Finding opportunities in the 'new normal': One pastor's experience

The sanctuary at Rupert UMC in Vermont.

May 26, 2020

“Funerals are hard right now.”
“Right now” being these days of restricted in-person gatherings because of COVID-19. 
Pastor Tom Atkins, who is quoted above, serves quarter time at the Rupert United Methodist Church in Vermont. 
For a funeral last month, Pastor Atkins found a way to adapt to Vermont’s limit of 10 people at a gathering: He performed the graveside service three times. 
Pastor Tom Atkins

“Even in a very rural area like where I live ... my little church, which normally has 25 or 30 people on Sunday morning, we [have] 130-140 people at funerals, and so trying to limit that is hard,” Pastor Atkins said.
The family pared the attendees down to 25, so Pastor Atkins agreed to repeat the service first for family, then for close friends, and finally for friends from church. Family groups stood together but kept their distance from others. Most, including Pastor Atkins, most wore a mask. 
“There’s no rocket science to it,” he said. “It was just a way for them to have their closure.”
The services were longer than a typical graveside service – each about 30-35 minutes versus 10-15. Pastor Atkins included a eulogy, the Lord’s Prayer, and opened it up for people to “say what they wanted to say.” All things, he said, that are not usually part of the graveside service.
The family, as a whole, felt good about the experience, Pastor Atkins said. “They could include these people who had known her for a long time.” 
Pastor Atkins said he’s not been asked to do many funerals these days. People are waiting to hold a funeral or memorial service until they can have a larger gathering, opting for a simple graveside service instead. 
But whether that can really provide families with closure, Pastor Atkins is uncertain.
The time spent with him (or whomever is officiating) planning the service — along with the visitation time and the informal gathering before and after the service, are all important. 
“I think a great deal of what brings people closure is that time of sharing stories about the person and things they remember, and that doesn’t happen in the short graveside service … the shear act of sharing those stories is part of the healing,” he said.

A Zoom memorial?

These days Rupert UMC is holding its worship services via Zoom.  
“One thing we do — I have everybody up there in their Hollywood Squares — and I literally go person by person: ‘What’s going on with you this week?’” Pastor Atkins said. “It takes 20 minutes before we start the service, but I think it’s become an important part.” 
Even though members talk before and after in-person worship, he said “you don’t get to hear everybody’s things.” 
“There’s some value in that; I’m not sure how that would translate into a funeral … it might,” he said, adding that it’s something he would consider.
“I might offer it or talk to some of my funeral home folks – because they’re struggling with serving the way that they would like to serve,” he said. 
While finding new ways to serve presents significant challenges, to pastors and congregations, too, it can also be a path to learning and growth. 
“It’s not the same, but it’s not bad,” Pastor Atkins said of Zoom worship. Though the Rupert congregation is older, they seem to be embracing it – including one member who’s learned Zoom at age 94. 
And while they have long said no to a projector and screen in the church’s 19th-century neo-gothic sanctuary (see photo above), they like online graphics, Pastor Atkins said. 
“Now [several] weeks into doing the online services, they’re finding they like having the scripture pop up. They like having the map pop up when I’m talking about Paul going into Asia minor,” he said. “So, I think I have an opportunity to bring a technology into the services that probably would not have happened.”
“People who don’t come to my sanctuary services have been coming to the online services, which I find very interesting,” Pastor Atkins said. Among those are “the weekenders,” folks with second homes who attend Rupert UMC when they are in the area. 
“Over the years, they’ve gotten to know our folks and we’ve gotten to know them, and they’ve been coming to our online services,” he said. “I think [chatting via Zoom] has increased that bond between everybody, because we do go through and talk to everyone.”
The church has also begun an online Bible study; it’s small (4-5 people) but has one participant from 45 miles away. And for an older congregation that does not like to drive at night, meeting online opens new possibilities, he said. 
They haven’t found a good way to do hymns online, but they have shared some mini concerts by their organist Kevin Bishop on Facebook (see below). 

“I joke that he’s becoming a rock star; he’s developed his own following from the community,” Pastor Atkins said.  

New opportunities

“I’m really looking hard – and of course every pastor I talk to is in the same boat – how do we take some of what we’ve learned we can do here and make it work when we go back to sanctuary services – what parts can we still do?”
“If we’re thoughtful about this,” Pastor Atkins said, “I think we’re going to find it presents a lot of new opportunities.”