Pastoring Through the Pandemic, with Alumni Pastors

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What have been some of the greater challenges your church has faced over the course of the pandemic?

Anne Mie Skak Johanson: When the pandemic hit Europe, the Danish government was fast to close down the country. This meant fewer got sick and fewer died compared to other countries. Very fast financial compensation packages for businesses, cultural institutions, and Christian organizations were provided by the government. The large Danish Folkchurch is supported by the state, and the free churches often have stable funding. Regarding healthcare and economy, we have been well off in Denmark. However, the church was not included in the official support system. Pastors could not visit the hospitals or the nursing homes or the lonely, and no official effort was made to help the church’s spiritual support. It was difficult to reach out to the weakest and the fearful, those who needed God’s comfort and our prayers the most. It seemed to us in the church that the Ministry of Church Affairs was always the last ministry to send out restrictions and instruction. As late as the 23rd of December at 9:00 pm, we were informed that the coronavirus restrictions had been sharpened, which meant canceling all Christmas services that pastors and church board members had been preparing for. This incident became a symbol of how little the church was considered as a co-player in tackling the pandemic.

Rebecca Stringer: Our lead pastor retired in late February 2020, a month before the pandemic hit Hawai’i. As the newly appointed renewal pastor at Wellspring Covenant Church, I anticipated some upcoming challenges. I thought these would include the tasks of congregational renewal, reconnecting with the mission of God in our community, helping our leaders through grief and loss, and selling our church building on increasingly expensive industrial leasehold land. The pandemic put a whole other layer onto these challenges and more. During the stay-at-home order, my co-pastor Cheryl Takabayashi-Foo and I worked 18-hour days as our church struggled to pull together a livestream team, create an online presence, check in with each congregation member, and pivot to a new way of being together. I found myself resonating with those memes showing tired looking people saying how good they felt—but looking awful. But in just a few months—and after reconnecting with my rule of life, which helped enforce some work boundaries—I could see God’s faithfulness extended to our little community and to me as well.

Ung Joe Lee: One of the greater challenges that our church has faced over the course of the pandemic would have to be the inability to meet regularly for worship due to social distancing. I feel as a pastor that it is our responsibility to protect, nurture, and take care of our flock. And therefore, having limited—and at times no—contact with our congregation was a major source of hardship in terms of being able to fulfill our God-given privilege and mandate. Also, socially distancing for long periods of time naturally led to a loss of a sense of community and negatively affected spiritual growth, as it prevented people from being physically together as the body of Christ. Of course, this kind of prolonged separation severely affected our church’s ability to minister as we would have liked.

Jack Zulu: My wife and I were personally affected by COVID-19, and our lives were endangered to the point of death. In addition to that, my greatest challenges have been: (1) Finding a new normal to propagate the gospel. COVID-19 has disrupted the normal way of congregating. Technology may not have all the answers. Africans are communal; they cherish physical worship. Just as many congregations have opted to go virtual, the challenge for my congregation has been, How possible was it to have everybody with modern-tech smartphones in the midst of economic and social challenges facing the nation of Zambia? (2) Income generation has reduced, meaning giving has gone drastically down. How can we generate income and survive? (3) Numbers have gone down as health protocols are to be observed. Not more than 50 people are allowed per gathering. (4) I gave up my pay for the past 10 years as an ordained minister. COVID-19 worsened the situation. Part-time work is hard to come by. So, being a family man, a husband, a pastor, and community leader, how will I continue serving God’s people while failing to meet the daily needs for my children and my wife?

What has it meant to be a worshiping community in a time where physical proximity to one another has itself become a danger?

Ung Joe Lee: As the pandemic shaped the way we worshiped, especially with regards to prohibitions and precautions in physical proximity, we realized there were both positives and negatives that we could walk away with. First, one of the positives we discovered was that we once again came to appreciate the preciousness and value of corporate worship and Christian fellowship. We were reminded again of how important this idea of being together for the mutual benefit of each other really was, as it helped us to concretely express the love of God. Second, one of the negatives we discovered was how increased social distancing led to increased loneliness and emotional distancing from one another. This was felt most acutely when we missed weddings and funerals, as times of both community grieving and celebration were drastically curtailed.

Jack Zulu: Without physical proximity, it meant that the church was “dead.” For Africans, physical proximity is community. Without community there is no church! It has been very hard to convince members that wearing face masks, sanitizing, and social distancing was the new normal of doing church in the 21st century! The paradox of this new normal though in our Zambian context has seen more strictness on churches, schools, and universities while, on the other hand, markets and bus stations remained crowded.

Anne Mie Sksk

Anne Mie Skak Johanson (DIS ’20) is a pastor in the Danish Folkekirke in Denmark.

