Local ministry in the time of pandemic

The imposition of social distancing and then ‘lockdown’, including the closing of church buildings as places of gathering for worship, has changed the shape of ministry for everyone. But what exactly does that mean for the local church? And in amongst the challenges, are there signs of hope?

James Blandford-Baker is vicar of Histon and Impington, just outside Cambridge, and Rural Dean of North Stowe, and I asked him about his experience of the changes, challenges, and opportunities.

IP: Tell us about the church you lead—what is its situation, tradition and size? Has the current situation felt more like a challenge or an opportunity?

JBB: I lead two churches in Histon and Impington. Histon could be described as a charismatic evangelical church of around 200–250 on a Sunday (though many would not identify with those labels; the key is we are orthodox in our Christian faith and that attracts many beyond the narrower categories) and Impington is ‘middle of the road’ and around 50 on a Sunday. They are village churches in two beautiful and lively villages which are essentially merged (geographically and socially) just to the north of Cambridge.

Initially the pandemic felt like a challenge with lots of opportunities! Of course ministry is really that all the time but the pandemic heightened my sense of both challenge and opportunity and created energy for both and much new thinking. The metaphor that came to me early on was that the Lord had put a bomb under the church and blown us into the community…in a new and good way!

IP: What has been your approach to Sunday provision for the congregation? What have you lost—and what have you gained?

JBB: From the beginning we put together a YouTube video of our Sunday service and published it on our YouTube channel (which was there but had been little used). Since preaching 20 minute sermons (or more!) on a YouTube service doesn’t work we’ve done 7-8 minutes and then I’ve run an in depth Zoom Bible Study at 7pm on a Sunday evening. And from 11am on a Sunday morning we’ve done Zoom ‘Coffee’ which has proved a big hit (making good use of the random breakout room feature of Zoom to achieve what clergy everywhere long to achieve over coffee—people talking to people they don’t know!). Our children’s and young people’s groups have met via Zoom on a Sunday morning (and at several other times during the week too).

Not everyone (about 40 or so) has internet access so we’ve been producing and delivering DVDs for them of the Sunday services (as well as some other services for midweek use, such as Night Prayer). Including people with different levels of internet access has been vital and, with discipline, entirely manageable (and makes use of more gifts among the congregation).

We were merging three congregations (two from Histon and one from Impington) of different traditions so what we put into the services needed to be sufficiently familiar for everyone but it has also, inevitably, been an opportunity to broaden people’s horizons. What has proved especially important for everyone has been receiving ministry from those they know (the clergy, lay ministers and others) and sharing stories of what the Lord has been doing amongst us and how we’ve been navigating the lockdown period. So we’ve included a video story from a family or an individual every week. This has been a big gain; we’ve talked (in both churches) for about 18 months of wanting to become more ‘story-rich’ and this proved the perfect opportunity. We found people were much more open to recording a video on their phone than they would be standing up in church on a Sunday morning. The feedback on the story element has been consistently good. 

What we’ve lost is the experience of the corporate and this has been especially hard in respect of sung worship and probably also the Holy Communion. I say ‘probably’ because actually no-one has mentioned the loss of Communion to me. And that’s quite strange really because the eucharistic traditions are quite different between the two churches with weekly Communion being apparently central in Impington but much less so in Histon. But it may be, that like me, people recognise that not being able to share Communion together is simply part of the hard experience of lockdown, almost a kind of fasting, that is worth going through for the joy of being able to meet again…

IP: What has worked well so far on Sundays—and what have you needed to change? Have you been able to learn from the experience of others?

JBB: Normally I would check out what others are doing for ideas but curiously I have not done a lot of this in lockdown. My observation is that what has been important is the relationship between our ministry team and the congregation. Yes, of course, people access other services (and that has been helpful in growing people’s vision of worship) but there is something about the person you know, who has travelled with you and pastored you over the years being a reassuring presence on a YouTube video when you can’t see them in person.

It is interesting that reflections provided by bishops and others seem to be much less viewed than one might expect in our current circumstances in comparison to local provision. The obvious biblical parallel is the importance of Paul’s personal relationship with the churches to whom he writes. He often draws on this ‘capital’ to be able to pastor them effectively. I think we’ve been doing that over the last few weeks.

IP: The missiologist Alan Hirsch has commented ‘If you want to learn to play chess, then take away the queen—then you see what the other pieces can do!’ For many churches, Sunday services have been the ‘queen’ that we have lost. What have you learnt about the ‘other pieces’?

JBB: The other pieces have been one of the big gains! From the moment lockdown began we sat down and worked out how we could pastor and connect with those who were particularly vulnerable, self-isolating and shielding. Our Prayer Ministry team from Sundays and our Pastoral Team immediately recruited more members who would pray, call and support others. 

Another thing that the loss of the ‘queen’ has prompted is noticing how people who had gifts and talents which I (mea culpa) or the church didn’t always recognise suddenly had a ministry that was incredibly valued. So, for instance, we have one person who loves recording our choral evensong, organ pieces and the music groups who visit us from our link parish in Rwanda. Suddenly all those recordings could be used for YouTube worship and have made a big difference to our overall engagement with worship.

And thirdly, the queen’s removal has helped people take personal responsibility and given them confidence. I think the way this works is that a crisis helps us to be more focussed on delivering stuff rather than worrying if we are doing it ‘right.’ Doing things right is a significant issue in Cambridge where people are examined all the time and measure themselves by their intellectual ability. I’ve worked to undermine this for years here but lockdown has done more for that than I ever could!

IP: How has all this shaped your approach to mid-week provision?

