With Christians preparing for the most solemn week on their liturgical calendar and Jews marking one of their holiest days next week as well, the coronavirus pandemic is posing nearly unprecedented challenges for religious leaders.
Social distancing has forced the cancelation of services and many religious leaders have ramped up weekly and even daily messages on their websites and many are conducting weekly services online as well.
But even as they tend to their congregations, many leaders also share the economic hardships of their members since donations are drying up.
Bishop Deborah Hutterer of Ahwatukee has been on the front lines of all those challenges.
As the leader of the Grand Canyon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, she oversees 89 congregations serving 44,000 members spread across Arizona, southern Nevada and St. George, Utah, and also has been maintaining contact with 64 other bishops across the country.
Unable to visit those pastors and congregations, she has been working from her office and restricting her travel to a couple of trips to the store and walks alone in her neighborhood.
“This has been a crazy time, isn’t it?” she mused.
It’s also been a trying time.
On March 14, as school districts across Arizona were announcing their campus shutdowns, Hutterer was advising the pastors in her synod to follow social distancing guidelines and cancel Sunday services indefinitely.
“I just urged people to suspend services and to my knowledge, there were some that did worship on that Sunday, March 15. But to my knowledge right now, I don’t think we have any congregations that are worshiping in person,” said Hutterer, who, like other bishops in her church, can’t issue orders to pastors.
“I only get to urge them,” she added.
After a conference call with 56 other bishops, she learned that virtually all have suspended services – and many were nervous that President Trump early last week was saying he wanted to see packed churches on Easter. That wish has since been discarded as Trump extended social distancing guidelines through April 30.
Indeed, Hutterer said she was writing pastors and “strongly urging that all in-person worship be suspended until early May and maybe longer.”
Rabbi Susan Schanerman of Ahwatukee also has cancelled services for Congregation NefeshSoul, which meets in Chandler.
“We have cancelled our in-person congregational seder,” she said, adding she may have a virtual seder on YouTube, where she also is presenting Shabbat services on the NefeshSoulAZ channel.
“We have been including online resources for Passover on my weekly newsletter and hope that our congregants find a safe way to observe the festival,” Schanerman said. “Passover is one of the most celebrated of the Jewish holidays because it is so family- and community-oriented, so this year will be especially difficult for Jews all over the world.”
Hutterer said pastors also are adjusting to performing their duties in a different way.
“Most of them have figured out how to use their phone at the very least and put something online.” She said. “We have some pastors who are doing daily devotionals. It’s just as simple as reading scripture and praying. But I am surprised by the creativity and the adaptability of our pastors. They’ve had to do a quick learning, master a sharp learning curve and they’ve done that.”
Her home church, Mountain View Lutheran is an example of adaptability, although Pastor Glenn Zorb said the pain of closing facilities reverberated though every facet of the church’s life with cancelations of not only services but various organizations’ meetings such as Fiancial Peace University.
“The only exception we made was that we allowed the leaders of our various 12 Step programs to make the call that they felt was best for their group because most people in those groups will have some of the greatest challenges when all this new stress is laid upon them,” Zorb said, adding that those meetings on in the church courtyard.
At least some of the churches in Hutterer’s synod face the same challenges that school districts confront: Not everyone has internet service or knows how to operate a digital device.
“We know that there are some who don’t have the technology,” Hutterer said. “They don’t know how to get into Facebook. We have a number of people who still have flip phones.”
With Holy Week beginning next week and commemorating Jesus’ death and resurrection, Hutterer said she’s working with pastors to explore ways “they could send something to people who are at home.”
“Many of our congregations are just doing things like phone tree to make sure they’re in touch with people, especially when they know that someone is living alone,” she added.
Hutterer said she and her pastors are also shoring up congregants’ spirits as Holy Week draws near.
“Many people look forward to Holy Week,” she explained, “but what we’ve been telling them is that as a church, as a Lutheran church, we’ve always said that every Sunday is a little Easter.”
“And as the church, we also have seven weeks of Easter – it goes all the way to Pentecost. And so, we’re encouraging people to remember that right now although there are some anxieties and some loss and feelings about this, that the churches will be full, but it’s just not our building. And the resurrection will be celebrated no matter where we are.”
