Reflections on Pandemic Ministry

by Rev. Marla Rotman

One of the things a person has to do to become a pastor is get over their fear of public speaking. I remember back to when I first began—the knees shaking, the sweaty palms, the dry mouth. And, at the time, the best advice out there was, “Imagine everyone in their underwear.” I don’t know about you, but that didn’t cut it for me. It took repetition and experience—things that can only come with time. Eventually, preaching on any given Sunday morning (and the occasional Wednesday night) became a comfortable, less frightening, more engaging place to be… 

Marla Rotman

Until March 2020 when the pandemic hit. Overnight, our church went from in-person encounters to online events. As a church leadership team, we had so many questions and fears floating around the room—how will people keep from feeling alone? How do we keep people engaged? What will happen to tithing? Will people give up on church? All of a sudden, a new stage-fright appeared. We were back to shaking knees and sweaty palms on a whole new platform—online video. How would we bridge the gap of being the church in the time of social distancing?

All of these questions were valid and required attention. So, we put our heads together, dusted off dormant technology skills and got to work creating a worship experience focused on keeping people connected from afar. The results were tremendous—the staff stepped up and created online worship that was interactive and engaging, and the church showed up and participated. Eighteen months later, when we had our first worship service in the building after the pandemic, it felt like people were just continuing to worship together, just this time in person instead of distanced. So many of the familiar faces donned the hallways and sanctuary, anxious to continue into the next season of what it means to be the “church.”

We learned, however, that having an online presence not only helped us stay connected across our church, it opened us up to reaching farther than we ever imagined. Our homebound members felt like they belonged again. Extended family of some of our members joined from states across the continent. Missionary families were able to participate from around the world. And new people, just out looking for a church to connect to, joined us for worship. Our family expanded, and it felt good.

Going forward, our plan at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Rochester, Minnesota is to continue to remember and include our newest family members from around the world by continuing to offer a custom-made online weekly worship experience. We decided against livestreaming to avoid communicating that people were missing out on a shared experience. We want to customize a worship space specifically for our community afar, to communicate that they belong, they are cared for and they are seen. Every week, we make sure the online service is interactive and invitational to ensure nobody feels alone or disconnected. We even have dedicated staff to focus on creating the best online experience we can offer.

The pandemic created a situation where we had to reimagine what church is and could be, and because of it, we became a better, more inclusive space. We’ve ironed out all our nervous jitters for now, but we don’t anticipate getting too comfortable. God is always on the move, and we are ready for whatever form church takes next. Who knows? Maybe the next time you see us with knocking knees and sweaty palms, it’ll be through hologram!

Rev. Marla Rotman serves at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Rochester, Minnesota

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