online sharing – videos of music performances and hymns they could generate digitally. Over the course of one weekend, the Moravian Ministries Foundation in America made their online giving portal available to every congregation in the US so that parishioners could continue to support their congregations while staying at home – without charging a user-fee.
The Northern Province Archives began collecting communications and material that would record for future historians how the church responded to the 2020 pandemic. The Provincial Elders’ Conference met weekly to pray for our pastors and churches and to review health and government guidelines to offer recommendations and resources to congregations.
We made the what-seemed-impossible at-the-time decision to urge congregations to cease in-person worship. In just four days, bishops and PEC prayerfully discerned that allowing for virtual Holy Communion, something that would have been unimaginable before COVID, would build up the Body of Christ. People more knowledgeable about Zoom, Facebook Live, and YouTube helped others figure out new communication platforms. We offered three opportunities a week for clergy to gather on Zoom, for spiritual conversation offered by Moravian clergy spiritual directors, along with Bible Study or updates and fellowship time. In each case, clergy gathered together with colleagues who were geographically distant but became spiritually closer.
Pastors and congregational leaders prayerfully made difficult decisions to close their buildings while keeping the ministry of their churches open—and even expanding opportunities for worship, outreach and direct help for neighbors. Pastors and musicians offered daily meditations from home – not afraid to try new things and not afraid to be less-than-perfect.
As weeks turned into months, attendance increased through online worship. Pastors preached from pulpits to empty pews but full communities of faith. Sunday worship offered by Moravian Church Without Walls traveled throughout both provinces, exposing all of us to preachers and worship spaces that were beyond geographical reach to most of us. Slowly, plans evolved for gatherings in person – in parking lots with FM transmitters, on church lawns, with masked soloists, drop-off boxes for offerings, and bring-your-own lawn chairs. Trustees purchased hand sanitizer, removed Bibles and Hymnals from pews and created distanced seating for safe-sanctuary worship. Pastors are already working together to plan for Advent and Christmas. Meetings are being held, workshops are being offered, opportunities are available to folks who would not have been able to travel to an event held in person. The church continues to proclaim the Gospel in new and incredibly creative ways.
The challenges brought opportunities that few of us would have experienced without the crisis of COVID. The words from my journal entry are being lived out by all of us – offering our gifts for the sake of the world. If we change the pronouns in my journal entry from singular to plural, it becomes both a prayer and a witness: “Thank you, God, for a new year – and all of the opportunities it offers. Opportunities about which we know nothing. Challenges that lie before us. We’re glad we don’t know the challenges or the risks, but we know there will be many. How we respond to them is the act of faith….”
The church will continue to face challenges and risks. The church will continue to discover opportunities in the midst of those challenges. The church will continue to respond with faith – to bless God’s world. Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Dr. Betsy Miller is president of the Provincial Elders’ Conference, Moravian Church Northern Province.