COVID-19: Pastor at Great Valley Presbyterian Church Talks About Serving a Congregation During the Pandemic

Fink’s Sunday service set up in the old sanctuary during the spring of COVID-19 (Great Valley Presbyterian Church)

With a new sanctuary and colder weather on the way, the church community expects its Sunday services will be very different from week to week as worship begins to move back inside.

Keith Fink, senior pastor of Great Valley Presbyterian Church in Malvern, Pennsylvania, has had to change his preaching style so he could find the best way to reach his audience. Specifically when they weren’t gathered in pews in front of him inside the church’s sanctuary, currently undergoing renovation.

When COVID-19 hit, Fink had to abruptly transition to preaching sermons and delivering Sunday services virtually, trying to connect with the church community through the lens of a camera.

After months of the church’s activities being virtual, the church transitioned to a hybrid format, with the congregation to gather in an outdoor setting on Sunday mornings for most of the summer. With fall and winter on the way, the church has had to figure out how to use its various indoor spaces — fellowship hall, gym, kitchen and classrooms — to host socially distanced services.

Fink has been a pastor for over 30 years and came to Great Valley in 2016 from Somerset, PA, where he served as senior pastor at St. Paul’s. He spoke about the challenge of finding and building church community in a mostly digital environment.

What has it been like scheduling and planning church services since COVID?

It has been frustrating, tedious, and exhilarating at the same time.

As the pastor of the church, what was the adjustment like during COVID for your position and how did that change your preparations for Sunday services?

As a pastor, there have been many adjustments. Previously in my ministry, I spent a fair amount of time with people. I visited with them in their homes, in hospitals, in nursing facilities. I met with people in committee meetings, bible studies, and worship on a regular basis. Yet all of those in-person meetings were greatly changed or canceled because of COVID.

My preparations for Sunday services also changed greatly. In the early days of COVID, those changes dealt with decisions such as not to shake people’s hands at the close of the service or putting signs up in the bathrooms concerning battling COVID. Things nationally and locally were changing so rapidly that we felt pressed to make a decision on a Friday to cancel our public worship on Sunday. With that decision, we felt pressed to quickly make plans concerning how we were going to livestream worship and how we would communicate this news to a congregation, some who had no internet connections.

While we had been weekly livestreaming the sermon prior to this, we had never done that for the whole service. Nor had livestreaming ever been the primary way in which we were attempting to lead others in worship. Suddenly then, we were forced to change the setting of worship. It became more of a studio and less like a sanctuary; everything now would be seen through the lens of a camera. It meant that lighting immediate surroundings suddenly became of greater importance.

What has the community and outreach been like to the church congregation and visitors during COVID?

Much has changed in regard to community and outreach. Suddenly, the means of face-to-face meeting with people to do ministry on a daily basis became nearly non-existent. It meant that we significantly increased our digital communication. Instead of sending out a single weekly newsletter, we began sending out two and sometimes three emails dealing with news items for the church.

For 50 days, I wrote short daily, digital postings that led the congregation through the text of Revelation of 21 and 22. We asked our deacons to make calls to everyone in the directory on three occasions as we moved throughCOVID. As ministry staff, we made a list of people who we thought might be particularly isolated and made regular calls to those people. In regards to meetings, we purchased three licenses for Zoom as a way to provide for groups such as Bible Studies, prayer meetings, committee meetings, and Sunday school.

Fink and Great Valley transition to a hybrid format for Sunday services (Great Valley Presbyterian)

What are your plans going forward as the pastor during COVID and what should the congregation expect with transitioning from outdoor to indoor services?

In general terms, the plans going forward are to be ready for change. Change has been a constant throughout this time to this point and I expect that will continue in the days ahead. The changes we face have been exacerbated by the fact that we have been without access to our sanctuary due to construction. Construction — along with changing state mandates and guidelines — have meant regular changes to how we do worship.

We have worshiped by livestreaming only, we have worshiped in our sanctuary with varying degrees of number limits, we have worshiped in our fellowship hall with varying degrees of number limits, we have worshiped outside in the evening and we have worshiped outside in the morning. In each case, decisions had to be made as to how we would handle the new environment. Those changes will continue.

As we are currently worshiping outdoors on Sunday mornings, we fully understand that those plans could change the day before with a weather forecast. We also anticipate that we will likely soon need to move back into worshiping in fellowship hall prior to the sanctuary being ready. Beyond that, we anticipate that the sanctuary will be ready for occupancy while some level of COVID restrictions/precautions are needed. With each of these changes, decisions will need to be made concerning a whole host of issues.

We expect an increased demand for indoor worship when the sanctuary is ready, and so we have been discussing options to accommodate this.

When do you expect to have a church congregation in the new sanctuary and how will preaching in the new sanctuary be different than before?

We expect that the sanctuary to be finished by the end of November. However, we do not expect that COVID precautions will be a thing of the past at that point. So, we expect that we will move back into a sanctuary that has changed physically while still having to make decisions related to social distancing, numbers, and with that registration, singing, et cetera.

Likely, we will look to increase the numbers we allow in the sanctuary above what we had ever allowed previously during COVID. The decision to increase numbers will be made in part because the new pew configuration will naturally allow for better distancing and, in part, because of the anticipated greater demand for in-person worship. Because we will anticipate larger in-person attendance, I think our primary goal will be preaching to those present and allow the livestream viewers to look on — as opposed to allowing those present to look in a “studio” where a livestreamed service is being filmed.

What kind of feedback have you received and what were some of the challenges as well as blessings you’ve received with that?

People have been overwhelmingly kind in their feedback. They have been thankful for how flexible we have been. However, there is no doubt that the wide range of opinions about the right response to COVID nationally is reflected within the congregation. So, decisions about masking, and social distancing, and virtual meetings have also come with some level of grumbling.

As the pastor of the church, what have been some obstacles you’ve faced these past few months, as well as some good things you weren’t expecting?

The obstacles to effective personal ministry should likely be obvious. Community is best formed in person. Outreach that is purely digital in nature often seems impersonal.

While it is easier to list the obstacles there was no doubt new doors opened by this strange environment. The newfound isolation people felt allowed my short digital postings to be far more welcomed than if they had been sent in more “normal” times. If the cliché “distance makes the heart grow fond” is true, then it is true that people began to long for connection and community with people of faith.

Editor’s note: Our special reporting on COVID-19 may focus on communities outside Philadelphia because many of our student journalists are now temporarily located outside of the city. Instead, our reporters will cover how the coronavirus is impacting their own communities from across the country and around the world. We will return to hyperlocal coverage of Philadelphia’s neighborhoods as soon as possible.

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