Ung Joe Lee

Ung Joe Lee (MDiv ’98, PhD ’06) is lead pastor of Calvary Church in Bundang, Korea.

Rebecca Stringer

Rebecca Stringer (MDiv ’17) is renewal pastor of Wellspring Covenant Church in Aiea, Hawaii.

Jack Zulu

Jack Zulu (MDiv ’17) is lead pastor of Praise Evangelical Church in Lusaka, Zambia.

What have been some of the greater challenges your church has faced over the course of the pandemic?

Anne Mie Skak Johanson: When the pandemic hit Europe, the Danish government was fast to close down the country. This meant fewer got sick and fewer died compared to other countries. Very fast financial compensation packages for businesses, cultural institutions, and Christian organizations were provided by the government. The large Danish Folkchurch is supported by the state, and the free churches often have stable funding. Regarding healthcare and economy, we have been well off in Denmark. However, the church was not included in the official support system. Pastors could not visit the hospitals or the nursing homes or the lonely, and no official effort was made to help the church’s spiritual support. It was difficult to reach out to the weakest and the fearful, those who needed God’s comfort and our prayers the most. It seemed to us in the church that the Ministry of Church Affairs was always the last ministry to send out restrictions and instruction. As late as the 23rd of December at 9:00 pm, we were informed that the coronavirus restrictions had been sharpened, which meant canceling all Christmas services that pastors and church board members had been preparing for. This incident became a symbol of how little the church was considered as a co-player in tackling the pandemic.

Rebecca Stringer: Our lead pastor retired in late February 2020, a month before the pandemic hit Hawai’i. As the newly appointed renewal pastor at Wellspring Covenant Church, I anticipated some upcoming challenges. I thought these would include the tasks of congregational renewal, reconnecting with the mission of God in our community, helping our leaders through grief and loss, and selling our church building on increasingly expensive industrial leasehold land. The pandemic put a whole other layer onto these challenges and more. During the stay-at-home order, my co-pastor Cheryl Takabayashi-Foo and I worked 18-hour days as our church struggled to pull together a livestream team, create an online presence, check in with each congregation member, and pivot to a new way of being together. I found myself resonating with those memes showing tired looking people saying how good they felt—but looking awful. But in just a few months—and after reconnecting with my rule of life, which helped enforce some work boundaries—I could see God’s faithfulness extended to our little community and to me as well.

Ung Joe Lee: One of the greater challenges that our church has faced over the course of the pandemic would have to be the inability to meet regularly for worship due to social distancing. I feel as a pastor that it is our responsibility to protect, nurture, and take care of our flock. And therefore, having limited—and at times no—contact with our congregation was a major source of hardship in terms of being able to fulfill our God-given privilege and mandate. Also, socially distancing for long periods of time naturally led to a loss of a sense of community and negatively affected spiritual growth, as it prevented people from being physically together as the body of Christ. Of course, this kind of prolonged separation severely affected our church’s ability to minister as we would have liked.

Jack Zulu: My wife and I were personally affected by COVID-19, and our lives were endangered to the point of death. In addition to that, my greatest challenges have been: (1) Finding a new normal to propagate the gospel. COVID-19 has disrupted the normal way of congregating. Technology may not have all the answers. Africans are communal; they cherish physical worship. Just as many congregations have opted to go virtual, the challenge for my congregation has been, How possible was it to have everybody with modern-tech smartphones in the midst of economic and social challenges facing the nation of Zambia? (2) Income generation has reduced, meaning giving has gone drastically down. How can we generate income and survive? (3) Numbers have gone down as health protocols are to be observed. Not more than 50 people are allowed per gathering. (4) I gave up my pay for the past 10 years as an ordained minister. COVID-19 worsened the situation. Part-time work is hard to come by. So, being a family man, a husband, a pastor, and community leader, how will I continue serving God’s people while failing to meet the daily needs for my children and my wife?

What has it meant to be a worshiping community in a time where physical proximity to one another has itself become a danger?

Ung Joe Lee: As the pandemic shaped the way we worshiped, especially with regards to prohibitions and precautions in physical proximity, we realized there were both positives and negatives that we could walk away with. First, one of the positives we discovered was that we once again came to appreciate the preciousness and value of corporate worship and Christian fellowship. We were reminded again of how important this idea of being together for the mutual benefit of each other really was, as it helped us to concretely express the love of God. Second, one of the negatives we discovered was how increased social distancing led to increased loneliness and emotional distancing from one another. This was felt most acutely when we missed weddings and funerals, as times of both community grieving and celebration were drastically curtailed.

