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Initial reflections on how churches in New Zealand and Australia responded to covid-19

Today (26 February) marks twelve months since the first person suffering from covid-19 arrived in New Zealand. As I re-read the media release from the 28 February 2020 (the date the case was confirmed), I was struck again by how well New Zealand has, from the outset, handled this pandemic.

This time last year, isolation was already possible and required: a negative pressure room in the hospital was used for the patient: a woman in her 60s, and her family members were placed in isolation. Contact tracing was underway and close contacts were being tested. The messaging from the Ministry of Health was reassuring; from the headline, notifying of a “single case” to the final sentence advertising the free 24/7 covid-19 Healthline number. Medical staff were using protective equipment, and district health boards across the country had “been preparing” for this.

In addition, however, the “high degree of uncertainty” was noted: this was a “rapidly evolving” situation. It was uncharted territory. While there were principles, protocols and plans to draw on, the actual path was unknown.

The need to work together as a team was named and affirmed: “Keeping individuals, families and our communities safe and healthy in the current global environment requires a team effort and that’s what we’re seeing across New Zealand.”

Of course, none of these systems were perfect. All required (and continue to require) iterative change as more is known about the disease, as case numbers rose, as things began to return to a new sort of normal, and as cases continue to crop up.

Twelve months on, it is appropriate to pause and be glad of how we’ve traveled this past year. It’s also appropriate to pause and remember the 2369 people in New Zealand who have suffered from covid-19, and the 26 people who have died, along with their friends and families who continue to mourn their loss.  It is appropriate to think of all those who have worked so hard to help us as a nation to come through as well as we have.

This twelve-month marker is a good opportunity to look back over the past year and see what we have learnt and can be learning. I’m sure I’m not alone in doing so! Many will be considering this remarkable period from various perspectives. Me, I’m thinking primarily about how churches responded to the pandemic.

As I have been trawling church websites, and listening to church leaders, to church services and to international discussions over the past year, my particular question has been around how churches are working to support human wellbeing. How have they engaged in pastoral care? In what ways have they been involved in their wider communities? What has been the shape of worship, when gathering in person was not possible.  What changes that were made during lockdown have been retained once restrictions have been lifted? I’m curious about what has changed and what motivated those changes, what has remained the same or returned to normal, and what the future might look like. I have the privilege of 5 months set aside to focus primarily on these questions.

To date, I have primarily explored the worship services offered during lockdowns and afterwards. In writing this, I am drawing on analysis of those services, and the data from an online questionnaire completed by nearly 100 church leaders in New Zealand and Australia. It is early days in terms of my analysis and writing, but here are some things that I have observed so far. (I’ve opted not to point to the wider literature here.)

Some churches were ready to go online, some were not, but generally they “went” regardless.

  • Many online services on the 29th of March began with words along the lines of “this is not as anyone would have expected.” Watching the earliest services, one gets a sense of the leaders’ discomfort at being on screen; their shock at the unfolding situation; hope, trust and eager anticipation that they could still be the church despite distance; and a strong desire to do their very best, while aware that today’s best had room for improvement.
  • Some churches were able to build on existing innovations. For instance, one was already live streaming their services, but realised that there was much more that they could be doing with the technology.  
  • That leader also perceived that they had also been prepared spiritually, noting that during 2019 they had explored the theme of exile, considering how they would remain connected to God in the midst of great loss.
  • There were various reasons why some churches did not offer online services. Some did not have the technology or skills required to do so. Others reported that their congregations did not want to meet online. Some had members without internet access, or without the knowledge or ability to access online services. In some cases, that was perceived to be true of all members. One leader reported that their leadership, “wanted our ‘scattered’ worship to be accessible to all members, including the 25% who did not have internet access and were probably the most vulnerable and isolated group” and so they instead provided printed worship resources via email or into letterboxes.  Another leader reported, “We decided to let each person go to God for guidance.”

Churches and church leaders made iterative changes to their ministries as the weeks passed: for example, improving or streamlining the way that they offered their online worship and offering new online gatherings, and regular reflections or prayer times.

  • One church leader was initially concerned about privacy (and they noted, laughing, “not sure how it was going to go”) and on the first week recorded selected reflections from their sermon, rather than the full Zoom service. In subsequent weeks, they recorded the entire service, and protected the privacy of other participants by being the only face on screen.
  • Other churches sought to increase ways that people could participate: “We eventually got the technology together to allow people to be involved.”

Finding ways to participate was frequently seen by leaders as important, indeed a priority. Many approaches were taken.

