WESTFIELD-Local pastors have found “silver linings” to embrace during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Before the pandemic hit, we had an average of 60 people each Sunday morning, and we weren’t doing online services at all,” said Rev. Barbara Hesse, of UCC Second Congregational Church on Western Avenue.
Hesse, who had started as pastor on Aug. 1, 2017, said she had talked about recording services for more than two years.
“The idea didn’t really go anywhere because it was relegated to a ‘someday’ scenario,” said Hesse. “Then the pandemic hit and BOOM, we didn’t have a choice.”
For Hesse, the learning curve for recording was “steep” but knew she had to persevere so that services could be viewed online.
“That was actually the first of many silver linings,” said Hesse. “It pushed us to do things which had, until that point, been merely an intellectual exercise. When we began to record the services and put them online, we averaged 115 to 130 viewings each week.”
Hesse notes that the viewing audience is “actually higher” since couples tend to watch the service together.
“It was humorous to hear how there were pets who sat with the owners and seemed to ‘watch’ the service each week,” she said.
Rev. Julie G. Olmsted, interim pastor at First Congregational Church on Broad Street, shared a similar sentiment.
“That last Sunday, March 15, I had to correct myself in worship,” said Olmsted. “Right after our Young at Heart message I always say, ‘Take your neighbor’s hand,’ and then we have prayer. I said that then took it back – ‘Never mind, just take your own hand and bow your head in prayer.’”
Olmsted said at the end of the service she held back her usual handshakes, hugs and kisses on the cheek.
“I was a little nervous, to be honest,” said Olmsted. “Things seemed to be happening so fast. We immediately started having worship online, what I began to call ‘vorship (virtual worship).’”
Olmsted added that during the last few months she has tried “every kind of worship delivery method.”
Initially, she conducted services in front of her computer at home on Facebook Live.
“My daughter Grace, a soloist in our choir, came and sang the hymns a cappella,” said Olmsted. “I borrowed a cross from the church, put up flowers and candles, did ‘virtual communion’ and created a Zoom coffee hour.”
Olmsted said she gives thanks for Zoom every day.
“Zoom just burst into my life, can’t even remember how,” said Olmsted. “But I thank God for it and that coffee hour is still happening.”
Zoom has also played a role in offering a Bible study group on Wednesdays at 1 p.m.
“We are now able to serve others from different churches, as well as one member who has been staying at her daughter’s house in California since the lockdown began,” said Olmsted. “I think we’ll keep doing it that way.”
Hesse has also recruited Jen Thielen, director of children and family ministries, to assist her in delivering recorded children’s messages each week online.
“Jen has the children watching recorded lessons each week and then gathering on Zoom to discuss,” said Hesse. “There are activities for the children and activities for the families.”
Hesse noted that the choir hasn’t resumed because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state guidelines suggest that singing not take place at this time.
“That’s another benefit of having the service online,” said Hesse. “I send the bulletin out electronically each week, and parishioners can sing to their hearts’ content as they watch.”
Hesse credits Karen Ducharme and Jay Ducharme, director of music and soloist, for providing the music each week, whether they are broadcasting live indoors at 10 a.m., or conducting the service outdoors.
“We’ve been holding services outside, weather permitting, and we’ll continue to hold services outside through Oct. 18,” said Hesse. “When we can no longer have services outside, we’ll go back to the three of us (Karen, Jay and me) recording the service inside the sanctuary and hopefully broadcasting it live each week.”
Olmsted said she too has been blessed to have Allan Taylor, music director and organist, by her side as she quickly learned about live streaming without a live congregation.
“Allan had all this equipment and know-how, and I loved working with the camera up-close and personal to produce a high quality service that I was very proud of and still am,” said Olmsted.
As the months have passed, both Hesse and Olmsted have learned to adapt to a new normal in church life.
“The exciting news is that our ministry hasn’t slowed down,” said Hesse, noting at all times that attendees wear a mask for all outside church functions and remain at least six feet away from those who don’t share living space.
“Our church members are still cooking meals for Community Table twice a month,” said Hesse. “Yes, the way we ‘do church’ is different than it has been in the past, but it’s still church.”
“In July we transformed our usual Mission Week into a local bonanza,” said Olmsted. “We served meals all week for Our House and Samaritan House. A very motivated physical group biked, ran, swam and played golf for donations and raised nearly $5,000 for the Western Mass. Food Bank. All these activities were on our own, properly distanced and posted on Facebook.”
Olmsted added that many “drive-by parades” have also been conducted for the church elders.
“They are grateful and good-natured about it, understanding that we’re all doing our best,” said Olmsted. “I have had many outdoor ‘distance visits,’ as well as completing our Confirmation classes on Zoom.”
Olmsted added that after the George Floyd murder, she received permission to gather in prayer on the Green. Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed in Minneapolis, Minn., on May 25 while being arrested for allegedly using a counterfeit bill.
“Folks brought their own chairs and wore masks, keeping distance,” said Olmsted. “I think one of the hardest parts is no hugs, for me anyway.”
Olmsted was also impressed with church members who recently conducted a large rummage sale.
“In the middle of all this, our hardy members produced an outstanding ‘distanced’ rummage sale,” said Olmsted, adding, “an amazing feat for the church and the community.”
Hesse and Olmsted also praised their church members for their ongoing financial support in these difficult times.
“Another silver lining of the pandemic is financial,” said Hesse. “In the three years since I started, we had talked and talked and talked about implementing electronic financial giving. When the pandemic started, we had no choice but to put electronic giving into place. Now, those who follow our ministry on Facebook – 637 followers – can financially support our ministry too.”
Olmsted said this month is the church’s annual stewardship campaign.
“We are hopeful,” said Olmsted. “Folks have been stepping up, continuing to give, know that we are being creative and stretching every dollar to keep the church going, keep the church blessing her people, as well as the community. That is fundamental to our mission – bless the community.”
With the holiday season fast approaching, both Olmsted and Hesse are gearing up for special messages to share with their congregations.
“We are carefully watching the numbers and as they go up or down, we must be nimble in our plans for the upcoming season,” said Olmsted. “Christmas Pageant and Christmas Eve will be recorded and you will be able to enjoy them from the comfort of your own home. It’s very different, yes, but I take the long view, knowing ‘this too shall pass’ as well as look for the positive changes that we have been able to make and will probably continue into the future.”
“It’s difficult to know when we’ll be able to have people attending church services inside the sanctuary,” said Hesse. “With cold weather approaching, we’ll be entering into cold and flu season, and we don’t want to hold inside services until we have a handle on safety precautions and proper ventilation. I am working with our Safe Church Committee on how and when to reopen. As the minister, I don’t want to reopen, just to turn around and close it down again. I’d like us to proceed cautiously and keep everyone safe.”
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series that showcases how local religious leaders have adapted to the changes brought about during the coronavirus pandemic. If religious leaders would like to share their story, send an email to Westfield News Editor Hope Tremblay at [email protected]