JBB: The need to connect has meant we’ve sent out a daily email. This has included a daily reflection, often on one of the readings from Morning Prayer as well as news and needs from the churches. For non-internet folk we have sent a letter each week in the post. I’ve had more appreciation for these communications than for anything else in 27 years of ordained ministry. One of the things I emphasise in ministry is people taking responsibility for their own discipleship, so there’s an interesting question about whether continuing to provide these reflections is the right thing to do, rather than encouraging people that they can read the Bible and pray each day themselves. Many will have this discipline (after all, Histon has a history of evangelical piety) but I’m not naive enough to think that many will not. There seems to be an opportunity to say something like ‘You’ve appreciated this daily engagement with the Lord, now here’s how you can do that for yourself.’ Overall we’ve been in touch with our congregations far more frequently than in ‘normal’ times.

Our home groups have managed themselves in all this and it is noticeable that some of them now meet twice weekly, once for prayer and Bible Study and once for socialising. I was invited to one ‘evening drinks’ session with one group and it was heartwarming and fun! Our midweek Fresh Expression (Essence) has also met via Zoom very successfully.

IP: What things have you lost that you don’t want to pick up again when we ‘return to normal’? What have you had to start doing that you would like to continue?

JBB: We’ve lost a lot of meetings…and I don’t want to return to these again! Of course meetings are important but I’ve found that lockdown has been a great opportunity, in an email dominated world, to pick up the phone to people. They nearly always answer now because they are nearly always in (the fact they are not in usually in normal times is one of the reasons why we all use email so much). That seeking the highest level of communication available (always an important principle) has been a great blessing. 

Making church work for those who are housebound and communicating with those on the fringe or beyond is the key area where we need to continue working once lockdown is over. I’ve had emails from vulnerable people asking me to make this happen. That means a pretty significant reordering of ministry on a weekly basis but it could work if those who are newly confident in using their gifts continue to offer them (and if we don’t return to all those meetings…).

The other thing we’ve started is a ‘Talking Futures’ group. This is to discuss what needs to change and what opportunities there are for change in the church, in the local community and at a national and global level. This has just begun but is already a really interesting and stimulating group to be part of and we are determined that it will quickly result in action at all levels. There is certainly a desire, amongst a diverse group of people, to consider the future and what the church needs to be in that future in the Lord’s will. Interestingly it is easier to make sure that everyone in  a group has a voice when you are meeting via Zoom than meeting together in person.

IP: What have you seen God doing through this time in your own context? And what have you observed more widely, in the national church and society?

JBB: Early on I had emails from people on our fringe who had lost touch with us but who, for some reason or other, had remained on our email list (surviving the great GDPR cull). Independently they said how appreciative they were of the daily email and some midweek video reflections that I posted. But there has also been a greater openness to the church’s ministry among those in the community that we’ve worked with to provide the extensive support network that has grown up across the two villages. Time and again the community has said that they need to be doing something and we’ve been able to say, ‘Actually, we know how to do that, we can help you.’ So our straightforward, day-by-day care for one another as the Body of Christ is now seen by others. And my impression is that people are rather envious…so it is good to share it with them and invite them to be part of that Body.JBB:

I’ve also noticed the greater openness to prayer. With lots of pastoral phone calls to be made it is my policy to pray with the person at the end of every one. That has been very significant…

IP: As an ordained minister, how has all this changed the way you are using your time?

JBB: I am spending much more time in prayer and in reading Scripture. And I made a decision at the beginning of lockdown to do some work on my Greek. It has been really good to plumb some of the murky depths of Greek grammar and to go back to those bits that one never really got one’s head round the first time. I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone (as well as the inevitable Zoom calls). I have not been a great phone user in the past but it has been very much a key tool of ministry.

The pattern of my week has changed enormously. Working to different deadlines (the YouTube service has to be together for Thursday evening to allow for DVD production) and writing the daily email are demanding but worth it. The greater flexibility of evenings means a bit more time with the family and being able to watch a film together. It is remarkable how much time I’ve got back by (a) not travelling and (b) having shorter meetings. It makes all the difference to what can be accomplished during the day and of an evening.

IP: Thanks for your time, James, and for sharing your insights into the changes in ministry that the pandemic has brought. We pray that it will continue to bear fruit!


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9 thoughts on “Local ministry in the time of pandemic”

  1. What a good, clear and helpful analysis. I am retired now but helping in a parish and in discussions about the “new normal”. Will forward this article on to others.

    Reply
    • in discussions about the “new normal”.

      It’s a side-point but I think we should resist the term ‘new normal’. These are abnormal times and we should remember that, and not eg accept that ‘social distancing’ is ‘the way things have to be from now on’. These measures are necessary for a period but they are not and cannot ever be ‘normal’, and we mustn’t slip into thinking of them as such.

      ‘The new normal’ will only be when we can return to life as it was before.

      Reply
  2. Interesting stuff and what comes across to me is

    1. the centrality of communication, which is obvious really when we stop to think it’s linked to communion/community. The priest’s pastoral task is, amongst other things, to maintain and deepen communion.

    2. that we should use the most appropriate technology rather than be in thrall to the latest, so the good old telephone has come into its own. I spend a significant amount of time on the phone and find it a much better way to be in touch with a person than Zoom or email.

    3. the increase in time available for prayer and Scripture – staples of the BCP view of ordained ministry but which have increasingly been squeezed out by providing the leadership necessary for an activist Church.

    4. the desire to cut out or at least shorten meetings and use Zoom to make meetings effective.

    Thanks, James.

    Reply

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