But the ban on large gatherings hasn’t canceled out special Holy Week observances altogether. “We have a virtual Stations of the Cross,” Hutterer said, referring to a traditional Christian observance of the Crucifixion.
The church has also provided households with information on how families can observe other Holy Week liturgies.
Added Zorb: “Holy week services and Easter will be a challenge, but we will offer Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter morning services on-line at our website (mvlutheran.org) and if the current CDC rules remain in place through Easter, we will offer, “Drive-in” worship in our parking lot. You drive in, stay in your car, tune your radio to a low power FM signal in our parking lot, keep your windows closed or cracked open, park in every other spot facing west...and we will lead worship from a stage area we have set up with the leaders at least 6 feet apart from each other.”
Meanwhile, the pastors face both professional and personal hardships in some cases.
“The most frustrating change for me as a pastor is I cannot go and visit the people in our community that are in the most dire of circumstances,” Zorb said.
“I am not allowed into the hospitals, the retirement centers, the nursing care facilities, the hospice facilities or even the homes of members that are sick. Most of them I can’t call on the phone or face time with because they don’t have either access or the ability to connect those ways,” he added.
And with no services, some pastors also are anxious over whether congregants will remember they still need their donations to survive.
Because pastors are considered self-employed, they are not normally entitled to unemployment benefits, although the $2-trillion emergency aid bill Trump signed last week may provide some financial relief for them.
Synagogues face the same challenges, Schanerman said.
“Rabbis, cantors and other synagogue staff absolutely depend on the financial support of their congregations for their livelihoods,” she said. “We do not receive funds from an umbrella organization. If donations begin to decline, this will put a serious financial strain on synagogues and staff.
“We hope that our members continue to support us, knowing that they are often struggling financially themselves,” she added.
Zorb said, “In most churches, the pastors do depend on the church for their livelihood. Mountain View is no different. As one wag put it: ‘Work for the Lord, the pay is low but the retirement plan is out of this world!”
Zorb also noted that Christmas and Easter collections often are “make or break” periods for congregations because giving is especially generous - and more people fill up the pews.
“The reality is that unlike some businesses, where you can delay or postpone new capital investments or the roll out of new lines of business, churches usually run very tight budgets with about 55-60 percent going for staffing in churches that worship 300 or more and about another 25-30 percent going for fixed costs such as mortgages, program expenses, utilities and insurance. The remaining 10 percent is given away for the poorest in the world if the church is healthy, “ he said.
Sunday services aren’t the only casualties of social distancing for churches either. Funerals and weddings, along with regular weekly programs, also have largely diminished.
“Right now, we are following the guidelines – it needs to be a gathering of 10 or less,” Hutterer said. “I know some pastors who’ve just postpone funerals.
And if the death rates from coronavirus begin increasing in her synod as they have elsewhere in the country, “this could be a big challenge,” Hutterer said.
Most couples put their wedding plans on hold, although she said, “I know one that has 100 guests invited and they already had to postpone the wedding once because her mother had died.
“I talked with the pastor and we agreed that he could go ahead and do it as long as they had less than 10 people and they washed their hands. So, they cut their guests list down to 10.”
But beyond services and the congregations’ well-being, Hutterer has concerns that cross all religious affiliations – and that are shared by people with no particular religious faith.
“I don’t think people really have taken a lot of this seriously,” she said.
“Life as we have known it, it’s changed,” she added. “But I don’t know that we’ve been able to embrace it.”
And she and Schanerman both reminded people that social distancing doesn’t mean that pastors and rabbis have put their sense of responsibility on a shelf.
“We continue to provide services and classes through online platforms,” Schanerman said. “We continue to provide pastoral care and support from a distance or in person. Our work does not cease when our physical doors close.”
Zorb takes a view that is part theological and part historical.
“I have reminded our congregation this isn’t the first pandemic the church has lived through,” Zorb said.
“We made it through the Spanish Flu and even the Plague, so take a deep breath (far away from anyone else) and remember God is in charge and we remain in the palm of His hand.