Despite never taking a class on how to minister during a pandemic, Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School alumni are facing the unique challenges of ministering in light of COVID-19 with resilience, creativity and trust in God. Many are finding unique opportunities in these unprecedented times to spread the love of Christ and the hope of his kingdom.
Like so many around the world, many Beeson alumni have chosen to use digital platforms to stay connected with parishioners. Joel Busby (M.Div. ’11; D.Min. ’18), pastor of Grace Fellowship in Birmingham, uses video chat as his preferred method.
“I wanted the Zoom route because I think it gave us the best chance to feel congregational, to allow for interaction, to hear multiple voices, to open up time for prayer, etc. It seemed to strike the right tone, pastorally, for the moment,” Busby said.
Ashley Chesnut (M.Div. ’11), associate singles 20s/30s minister at the Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, also uses video chat, hosting drop-in game nights and weekly singles gatherings. They share devotions and TED Talks and ask questions. Ashley’s small group even had a virtual birthday party for one of the women in her group.
“I want our community to be blessed by us, the church, now more than ever,” Chesnut said.
In Denver, Colorado, Tom Holsteen (M.Div. ’19) has seen some of his neighborhood refugee friends attend services online at Calvary New City, a church plant in which he and his wife participate.
“Our friends feel more comfortable joining a Zoom call than they would coming to see Christians worship in person,” he said.
In addition to video chat, Youth Pastor Jason Kriaski (M.Div. ’17) at Atlanta Westside Presbyterian has found phone calls, text messaging and FaceTime as other helpful tools for staying in touch. He also suggested voice recording prayers for people as an even more personal mode of communication than text-messaging.
But not all ministry has gone virtual. Christ the King Anglican Church’s rector Michael Novotny (M.Div. ’13) offersto parishioners following the livestreamed worship service.
“As Anglicans, we are Word and sacrament people, so I wanted to do whatever I could to offer a way for people to get communion,” Novotny said. “It gives an opportunity for the people who participate in the liturgy to come and receive.”
Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Homewood, whose senior pastor is David Eldridge (M.Div. ’04), is working alongside Greater St. John Baptist Church in Birmingham to distribute grab-and-go meals to seniors (65+), youth and families in need.
Betsy Childs Howard (M.A.T.S. ’15) and her husband Bernard are trying to be a good witness at the church they planted and where Bernard serves as pastor, Good Shepherd Anglican in New York City, by fulfilling financial commitments to landlords and musicians despite not being able to hold services in their rental space.
These alumni are learning many lessons during the pandemic, especially that their primary calling is to shepherd their flock.
“I think God wants to remind us pastors that shepherding is always our primary goal, not programming,” Kriaski said. “Programs obviously are intended to facilitate shepherding relationships, but when you get all the admin work associated with programs out of the way, we can take advantage of wonderful opportunities for shepherding.”
Many, like Dylan Evans (M.Div. ’19), are hopeful that this season of virtual discipleship will grow believers’ hunger for face-to-face, incarnational ministry in the future.
“Nothing—not even a Zoom call—can replace the corporate gathering of God’s people for worship, the Word, and the sacraments, and we are especially feeling that right now,” said Evans, the young professionals associate at Oak Mountain Presbyterian in Birmingham.
Along with Evans, Kriaski hopes that the pandemic will produce some positive change in the way the church ministers.
“I hope we will choose now to embrace our limitations as embodied creatures and not give in to the pressure to excarnate every single thing to our devices,” he said. “I hope we will be less ‘distracted with much serving’ and be more ‘sitting at the feet of Jesus.’”