Meeting a moment in history with innovation, finding blessings

Since March, the entire world has been in a state of flux as the Coronavirus pandemic has ravaged physical bodies, economies, and our mental and spiritual health. On top of that, our nation is coping with natural disasters and a cultural/political moment fraught with division and polarization. Eight months into the crisis, we wanted to know how pastors are holding up, and what God is doing in this moment.

A few of our alumni and friends were pastoring churches in hard-hit areas at the start of the pandemic. The first major COVID-19 outbreak in the United States was in Kirkland, WA in a nursing home very close to the church led by Rev. Dan Claus ‘14. “At the classis meeting in early March, we all decided to shut down for two weeks, thinking we were being aggressive,” he recalls. “By the time two weeks were up, the country was shut down.”

Across the country in Queens, NY, Rev. Thomas Goodhart ‘02 says one of the hardest parts was hearing the constant ambulance sirens in March and April. “We only lost one member to COVID,” he shares. “We have had others who came down with the illness. Every person in my congregation knows someone who has died. Some of us know multiple people.”

For many months while delivering sermons online, Rev. Tom Goodhart had only his dog to keep him company in the sanctuary.

Revs. Ellen ‘19 and Aric Balk ’19 had just received their first call to Parkway Community Church on Long Island three months before the shutdown. Before the Balks even had time to get to know their congregation, they were transitioning everything online and leading through a major crisis.

“Any time there is new leadership, there’s added anxiety and fear of change; that’s just a reality,” Rev. Ellen says, “but this year, everything had to change drastically, and not by choice.”

“At the height of the pandemic here, local hospitals were having to bring in refrigerator trucks to store bodies because the morgues could not keep up,” Rev. Aric says. “We were seeing videos on the news of mass graves being dug less than 20 miles from us.”

On top of the pandemic, some areas were also hit by natural disasters. The church Rev. Alissa Davis ’15 leads in Midland, MI became emergency housing for people displaced by a devastating flood caused by heavy rains and two failed dams in May.

“We had people hauling soggy possessions out of houses, making hundreds of meals, and picking up groceries to deliver to people without power or kitchens,” she recalls. “For a moment, COVID-19 wasn’t much on our minds.”

In Ripon, CA, distance-learning M.Div. students Pastor Brett Dood and Pastor Phil Krygsheld had to make difficult decisions around whether it would be safer for Calvary Reformed Church to worship inside or outside because the air quality was the worst in the world due to smoke from wildfires.

Despite all these challenges and more, pastors are meeting this moment with innovation and even seeing some unexpected blessings come out of it.

WTS board member Rev. Cora Taitt says that an elder at her church in the Bronx told her the church is more connected than it’s ever been before. In addition to services on Zoom and a weekly prayer meeting by conference call, the congregation has a Saturday prayer/conversation time that Rev. Taitt says “has been almost like a support group.” She encourages her racially diverse congregation to be open and honest about their feelings surrounding recent racial tensions and other issues.

“This is a good time to be the church,” she contends. “We’re called to be peacemakers, we have hope—we can offer that.”

Like many churches, BLVD Church in Holland, MI met outside during the summer months.

Rev. Ben Aguilera ‘15 is the pastor of BLVD Church, a two-year-old church plant in Holland, MI that has seen its leadership team step up in new and inspiring ways. They now have 85 people in online discipleship groups, and the church has rallied around practical needs in their community, serving over 3,000 meals with Holland Public Schools and partnering with a local organization to provide PPE kits to immigrant families working as essential workers in the fields and factories.

Many pastors have noted that Zoom and other online platforms are reaching a larger audience than they had ever reached prior to the pandemic. At Rev. Claus’s church, randomly assigned Zoom break-out rooms have helped people connect to those in the church they had not met before. Rev. Goodhart in Queens is seeing his elderly parishioners embrace new technologies to stay connected.

Pastors who have held outdoor services found neighbors willing to stop and observe or ask questions, allowing them to engage their neighborhoods in a new way.

Calvary Church in Ripon, CA helped struggling local restaurants as well as families.

Pastors Dood and Krygsheld in California decided early on they wanted this moment to be one of radical generosity. They purchased around 1,500 meals from struggling local restaurants and distributed them to families in their city, adding about $40,000 to the local economy. Their good deed even got picked up by “Good Day Sacramento.” Then they put together a grant program with other local pastors and non-profits to provide small businesses with up to $5,000 to keep their doors open.

Pastor Brett Dood (in blue) and members of Calvary Reformed Church distributed food to frontline workers in Ripon, CA.

“People started calling us the giving church,” says Pastor Dood. “If we weren’t going through this wild time, God wouldn’t have been able to do these things that have borne a lot of fruit.”

So what practices have kept these pastors grounded and sane? Observing a regular Sabbath, taking long walks with or without a canine companion, rhythms of daily prayer and time in the Word, sharing burdens with others in ministry, and receiving encouragement from supportive congregants are all themes carrying them through.

“When someone takes time to acknowledge that we’re all a little out of our depth and doing our very best, it has lifted my spirits a lot,” Rev. Davis notes.

“Many of our classes at seminary taught us to sit with challenges, to listen well, and to be okay with not having an answer,” recalls Rev. Aric. “All of those things have been important in this season.”

Overall, these pastors are remembering that God is faithful and has carried his church through difficulties in the past.

When the pandemic hit, Pastors Dood and Krygsheld were in the middle of their first distance-learning course—Systematic Theology II with Dr. J. Todd Billings.

“There’s so much focus on the Holy Spirit in that course, and there were so many times during the craziness of the pandemic that would have us depending on our own strength, our own ideas,” shares Pastor Dood, “but the Holy Spirit is really leading and guiding us. It was very comforting to know that God was ministering to us providentially in this season.”

“I’m grateful to Western for giving me a theological foundation to recognize God’s activity in the church and to lean into that,” expresses Rev. Claus.

Please pray for pastors you know during this season—for endurance, for wisdom, for moments of rest, for boldness and courage to proclaim the Gospel to a hurting world, and for the Holy Spirit to continue to grow and guide them. And if you know a pastor personally, please thank them and let them know you see their hard work in this season…it means the world to them!