Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention. For area faith leaders, the pandemic has prompted them to explore, reimagine and find new ways to connect with their congregations while keeping the focus on God.
That has included online service options that expanded their reach in both numbers and geography. People from Texas, Wyoming and even Taiwan have tuned in to catch local sermons. And they're available on-demand if people want to sermon-surf.
Those virtual offerings will continue, pastors said, even after the pandemic is gone. It's been one of the positive spinoffs from COVID-19. Another, they said, is the way congregation members have stepped up to share talents, solve problems and reach out to others.
Meanwhile, the attendance at funerals, baptisms and weddings has shrunk. Some pastors have held events outdoors; others have live-streamed them for family and friends to watch at home or listen to in the parking lot.
Fr. Andrew Ricci, rector of Cathedral of Christ the King, said it's easy to follow your faith when things are going well. Times of trouble test and refine it.
"Divine providence is this notion that if God is working in the midst of human suffering and struggle and angst — look at the cross, look at the manger scene — if God can work through that, then God is working through this. And our job is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, continue to do the teachings he gave us, the commandments he offered and to live our lives in service for others," Ricci said.
Every faith leader, every church council, every congregation is tackling the job in their own manner.
We're not in this alone, said Mark Holmes, pastor of Darrow Road Wesleyan Church.
"I just encourage people to take a look, you know, behind the immediate scenes and see that God is still very much alive and well during this," Holmes said.
Little things aren't so little
At first glance, the sanctuary at Pilgrim Lutheran Church in Superior looks like a news studio. The high-tech equipment includes umbrella lights and three different cameras. When the pandemic hit, “We didn’t have any of this," said Pastor Will Mowchan.
One of the church members is a videographer, and his talents have been tapped to help with the church’s virtual outreach. The worship team sets up different lighting and camera angles for speakers and singers.
The church has been shut down for nine months, with only virtual services available. Mowchan has been connecting with members via phone since the pandemic began, but if a member is hospitalized, he's not able to visit.
"I can't go," he said. "So it just feels like I'm not doing my job. I understand that's how it is. I accept it, but it's really hard."
The pandemic restrictions have taken a toll on everyone.
"As hard as this all is at times, it really in many ways is also definitely bringing out the very best in people," Mowchan said. "And our motto almost from the beginning is we can’t be together, but we can stay together. And I’ve been seeing that in ways I could never imagine."
The congregation continues to launch community outreach efforts. They raised funds for international students at the University of Wisconsin-Superior in the spring and recently collected a mountain of mittens and a $600 cash donation for a Superior High School student’s senior project. The mittens will be distributed to Northern Lights Elementary School and local shelters.
Congregation members are laying the foundation of support from a distance through calls, offers of help with grocery shopping, even hand-knit mittens.
"In one way, it doesn’t sound like much, but right now it means a world to both the people who receive that care and to the people who give it," Mowchan said. "You find out that the little things aren’t so little."
An anchor in the storm
In March, Pastor Darrell Kyle sent out a letter to the congregation stating Trinity Lutheran in Lake Nebagamon would be closed for a couple of weeks and would return at Easter.
"That didn't really work out the way I thought it would," he said.
The lack of an end date to the pandemic, the shifting messages about it and the loss of some annual traditions have put a strain on everyone. Kyle and the church council have worked to provide stability for both congregation members and the community.
"Providing some sort of an anchor in the midst of the storm is what we’ve been trying to do," he said.
That has meant basically reinventing the way they do church services. After the shutdown, the church moved to a drive-thru model for Easter. Single-serving kits containing the sacrament were handed to each car on the end of a canoe paddle.
About the same time, they began recording sermons and putting them on YouTube. After preaching to an empty church for three weeks, Kyle took his show on the road. He filmed at locations that fit the sermon, such as Douglas County roads, in the middle of the woods, or standing by a cattle gate.
Next up came an elevated deer stand in the church parking lot and a radio transmitter. People could park their cars, tune in and watch the service unfold like a drive-in movie.
Although the congregation has returned to in-person services, members still have the option to tune in online or park in the lot and listen to the service on the radio.
"It's forced you to be creative and that's invigorating," Kyle said. "The other thing is, this — thus far — has gone on nine months, and there are days that I'm just tired of it."
He said he misses the little things, like a handshake.
