Seminary’s first online gathering for pastors helps to foster connection and innovation among pandemic challenges

As the social restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic caused increasing challenges to those in the ministry, Eastern Mennonite Seminary instructor Sarah Bixler began to sense a need for connection among her pastor friends and current students serving as pastors.

The result was an April 1 online gathering that drew 32 pastors, including 22 alumni, representing Mennonite Church USA, the Church of the Brethren, Presbyterian Church USA and United Methodist Church. 

Participants in the 90-minute session brought not only ecumenical diversity but geographic diversity — pastors were working in ministry contexts in California, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia.

“I’m glad I connected with the forum on Zoom because hearing personal stories was even more helpful than ‘best practices’ from folks who are positioning themselves as experts… even though no one has ever lived through this before,” said Jon Carlson, pastor of Forest Hills Mennonite Church in Pennsylvania.

Carlson is a member of MC USA’s executive board. Sue Park-Hur, denominational minister for transformative leadership, also attended.

Veva Mumaw, the seminary’s admissions director who also works in church relations, hosted the event and Bixler provided facilitation.

In her welcome and introduction to the group, Bixler stressed the need for resisting isolation during this time of personal transition and pastoral stress, “as you scrambled to take worship services online and care for your congregants.”

“Now more than ever, we need networks of support and spaces for innovation. We need to ‘lead together,’ which is EMU’s new tagline – to recognize that we are not alone, that we need not be isolated in our ministry, that we together can participate in God’s dynamic mission as it unfolds in surprising ways amid our changing world.”: 

Bixler then offered space to converse around three questions: 

  • What has been your biggest challenge in the past few weeks of pastoral leadership?
  • What grace has surprised you?
  • What innovative pastoral response have you offered that you’re most proud of?

“During the forum, as pastors responded to my three questions, they reported good attendance at a variety of congregational online worship formats. Many acknowledged the challenges of meeting new pastoral care needs, drawing on theological and biblical resources during the crisis, responding to grief and loss and tending to their own spiritual well-being,’” Bixler said.

Forum series in the works

One result of the gathering is a plan to offer a free Online Pastors Forum Series for Navigating COVID-19, beginning April 15, throughout the spring of 2020 for pastoral leaders occurring every other week. These facilitated conversation spaces would cover interdisciplinary topics and feature EMU & EMS professors and current pastors in the format of online webinars, forums and panel discussions. 

The first event is Wednesday, April 15, 2020, 3:00 – 4:30 pm EDT. The topic is “Pastoral Care in the Time of Covid-19 and Beyond” and will include a facilitated discussion on grief/loss without physical presence, caring for others from a distance, caring for ourselves, etc.

Register here for the first forum.

Facilitators include Penny Dreidiger, ACPE Clinical Educator, Eastern Mennonite Seminary, and Sentara RMH Staff Chaplain; Eric Martin, Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community Supportive Living Chaplain; and Lonnie Yoder, Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling, Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

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