COVID Hobbles Congregating, not Creativity
How has Light of the World Christian Church in Indianapolis weathered a pandemic in the midst of an interim ministry?
Surprisingly well, according to Pastor R. Janae Pitts-Murdock. She credits strong relationships within and beyond the resilient congregation that helped the faith community “pivot and adjust” to rise to the call – including a critical relationship with Disciples Church Extension Fund (DCEF) when time came to refinance the church’s mortgage.
Pastor Janae holds a B.A. in communication, three advanced degrees, and is a candidate for a Ph.D. in preaching. But nothing prepared her for March 13, 2020, when the pandemic isolation began.
“I cannot conceive of a greater leadership challenge than to lead an interim in a pandemic,” Pastor Janae said.
Thankfully, when she came on board in August 2019, she “invested a lot of time in getting to know names, stories…” Seven months later, when in-person worship ceased due to the COVID pandemic, she had established relationships through the faith community to keep her connected.
Through those connections she could gauge more accurately what her faith community needed most in the crisis to survive — and eventually to thrive.
The church upped its communication game to stay connected to each other. Texting capacity grew; the website and social media presence developed; and phone calls on a conference line offered three daily prayer opportunities for isolated church members to find connection.
“I had no idea how much that call would become a community gathering,” she said of the prayer times. “They could hear each other and check in on each other.”
The church started online meditations to give folks a centering moment. Furthermore, Zumba and Yoga classes moved online so activity and movement aids were available to ease the strain of isolation.
“People in the pandemic needed tools and resources to manage the new stressors.”
A surprisingly popular addition was “Church in a Box.”
“Knowing we would celebrate the Lord’s Supper each Sunday from our individual homes, we wondered about the elements.”
Church in a Box included communion elements; a stamped, addressed offering envelope; and an extra “daily bread” gift in each box: masks, hand sanitizer, or other helpful items.
Participants drove by the church to pick up the boxes, often taking the opportunity to gather at a distance in the parking lot to talk with each other briefly.
With some basic needs addressed, the church began to offer growth groups and Bible studies, all the while, pivoting and adjusting to meet changing and developing needs of the community.
Wellness groups targeted specific needs: seniors, parents working from home, grieving members, single members feeling the isolation particularly acutely, folks with mental health issues that needed support to remain healthy.
While the distance wasn’t ideal, the various programs stabilized the community. Zoom calls replaced in-person meetings and life began to level off.
Meanwhile, the board had ongoing matters of the church to attend.
“Our mortgage was coming up for refinancing,” Pastor Janae said. “We were not satisfied with the options that were offered by conventional banking institutions. As an interim, I tried not to insert myself in permanent long-term decisions like that, unless invited.”
But her MBA and Public Policy degrees had taught her a few things about refinancing. She asked for a week to check on it. The board was happy to allow it.
“I connected with brother Rick Reisinger (DCEF President). I learned that Disciples Church Extension Fund had options for us that were so much better than conventional lenders offered to churches.”
In the end, LWCC chose to refinance the mortgage with DCEF.
“DCEF allowed us to consolidate our debt in a way that created real opportunity to breathe better. Our (new) final package released us from financial conditions and stipulations that had once hamper our ministry. We simply didn’t have those conditions with DCEF.
“We can dream and vision differently for how our church can move forward with programs and other ministries.
“DCEF had a strong intention to build relationship – not just a financial relationship, but a mutually beneficial relationship. When you are talking about multimillion dollar investments, more than one million dollars of debt and refinancing, you want to feel as if your dollars matter.”
The congregation affirmed their confidence in Pastor Janae’s leadership in November 2020. They called her as the first woman, and sixth settled Senior Pastor to serve LWCC in their 154-year history.
Today, Senior Pastor Janae continues to prioritize relationships in the community, recognizing the strength that comes from them, especially with the distance. As protocols begin to relax, the congregation will ease its way back to in-person gatherings. But when asked what she will do first “when the pandemic is over,” she hesitated.
The church, which has been “friendly to matters of justice and equity” for its entire existence, will continue to mind the realities of disproportionate impact of all kinds of injustice on communities of color — many of which have been exposed in new ways during the pandemic.
Advocacy on matters such as elections and voter education will continue. As will the work of the food pantry and prison ministry as restrictions are lifted.
But for now, she has “made peace with the pandemic moment. I’m caring for myself and caring for those in the LWCC family,” she said.
“I don’t dream too much about post-Covid, or when it will actually arrive. Too many expectations in Covid-19 have been unmet; too many broken promises.”
But in the midst of those disappointments was one shining reminder of the kind of dignity and respect partners in ministry can provide one another — the relationship with DCEF.
Pastor Janae’s spouse is Jeffrey Allen Murdock, PhD, who is Assistant Professor of Choral Music Education and Associate Director of Choral Studies at the University of Arkansas. The couple has two sons, Jeffrey III and John Patrick, and a goddaughter, Jasmine. Just this year, Dr. Murdock received a Grammy Award as the 2021 Grammy Music Educator of the Year for his tenured professorship at the University of Arkansas.