HELENA — The pandemic has been a mental, emotional, and spiritual test for many. Montana’s faith leaders are no exception, having made some difficult decisions while guiding their congregations through one of the most challenging times many can remember.
A church by definition is a community. Over the last year, faith communities of all sizes have had to reevaluate what community means during a deadly pandemic.
Bishop Marty Stebbins was consecrated to lead the Episcopal Diocese of Montana in December of 2019, mere months before the pandemic would force them to close their door. Stebbins had better comprehension than most of what a pandemic could mean for holding organized services. She holds a Ph.D. in veterinary bacteriology and had studied coronavirus strains in the past.
“By mid to late January the epidemiology drumbeats were saying this is an epidemic in China, it’s going to travel,” said Stebbins. “When it hit outside our borders I basically had told the broader congregation members through the clergy that if they were in certain categories, that if they can’t wear a mask they should probably start skipping church.”
Just a few blocks away Reverend Margaret Gillikin, lead pastor for Helena United Methodist Ministries, was having to make a similar decision for her own congregation.
“When the urgent need to flatten the curve was publicized we were actually in an event at St. Paul’s that was for the entire weekend, and we had to make the difficult decision to stop the event halfway through,” said Gillikin.
Gillikin and Stebbins say their motivation for closing their churches was out of love and compassion for their neighbors. The two faith leaders looked not only to their own interests but also to the interests of others.
In the week following, Governor Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency. Churches would close their doors to in-person services due to public health orders shortly after.
Not ones to be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of their mind, churches quickly found ways to adapt. Virtual services have been incredibly important for churches to provide spiritual well-being while also protecting their congregation.
Gillikin says they were fortunate at St. Paul’s. The church was constructed with sound and lighting equipment in mind. A camera and a way to broadcast their sermons to their congregation were all they needed.
The Episcopalians had much more work to do, but they’ve found a way to broadcast Sunday service from their churches from across the state.
Stebbins says there have also been unexpected boons from increasing the number of digital services they offer. “People had been shut in anyway, all of the sudden were back in community,” said Stebbins. “I’ve had shut ins say, ‘Please don’t stop this, I've seen more people on Zoom from church that in-person in years.’”
Stebbins says they also now have people joining them each Sunday for worship from all over the world, and many who are recently worshiping for the first time.
“We’ve had people been attending at our congregations remotely that would not have felt comfortable coming in person. They could stick their toe in the water by watching us electronically,” explained Stebbins.
St. Paul’s United Methodist is still fully virtual for all of its services. While there have been several benefits, Gillikin says there are some fundamental aspects of being a part of a church that is missing.
“One of the things that we have really been focusing on in the last several months is how do we build connection? How do we build community when we are physically far apart?” said Gillikin. “The way that people are able to pray for and support each other and communicate that to each other with live in-person gathering with a community of faith is an enormous part of the value of being part of a church community.”
Many religions are tactile by nature, especially Christianity. Touching, sharing and holding is at the core of most churches; be that baptism, drinking from the common cup or understanding death.
“Community we have learned to define it in new ways. We do have electronic community but throughout all of our evolution community really meant close physical contact and that’s what we’ve really mourned,” said Stebbins. “We’ve lost not very many, but a few parishioners. It’s been tough and it’s been tough for those that have died not from COVID but from other things. I’ve had a staff member whose wife died of a chronic disease and he was not able to be there with her.”
Stebbins, like many other Montanans, has lost a loved one to COVID-19. Her elderly stepmother had broken a rib and needed to be in nursing care. While in that care she contracted COVID-19 and died from complications of the disease several days later.
One of the most important functions of any church is providing guidance through the end of life.
The cruelty of COVID-19 lies in its isolation. Because of the nature of the virus and the danger it poses, those dying from the disease are not surrounded by loved ones. Faith leaders who have spent years if not decades in that individual's life aren’t able to physically comfort them or their family.
“I think this pandemic has helped us realize-- not just Christians but everyone-- just how precious it is to be able to be with those who are very ill or are dying or with the families after the dead to mourn, lament and celebrate,” said Stebbins.
“We’ve really wrestled with how we walk with people through the important rituals of life that the church has a significant role to play with people,” Gillikin said.
Yet even though the last year had been dark, brilliant rays of light have shone through too.
Parishioners and lay members in both congregations have taken note of individuals cut off from others during the pandemic and regularly reached out to provide that human connection and show in tangible ways that those individuals matter and are loved.
“The congregation had gotten very creative,” explained Gillikin. “They’ve organized among the laity to really figure out who are people that need regular contact. Who’s isolated, who’s living alone. Let’s make sure they get a regular phone call to check in to see how they’re doing.”
When people have struggled, church communities have carried each other’s burdens. They have helped their community in large and small ways, strengthening each other through their actions and charity.
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. (Proverbs 27:17)
“I really think that in these dark times we have started to relearn and be reminded of what’s really valuable,” said Stebbins.