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“Seminary certainly never prepared me for ministry in times like these"

“Seminary certainly never prepared me for ministry in times like these"

COVID-19 Missions and Outreach

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically altered all aspects of the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, but pastors around the state agree that some things can never change.

“These are strange and unsettling times,’’ said Magrey deVega, senior pastor at Tampa’s Hyde Park UMC. “But it’s still good to be the church.’’

Even if personal contact has temporarily been replaced by telephone conference calls, social media, online worship, Zoom meetings and webinars.

Even if the financial squeeze has affected every congregation.

Even if baptism and wedding celebrations have been put on hold.

Even if there’s eerie quiet in the pews that once were filled with people making a joyful noise to the Lord.

“I believe it is just like any other challenging time that the church has faced throughout its history,’’ Kendall UMC senior pastor Ruben Velasco said. “We just have to adjust and move on. For years, the church has preached that we are more than just the building. Well, this is our time to prove it.’’

Some days are better than others.

“The quarantine is a mixed bag of yay and nay,’’ said senior pastor Andrea Byer-Thomas of Village UMC in North Lauderdale. “While it has reduced the freedom of movement, it is teaching me new leadership skills (and) creating new and beautiful connections across the district and conference.

“Although I am not in love with the method, I am grateful for the new platforms that are proving to be very useful and effective, some of which will be retained. In all of this, I’m convinced that the church is remaining and God will always be God.’’

God must appear in different forms, including ways that were never anticipated by the UMC clergy.

Magrey deVega

“Seminary certainly never prepared me for ministry in times like these,’’ deVega said. “I always understood that the essence of ministry was incarnational – showing up, gathering together, drawing near – just like God came to us in Jesus. But I have also learned that real-life ministry is meant to be adaptive, and even innovative.’’

Some things never change, though.

“The great thing about prayer is that it can be done for anyone at any time in any place,’’ Velasco said.
Still, there are difficulties. There are hardships. Understandably, there is grieving over methods that simply can’t be employed.

“I think it’s going to be a cycle,’’ said South East District Superintendent Cynthia Weems said. “Right now, it’s about providing a means of worship, but there are other factors.

“The financial administration is hard to do at a time like this. They (pastors) want to visit the sick and those in need, and not being able to have that personal touch is hard. And I think the harder emotional role will come (when more cases of COVID emerge).’’

Even in a time when personal contact has been limited, there’s exciting evidence of humanity. That’s the experience of Ginger Medley, pastor at Poinciana UMC in Miami Springs.

She loves walking or riding her bicycle around the neighborhood, seeing people engaging with their children or interacting — from a safe distance — with their neighbors.

“Our differences don’t seem to matter as much and the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’ has faded,’’ Medley said. “It’s so wholesome and healing to witness people being extraordinarily human (while) serving one another and strengthening relationships.’’

Despite the virus, Medley conducted one wedding and attended one funeral.

In mid-March, a couple called her in a panic because their wedding license was expiring, and their wedding venue had closed due to the outbreak. Medley conducted the ceremony with the couple and two family members, including the groom’s mother, who was delighted that her son’s wedding was held in a church.

Shortly after that, Medley learned that her father-in-law had died. Medley and her husband traveled to Virginia for the funeral.

“The COVID-19 restrictions of no gatherings of 10 or more and (maintaining) social distancing were almost unbearable in this time of grief,’’ Medley said. “We had to Zoom sick family members into the abbreviated celebration of life. It was surreal to see family, including my parents, and NOT giving them a hug or a kiss.

“My only consolation is that this is just for a season. This too shall pass. My hope is securely in Christ. I am fully persuaded that better days are coming soon.’’

Meantime, the state’s pastors are adjusting to the new normal of worship and spiritual life.

Medley said she’s teaching the same classes — Bible Study, Soul Sisters, and the Lenten Prayer Service — but now they are administered through conference calls and Zoom. Worship services are sometimes pre-recorded on Facebook Live Premiere and the number of views surpassed 1,000 in each of the past two weeks.

“We’ve had to tailor our communication to suit the various means that we are using,’’ Byer-Thomas said. “Another challenge is offering to the community a faithful and courageous response with significantly diminished finances. Nonetheless, we have found creative ways to be in ministry. I find this energizing.’’

Velasco said his church’s Facebook friends doubled in one week. His church is employing Facebook Live, YouTube, Our
Website, online giving, Zoom meetings, Instagram, FaceTime, text messages and e-mail blasts.

“This has forced me to venture into the new technology that is out there,’’ Velasco said. “This situation has pushed me to implement some of it in ministry, not as much for innovation, but more from necessity.’’

Velasco said his church also caters to the non-tech savvy congregants and phone calls and personal letters. But even he admits there’s no substitute for personal contact.

“The main challenging aspect for me is not being able to congregate with everyone at least once a week,’’ Velasco said.
“The part of gathering in person goes to the core of what we are about. So we are looking forward to the day when we can come together again and worship God.’’

In Tampa, deVega said he has a consistent message, even if it now delivered virtually.

“Do not be afraid … you are loved … and all of this is temporary,’’ he said in summarizing his message. “I believe that those convictions constitute the necessary spiritual leadership for my congregation, so that I can lead with a steady voice and a calm spirit.

“They are also the very words of assurance that we can offer the world as a beacon of hope for others.’’

--Joey Johnston is a freelance writer from Tampa

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