Royal Oak Tribune
Faith leaders look to lift congregations this Christmas
Intimate festivities, fellowship still to take place amid pandemic
For leaders in the faith community, this Christmas holiday has taken on an extra special meaning and weight as the global pandemic, and the hardships it has brought, drag on.
It’s been an intense and often difficult year for those who oversee congregations. As opportunities to gather in-person were sharply cut away, fear of isolation began to take root. Churches that had never once even recorded a worship service found themselves frantically adapting to the new world of live-streaming, producing content and video chats.
While many churches across Oakland County remain virtual, a considerable number of them have resumed in-person services while maintaining the online ministry components. Christmas will be no different.
It’s hard, time consuming work to run both at once, said Laura Kelsey, pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Pontiac. It has been her church’s greatest challenge this year to meet the spiritual and social needs of those who aren’t computer adept or lack access to one. She transcribes all of her sermons and mails them directly to the homes of congregation members, on top of running an email newsletter, Facebook live events and a mailing that includes a new inspirational story and puzzle each week.
She still worries it might not be enough. But, she’s also hopeful that this Christmas season will serve as a powerful tool for faith leaders to help lift the spirits of a weary and sometimes deflated community.
“My job every day of my life is to bring the hope of Christ to the world and so during this time as people are feeling hopeless or isolated, it’s really the time where we can bring the hope of Jesus into their hearts and homes. There’s so much pollution in the world, a brokenness we see in this pandemic, people being wired for in
dividualism over the common good,” Kelsey said.
Outside of worship service, First Presbyterian began a new food pantry this year and is in the process of putting together a free clothing closet. They’ve given away over a thousand face masks, by Kelsey’s estimates, many of them made by hand from members of the congregation.
Inside the church’s sanctuary, tape marks off pews for social distancing. Only about half of the congregation attends in-person service these days. Kelsey said she’s heard from high-risk members that even though they don’t feel comfortable coming to the building, it gives them a sense of peace to know it’s still open.
The regular pomp and circumstance that accompanies Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will be toned down at First Presbyterian this year. The same can be said for most other churches as well. There will be no after service reception, no birthday cake for baby Jesus that the church orders each year. On Christmas Eve, Kelsey and the church’s new director will hold a candlelight service accompanied by carols.
At home, congregation members will be able to participate by lighting their own candle on the video meeting and ‘passing it’ to the next person. It’s a representation in some ways of the fellowship churches have tried to maintain this year.
“That’s all I can do is give people hope, hope, hope,” she said. “Hope and courage that even this will pass.
I hope they receive a hope that makes no sense, because with everything going on in the world, we certainly shouldn’t feel ( hope). But I hope we do. That’s what Christ and Christmas and God can bring.”
Pastor Hal Hightower of the Rochester Hills Baptist Church also said the toughest part of 2020 was learning to minister to people he hasn’t seen in-person for months on end. In the height of the pandemic, his staff split the congregation into five groups who would receive mental and spiritual welfare checks each week. He estimates about 80% of them are back in the church, while the remainder are still being ministered to remotely.
Christmas celebrations will be limited and more intimate this year. Instead of creating a large program, extra effort was placed into decorating the church for the small indoor audience and larger group of online attendees. The choir will sing a set of songs that tell the story of Christmas through music, each of them being selected for a prior year’s holiday program.
Hightower said he sees this holiday as an opportunity to remind his congregation about trusting in one’s faith.
“Regardless of us not knowing what’s going on, God certainly does. Our response (to life) can’t be to cower in fear or persecute one another,” he said. “There was no pandemic when Jesus was born, but the Roman government was one of the most oppressive in history of the world, yet that’s when God picked to send the savior. We have to put our trust in the Lord.”
In Clarkston, Pastor John Bettin of the St. Daniel Catholic Church is preparing to lead six Christmas masses to accommodate the nearly 200 parishioners who will likely look to attend one. Extra masses were added to facilitate social distancing.
“Even with the restrictions, we’re not allowing that to hold us back from worshiping God. It took a lot of time for people to feel comfortable coming back. We want them to feel comfortable here,” Bettin said.
Instead of the required 50% capacity limit, the church tries to keep capacity closer to 20% with every mass being recorded and uploaded online. Like Kelsey, Bettin has also seen how the pandemic has deeply impacted his community. Under the hardship, he’s hopeful the holiday will inspire the congregation to keep supporting one another.
“We can witness every day a lot of anxiety and depression. You can sense it in the community. People tell us these things, but at the same token, there’s this underlying sense of peace and hope at this time. We’re still in the Advent season, a season of penance, but after that is Christmas Day, the day when Christ was born,” he said. “You can also sense joy.”
This spring, Interim Pastor Beth Delaney at the Community Presbyterian Church of Waterford saw one of her congregation members die from the virus. At the time, she herself was in quarantine for potential exposure. Unable to be at the bedside of the man and his wife, who she had known for about three years, she ministered to the soon to be widow over the phone.
“It was very difficult. I was also grieving for this person and I felt like what I could do over the phone was so inadequate,” she said. “To be the shepherd of (the congregation’s) spiritual care during this whole crisis has been a tremendous weight.”
Delaney, who has a background working with computers, was able to use her skills to create video content throughout the pandemic. For Christmas, she’s assigned roles from the nativity to members of the congregation to create prerecorded service to tell the story of the holiday. Like the First Presbyterian in Pontiac, Community Presbyterian will also hold a virtual candle passing as members of the choir sing Silent Night.
“The hope of Christmas is the same every year. It remains unchanged,” she said. “It’s just how we’re going about it that’s different.”