Jack Zulu: Without physical proximity, it meant that the church was “dead.” For Africans, physical proximity is community. Without community there is no church! It has been very hard to convince members that wearing face masks, sanitizing, and social distancing was the new normal of doing church in the 21st century! The paradox of this new normal though in our Zambian context has seen more strictness on churches, schools, and universities while, on the other hand, markets and bus stations remained crowded.

Written By

Anne Mie Skak Johanson (DIS ’20) is a pastor in the Danish Folkekirke in Denmark.

Rebecca Stringer (MDiv ’17) is renewal pastor of Wellspring Covenant Church in Aiea, Hawaii.

Anne Mie Skak Johanson: It has been a challenge to live out “koinonia” in the time of the pandemic. Our local congregation was encouraged to connect to one another through phone calls, letters, leaving flowers or food on the doorstep, or finding other creative ways of connecting. The local church did services online; the national TV broadcasted more church services and many tuned in. Still, a lot of people felt lonely and had a hard time keeping faith and spiritual practices alive. When gathering in smaller groups for short church services was allowed, we did that. Here, it was important to be attentive to the restrictions but also to communicate that the church strictly followed all the government restrictions to make the church a safer place. For a long period, we were not allowed to sing together in the church. During this time some preferred to worship at home following the online transmission to be able to sing. As the national TV started a sing-along show, common singing became a way for being together even though we were apart. Families that normally would not sing would gather around the TV on Friday evenings, singing both hymns and pop songs. Even though this was not done by the churches, it almost had a spiritual effect on people.

Rebecca Stringer: Life in the pandemic has given us many opportunities to honor each other. Local culture in Hawai’i places a high value on our kupuna—our honored elders. And since many families live in multigenerational homes, the stakes with COVID feel particularly high. Most individuals in our congregation have shifted to see their primary engagement with each other to be online in nature. Although this is a wonderful way of honoring and caring for each other’s health, it also has meant growing intentionality in how we nurture sacred space and time, and in how we are discipled and formed in digital spaces for the whole mission of God. I’m still learning and grappling with what this means and how to do this, for myself and others.

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Over these two years, what has it looked like for you or your church to follow the command to love our neighbors?

Jack Zulu: My response is Luke 10:27, just as the lawyer responded to Jesus’ question: “He answered: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”’” It has been very hard, but, as the church, we have labored to fulfill this command even in the midst of the pandemic.

Rebecca Stringer: During our stay-at-home order many individuals in our area lost their income, and we began gathering funds to help those in our community who were struggling. A livestream team member ran into a friend from school whose chicken farm was swimming with too many eggs since the hotels were shut down, so we bought truckloads of local eggs and began a regular egg drive to our larger community, creating friendships and spawning many egg-related puns from which I’m still cracking up. When PPE in our medical centers was running low, we sewed hundreds of masks and sent them to healthcare workers locally and to grown children of Wellspring families working in healthcare. During Lent, we created labyrinths to share, inviting friends and neighbors who might not be used to praying into a tangible way of praying for themselves and others. We hosted webinars focusing on healthy coping with a mental health professional. In short, our leaders and congregation kept caring, reaching out. Not knowing who might be listening to our livestream, our pastor team began including a short prayer of consent each week, inviting people to take first steps towards Jesus. We continue to love our neighbors by following health protocols, socially distancing, mask wearing at all times, and inviting our congregation to remain at home if possible.

Ung Joe Lee: In order to follow the command to love our neighbors, our focus shifted significantly in the direction of media ministry. As soon as the pandemic hit, we realized that in order to reach our neighbors, we had to build a media ministry that could expand our definition of being a worshiping community, as well as overcome the hurdles of physical separation due to social distancing. And so, with our new media ministry, we created online concerts, English camps, children’s and adult ministry content, which included Bible listening and writing programs, as well as short online devotionals packaged with our churchwide devotional called MERE Journal. In addition to providing online content, we also donated masks internationally to our ministry partners as well as unaffiliated missionaries in need. And finally, we worked with other local churches in our area to provide medical relief and products both locally and abroad.   

Anne Mie Skak Johanson: During the pandemic prayer became very important. To care was to pray. Pray for the sick, pray for the doctors and the nurses, pray for the national leaders, pray for the lonely, pray for the international connections. Online prayer meetings were conducted and praying chains created. This was not always so visible but an important way for loving our neighbors. Instead of gathering people for fellowship meals, we brought food out to the homes. We placed the food on the doorstep, stepped away, and exchanged a little information while keeping the distance. This brought joy!

Do you have a story of how the Spirit has sustained, blessed, or touched you and your church community during all of this?