Kyle reaches out to families every week through email or phone, but he's only been allowed to visit members at nursing homes twice since the pandemic began. About half those shut-ins have died during the pandemic, Kyle said, none from COVID-19.
"I think the isolation has a lot to do with it," he said.
So how can people help each other through this?
"I think the first thing is to be kind, and the second thing is to be relational," Kyle said. "This pandemic has been so isolating that we need to break in and allow people to break into our lives. This isolation isn't good for us."
Seeing the sacrifice
The greatest asset faith communities have is fellowship, Ricci said. Safety protocol in the midst of COVID-19 has made fellowship more challenging, but not impossible.
Ricci delivers a daily livestream Mass, podcast and blog, connects via phone and even sends handwritten postcards to parishioners.
"If they can't come here, we can bring something to them," he said. "Because the message is hope."
The Catholic Church has been around a long time; it even has specific prayers and protocol for pandemics. And the five churches Ricci leads have added some new literature. Handwashing instructions in the bathrooms encourage folks to wash up as long as it takes to say one "Our Father" and one "Hail Mary."
"Wash your hands and say your prayers, because germs and Jesus are everywhere," Ricci said.
Ricci has been able to extend fellowship to parishioners in nursing homes, assisted living facilities and hospitals. In the last three weeks, he has visited every nursing home and hospital anointing people who died of COVID-19 or complications from the virus.
He's witnessed firsthand the efforts of frontline medical staff. Since the pandemic began, they've had to do their jobs with almost no backup.
"And they've had to become the surrogate family, because a whole lot of the people in our nursing homes haven't seen their kids," due to restrictions, Ricci said.
Nurses and aides are often the ones holding the hands of residents as they pass.
He's been moved by the dedication he's seen, and he said when he visits, it's as much to say thank you to staff members as to pray with the dying.
"They’re doing their professional job, and then they’re being this, this really compassionate human being. It’s heartwarming to see these exhausted people just giving," Ricci said.
The priest said he finds joy in the Gospel and draws strength from his faith. He unwinds by baking; cooking; making wine, sausage and cheese; reading; studying language; and watching the stars.
The problem is global; the way to get through it is one connection at a time.
"There’s a lot of lonely people, so pick up the phone, reach out, call people, check in with people, don’t take for granted a neighbor, a family member, a friend, but take the time to just say 'How are you?'" Ricci said. "I think that connectedness, for some people, is really tough. Sometimes I wonder if they’re dying of COVID ... or if they’re dying of a broken heart."
Putting the challenges in perspective
Adversity and persecution often bring out the best in a faith community, Holmes said.
At Darrow Road Wesleyan Church, there were hits and misses when online services launched.
"We did a couple of them and each one had some kind of glaring issues," Holmes said. "The first one we tried, it never loaded up. It never went off and our live feed died. And all these people who were ready to watch it saw a blank screen. Then the following week, we got that all figured out and found out that the first half of the service had no sound."
The online services, which are posted on Facebook, give Holmes mixed emotions. While they have helped new people connect to the church, Holmes said he feels people get the most from a service by attending in person.
“I guess we’re — in a general sense of churches — wrestling between being there for the people yet at the same time, accepting where the people are at," he said.
The church reopened after the spring lockdown, but has shut down temporarily twice because of the virus, most recently due to the local spike in cases.
Like other local pastors, Holmes has found it frustrating when he's unable to visit parish members in the hospital to pray with them. He also struggles with ways to comfort their family members.
"You have messaging and texting and things like that, but it’s not the same," he said. "You feel for the people. They’re scared."
Having a blank livestream or no sound for half a sermon is a nuts and bolts kind of problem compared to larger questions Holmes asks himself.
"The thing that I have the most problem with is, 'Am I doing what I need to do to care for the people?' Because a lot of the stuff I’ve been used to doing over the last 40 years, so to speak, has been taken away," Holmes said. "It’s learning to become comfortable with a new pair of shoes kind of thing. And I just want to make sure I’m doing it right."
He encouraged people to pray, spend time in the word and make themselves available to whatever faith community's actions are out there.
"I really encourage people not to just get narrowed down on the statistics and the desperation that they might feel. There’s still hope, there’s still control in all of this, as much as it seems there isn’t," Holmes said.