  • Prayer needs were shared in the chat or comment functions
  • Responsive prayers were led by families in their homes, allowing multiple faces and voices to be heard and seen
  • Digital prayer and praise walls were created
  • Photos of regular attenders were shown before or during the service
  • One leader reported: “Well we’ve just had our zoom church service we did it live there were people there with their mics on and so the responses had other voices; the prayers had other voices the readings, and even the singing, and it was fabulous.”
  • Some leaders reported that meeting online increased participation – more people were involved than would have been in previous in-person worship.
  • One noted the “most common comment they received weekly [was an appreciation that] they were able to see the service and participate.”

Covid-19 offered a unique context of solidarity in that ministers, worship leaders and preachers were in the same situation as their congregations. They were preaching and speaking into their own challenging reality as much as they were speaking to others. As they did so, there was evidence that they offered preaching and worship that was both centred on God, and designed to bring hope, courage and peace to the listener.

For churches that drew on them, the lectionary texts provided a ready means for this to occur. On March 29, for example, the Old Testament text from Ezekiel 37:1-14 provided a rich metaphor of wilderness days, disorientation, a “dusty sense of hopelessness” and a longing to return to love and to God and to how things should be. The need for a new orientation was noted, along with a realisation that the new normal to which we might return will hopefully be different from the way that way things have been in the past.

In this, we see also how the language of change was used positively: covid-19 was causing a pivot that was welcomed by many, from churches of various denominations and sizes.

  • One leader noted that this was a time of “societal disorientation” and spoke of the need to trust that a time of “new orientation” will come. They paraphrased journalist, Rod Oram, as saying of the airline industry: “They won’t fight the tide. The airline business will come back, but it won’t be the same.” The underlying message here seemed to be that the same was true of the Church: it will return, but it can be (or, perhaps, needs to be) different.
  • One church, already offering online services before covid-19, seized the opportunity to improve their systems and platforms.
  • Another noted their hope that the church and nation would “find new and different ways of being church and of being community and of being country.”

Ministers worked hard to ensure their congregations’ pastoral, practical and spiritual needs were met: one part time leader reported that they “worked at least twice the amount of usual and is pretty tired.” Many sought to reassure their congregation that they were not alone. In many congregations, pastoral care was shared as new networks including prayer and care chains were established or revitalised. One noted, “the world was flooded with messages of uncertainty and turmoil, so it was important for us to bring reassurance to as many people as possible regardless of their recent connection or disconnection to God and church.” In some cases, such as this, care extended beyond the church, including as community ministries were adapted, and new initiatives established.

Technology was embraced and initiatives such as daily devotions or chats offered online during lockdown. Small groups met over Zoom for social and spiritual purposes. The potential reach was far beyond the church’s usual geographical bounds, extending internationally in some cases

Some churches returned to old practices and forms as quickly as they were permitted to (or earlier), which others embraced the ongoing changes and continue to adapt and innovate.

Evident in the media release reporting the first case were preparedness; words of reassurance; a naming of the need for values of communality and solidarity to be at the fore; recognition that this was an unfolding situation and that there was ongoing need for iterative change. To greater and lesser extents, these same characteristics are present in the data on how churches responded to COVID-19.

While no one, pre- covid-19 would have expected there would be an immediate move to online church services, there was still some sense of spiritual and practical preparedness in the data from churches and ministers. This was evident in the speed with which churches were able to begin offering online worship and ministry, however messily, and in the way that they were able to draw on past spiritual and practical resources. It was, arguably, also evident in the appropriateness of the lectionary text, drawn on by churches all over the world, on what was (for most nations) the first week when services could not be held in person.

Reassurance abounded: both in words spoken in sermons and worship and in faithful online presence. It was a reassurance that found expression in communal life and in solidarity.

While churches can seem allergic to change, the covid-19 lockdowns demonstrated that many (perhaps most) can change, and quickly when the situation requires it. Many churches continued to adapt their practices, and some continue to do so. Perhaps covid-19 has also demonstrated to the church that we don’t need to be certain that the changes made will be perfect: rather iterative improvements and adaptations can be made.

There is much more that could be said! Watch this space and keep up via

Twitter @kiwilynnetaylor

Facebook @drlynnetaylor and @kiwilynne

If you haven’t already completed the questionnaire, you can do so here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/2020C-19NZWM


Lynne

Lynne is Jack Somerville Lecturer in Pastoral Theology at Otago University; Co-leader of Student Soul; Researcher for AngelWings Ltd; and, most importantly, wife-of-Steve; mumma of Shannon and Kayli; and daughter, sister, friend, aunt (and other essential relational connections). She’s passionate about helping people discover and grow in relationship with God. Also coffee. And creativity. And sunrises. Beaches. All sorts of good things.

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