Churches find ways to connect despite social distancing


April 3, 2020


Pastor CJ Boettcher leads a service last Sunday that was streamed on Cloquet's Zion Lutheran Church web and Facebook page.

Can you imagine pastors Jeff Walther and Tom Brinkley preaching from the roof of St. Matthews Lutheran Church in Esko on Easter Sunday? Below them in the parking lot are parishioners in their cars dialed into an FM frequency on their radios, listening and reciting the Lord's Prayer.

A few months ago, there would be laughter about such a stunt. Today, in a pandemic world, the plans at St. Matthews seem ingenious and hopeful.

"It has forced us to be creative but stay within the guidelines," Walther said this week when talking about the changes his church has been through since social distancing to prevent the spread of a deadly virus became the norm in the area and around the world.

Walther and church leaders in northern Carlton County have had to scramble to get services online and serve members while keeping people from gathering in church buildings.

Part of faith is "love your neighbor," Walther said, and people staying away from each other is how he'd like his parishioners to take part and hold to that maxim.

"We will make the best of it," Walther said. He and other church leaders said being apart from congregations during the Easter season is especially difficult. "It's a high point of the year," Walther said.

Pastor Chris Hill knows how difficult it will be to not have people in Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Cloquet on April 12. "We're kind of famous for our Easter service," he said. He and volunteers at the church have set up a phone tree to make sure congregation members are doing OK.

"Folks seem to be handling it pretty well," Hill said of the social distancing and the thought of spending weeks in our homes away from other people. "People miss being together."

Right now, the check-in calls are short, Hill said. Parishioners say, yep, they are doing fine and are thankful for the call, he said. "As it goes on longer, I'm sure the phone calls will get longer."

It's not just services that are being posted online through church websites. Our Savior's is keeping its youth group connected and offering virtual Sunday School. Hill says he misses seeing the preschoolers at the church and volunteers are offering online engagement with them as well.

A tech curve

There is an online meme going around in pastor circles online. It shows the Doctor McCoy character from the television show "Star Trek" and a take on a line of dialogue made famous when the doctor was asked by Captain Kirk to step into critical situations that had nothing to do with the medical field. "Darn it, Jim, I'm a pastor, not a videographer."

Pastors have had to quickly become experts in online technology or find people to step up.

"If we were really good at technology, we'd be doing something else," quipped Pastor Brian Cornell at Northwood United Methodist in Esko. "We're IT people now. And, luckily, we're relying on a teenager."

He and his wife, Katherine, also a pastor, are always busy on Sundays serving three churches in the region. What had been a busy day now becomes "Herculean" with all the technology thrown in, he said.

He said churchgoers are going through "stages of grief," in having lost their weekly community connection. "There's things that have been changed, lost," Cornell said. He said he's been humbled by introspective parishioners who have realized that and are helping people deal with the way things are for now.

Church and home

To say things are a "challenge" for Pastor CJ Boettcher at Zion Lutheran Church in Cloquet is an understatement even in a topsy-survey COVID-19 world. He has a 4-week old baby at home.

"It's always a balancing act," he said. "Of being a good dad and guiding a church."

He said he's been impressed with how his church members have reacted. "It's 'Put me in, Coach,'" when it comes to those helping to keep the church presence strong online. "People are willing to step up."

He said his particular concern is keeping the spirits up for the elders in the church. "They are our great treasure."

"Anxious times can breed division," Boettcher said, "but that hasn't happened." He also said he senses a feeling of grief, especially in the holiest time of the year for churches. "There is Christmas Eve and then there is (Holy Week). Not to be in community right now is really tough."

And there are so many side considerations, Boettcher said, like what to do about massive flower orders for Easter Sunday. There is talk about saving that money and having more flowers at services all year long. "We're not together now but one way or another, we will be back together."

Staying connected

Boettcher said he thinks of baptism and the connection people make to God and the church. That endures, he said, no matter where one worships. "We have that connection. And that is a hopeful thing."


This meme is making its rounds on church leaders' social media apps. Churches in Carlton County have had to adjust to technology in efforts to bring services and other church functions online as parishioners are kept from gathering at church.

Pastor Matthew Kohl at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Cloquet also sees a silver lining. "Our world is all about hustling along," he said. "Now, all of sudden, we're slowing down. We're seeing good, old-fashioned contact in letters and phone calls. The level of conversation is amazing."

Kohl said he clings to that, that people can adapt and change in even the most precarious of situations. "We've never gone through anything like this. It's such an interesting phenomenon."

Yes, interesting times call for interesting measures like that drive-in Easter service at St. Matthews in Esko. Walther said he is willing to do everything he can to "make the best of it" and keep his congregation connected. "Minnesotans have a spirit," he said. "Everything is different, but we're finding out how we can connect. We can get through this."


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