Clergy life in COVID times

Rev. Geoff Chapman reflects on his experiences as clergy during COVID times.

“I am front and centre, ready to be heard or rejected, subscribed to or cancelled. I sing hymns with one or no other singers, I preach without the assuring nods from parishioners. Lately, they can see into my house, with kids’ toys behind me. I am deeply vulnerable in this new medium.”

By Geoff Chapman

Clergy wear a lot of hats. We are preachers and teachers, we preside over beautiful liturgies, we are community organizers, we are friends in Christ who visit folks in our community and through the sacraments, we become living symbols of the church. Depending on which hat I wear, COVID-19 poses both difficulties and opportunities in this unprecedented time.

As a preacher and teacher, there have been moments of excitement and real opportunities for change. Churches are not traditionally on the vanguard of technological change and innovation, although I very much enjoy new technology. I began my ministry 13 years ago with the very first iPhone available in Canada. I could not manage pastoral visitation without Google Maps! My ministry has progressed along with technology and being able to preach and teach over Facebook, YouTube and Zoom has been a wonderful opportunity. It is incredible, for example, to be able to reach shut-in folks this way. People unable to physically join us for worship were cut off from their place of worship, which they may have gone to weekly for decades. Now, through the genius of modern technology, folks who rarely leave home can worship alongside the rest of us. We can also connect over bible study despite being miles apart. I joined Christians throughout Ontario in study groups, and our own services have reached folks around the world. It is a wonderfully exciting, barrier-breaking time for preaching and teaching.

In liturgy, while I have truly grieved the loss of weekly Holy Eucharist, I love the vulnerability that I experience personally through the online worship. On Sunday mornings in pre-pandemic times, I used to dress in fancy vestments with a grand procession down the centre aisle, greeting folks and leading worship from a grand, elevated sanctuary. Newcomers arrived in a church filled with strangers, sneaking in the back pew, doing their best not to look confused as they tried to figure out if this was the right church for them. Our roles are now reversed. Newcomers sit comfortably on their couch, anonymously checking out me and our parish church. Meanwhile, I am front and centre, ready to be heard or rejected, subscribed to or cancelled. I sing hymns with one or no other singers, I preach without the assuring nods from parishioners. Lately, they can see into my house, with kids’ toys behind me. I am deeply vulnerable in this new medium. It is objectively harder for me but easier for many others. The vulnerability of clergy is among my favourite change during this time.

As a leader of a community organization, especially a parish that I have yet to see gather in person, this pandemic time is difficult. We can meet online, but meetings over Zoom force us to have strange conversations in large numbers. They feel as if we are all standing in a giant circle and speak one at a time to the group. We sometimes watch as two people have a single conversation. Group gatherings in online spaces are truly surreal. These meetings are all business. No chatting over coffee before the meeting or in a parking lot after. Of course, they are better than no meetings at all. I can feel and see the joy on faces; we are delighted to see one another. The community is real, even if the room is virtual. But churches are phenomenal places to join authentic communities, and physical distancing and Zoom meetings make authentic interaction incredibly challenging.

Perhaps the most surprising element of this pandemic is the relative stability of the church itself. We all see and read articles about the impending demise of the church or the failed model of parish ministry. Yet the church itself is strong. We are bonded together through shared beliefs, a shared identity and a covenant with God. The church is not a business. We do not have any products to sell. And we aren’t a government agency either. We exist to embody the love of God and to extend the love of God outward through transformed lives. Our beliefs, identity and relationship with God have not been shaken or altered by this strange time. Rather, I believe we have begun to realize how important our faith community is for us and how much we miss our church community.

I am sure my experience is probably similar to yours in many ways. Perhaps one day you might stop by St. Matthew’s at First and Bank and say hello!

The Rev. Geoffrey Chapman has been the incumbent at St. Matthew’s in the Glebe Anglican Church since April of last year.

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