Anne Mie Skak Johanson: Churches all over Denmark have been pushed out in a more digital communication of the gospel. This meant that people who would never attend a church gathering could sneak in on online church services during the pandemic. In this way the church has reached more people than before the pandemic. Hopefully this missional opening will continue and lead more to faith in Christ. Another blessing was the stronger oneness the crisis created in the church. We were all struck and did not know what to do. In this situation we needed one another, and we actually did help one another both in the near local teams but also at a broader regional and national scale. This was necessary and educational, but also healthy for us.     

Ung Joe Lee: There are so many stories of how the Spirit sustained, blessed, and touched us during all of this, but one story that stood out to me was how God was able to use us to bless and help our missionaries, especially in the middle of such a perplexing time. Our church community enthusiastically rallied to the aid of missionaries around the world who were going through never-before-seen levels of difficulty, and were joyful in participating in whatever capacity they could despite many limitations. Whether it was donating masks, or funding new buildings for various ministries, or interceding on their behalf through prayer, it deeply touched me to know that we were able to help them.

Rebecca Stringer: As I reflect on how the Spirit has sustained and blessed us over this pandemic so far, a kaleidoscope of sensory moments flood my mind: The sound of ceramic pots breaking as artists in our congregation constructed interactive prayer lament stations for our larger community. The glimpse of smiles shared behind masks as we met new friends during egg drives and food distributions. Outstretched arms of our livestream team giving away “dream boxes” on our Advent drive-by to families of all shapes and sizes, Christmas carols humming in the background. The feel of scratchy straw bales stacked high around the Nativity during our drive-in Christmas Eve service. The taste of salty waves in Waikiki as we baptized new and old friends making public professions of their faith. Each of these moments richly reminds me that God is causing new tender sprouts of life to grow even amidst the chaos and uncertainty of our current time.

Jack Zulu: Out of something rotten God creates something new. Out of something that stinks the Holy Spirit produces a perfume through the fresh anointing. In these moments, I have seen my level of prayer going up, and I have loved so much to be in the mountains to fast and pray. The church has also seen quite a revival, where many people have been healed and accepted Christ as their Lord. My observation: COVID-19’s mission to disperse the church has instead led to more people running to God!

What is a short prayer you might pray over the church in the world in the midst of this season? Whether one of lament, or petition, or praise, or all the above?

Jack Zulu: Lord Jesus Christ, I know that you are always faithful over all things, including your church in the world, even in the darkest and most difficult times such as these under COVID-19. My heart bleeds with grief and sorrow over those who have succumbed to the pandemic. Please help me and the churches across nations to lean on you, even when I do not fully understand your ways and plans for the church in these difficult times. In all things, I will praise your name, because I know that in all things you work for what is good to those who love you, those who have been called according to your purpose. For it is this purpose, to provide leadership and the spreading of the good news, that the church shall labour to accomplish until we are taken home!

I pray for church leaders across the globe to remain relevant and focused on fulfilling the Lord’s mandate even in the midst of discouragement, failure, and discontentment. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen!

Anne Mie Skak Johanson: Heavenly Father, we thank you for your faithfulness towards us. Thank you for your presence in the midst of our struggle, our loss, our fear and anxiety. We thank you for your everlasting goodness and mercy. You hold the world, our loved ones, and us in your strong hands—and you care for us. We pray: Your kingdom come, and your will be done in our lives, in the church, and in our world. Give us faith, love, and hope for tomorrow. Amen.

Ung Joe Lee: Heavenly Father, first and foremost, we would like to acknowledge your love and grace in the middle of all this chaos. Although this may be the first pandemic in our lifetime, it definitely isn’t the first one in history, and looking back, we know that you led your church through it all. And through this difficult time, we are discovering just how important and precious is your church. We thank you for sustaining us, and leading us, and showing us the value of being together and worshiping together. Let us never take for granted this great privilege and joy. Help us to rise up to whatever challenge may come, whether it’s a pandemic or otherwise, and may our prayers be the source of our ultimate strength in this most challenging season of life. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Rebecca Stringer: Remind us, Creator God, that what we experience as distance is not distance to you. To you, day and night, space and time are not barriers to connection, care, or community—your aloha knows no such limits. Whether we meet in person or online, teach us of the wind which blows this way and that, scattering seeds and cooling sweaty bodies, distributing rain so each plant is watered. Teach us of the sun and moon, whose daily rhythms remind us of your ever-present faithfulness working justice and renewal in our world. Teach us, Spirit, who fluttered over the waves of unformed possibility, speaking goodness to life. Breathe again. As we exhale our sighs of frustration and sadness, remind us that what we experience as distance is not distance to you. Your aloha knows no such limits. Amen.

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