Report to Presbytery Assembly: June 13, 2020

It’s of no surprise that the past several months have been demanding of pastors and congregations.  The churches in the Presbytery (and all over the USA) suddenly had to move from in-person worship to virtual worship.  Those who attended ‘regular’ services could no longer meet in person.  Now they met their friends on Zoom on Sunday morning or at a weekly coffee or Bible study.

Then came the word that churches could meet in person with restrictions.  Some churches have opened, some are planning to worship soon, others are waiting.  For the individual, the question was, should I return and worship in person?  The issue for the church was how to keep safe those who come to worship in person while figuring out how to broadcast worship so those who have chosen to stay at home could still attend worship.

Then came the groundswell of demonstrations about police brutality and racial inequity.  Yes, it has been a challenging few months, hasn’t it?

Though the last several months have been challenging, they have also presented opportunities to share the Good News with those who may not come to church.  Many people who are not members of churches in the Presbytery are watching a church’s Sunday service or attending an online Bible study that is on Facebook or YouTube.  One smaller church in the Presbytery with 29 members had 180 views of their Sunday service.  Those churches in resort areas have found that many of their winter members who have returned to their summer homes still want to stay connected to their winter church.  These folks are joining the broadcast worship service.  From the conversations I have had with other pastors in the Presbytery, the stories are the same.  People from all over the USA and even the world are tuning in to virtual worship services.  What good news!

The May/June issue of Presbyterians Today quotes a Barna Group annual study which revealed 2% of practicing Christians report that they worship in a church that digitally videotaped or livestreamed the service. (p 18).  When that Survey is taken again this year, that figure will probably be closer to 95%!

What else has been going on since we last gathered?

Thanks to a contact from a member of Cathedral City Presbyterian, I have consulted with a university professor from UC Riverside to come up with suggested equipment churches in the Presbytery may find useful as they consider purchases to live stream their services.  Our Presbytery has a number of tech savvy folks who are evaluating this list and making recommendations for additional items.  The list will be published soon.  Please note, the list is just suggested equipment to consider.  You have to decide what works best for your church’s situation.

God does answer prayers.  How could the churches in the Presbytery already short on funds due to the pandemic afford the technology they need?  The Synod has offered each of the Presbyteries in the Synod, a grant of $150,000 to assist with needs that have arisen due to the pandemic.  These grant funds have been requested and I proposed that the money be used to purchase broadcast equipment for churches.  A recommendation on how to use these funds is in the Presbytery Commission’s report.  The Presbytery Commission has proposed $5000 be allocated to each church interested in receiving funds from this grant.  Further, they are recommending that these funds be used to purchase technology to assist congregations in bringing worship and other services to their congregational members.

I am forming a group of pastors who will be discussing the theological implications of the present situation and the new worship opportunities.  If you are interested in joining such a group, please let me know.  Pastors need to be able to answer peoples’ questions about God’s involvement in the pandemic as well as plan for future.  Interestingly, the May 18th LA Times published an article titled: “U.S. Believers see message from God in virus crisis.”  The public is questioning, and our pastors may be able to benefit from thinking through and discussing such issues before they talk to their congregations.

Also in the Presbytery Commission report is the recommendation that the funds the Presbytery realized from church building sales and from those who left the Presbytery be used to make available up to $10,000 no interest loans to churches who are having financial difficulties as a result of the pandemic.  Thanks to Healthy Pastors and Congregations Commission (HPCC) for working with the churches once a request is received in the Presbytery office.  Thanks are also due to Presbytery Commission and to Property Finance, Investment and Funds Development Committee who helped develop the guidelines for this loan program.  The guidelines were published in a recent Presbytery newsletter (Update, April 2020 emailed 4/6/2020) and are in your packet today at the end of the Presbytery Commission report.

So far in this report has focused on how we can carry on and thrive in the new environment.  However, at this point in time, many pastors have been working 24/7.  As many of you know, pastors and many Session members are reading the latest, seeking information to keep their congregation, staff, and themselves safe.  There’s the weekly work of producing a virtual worship service.  Pastors have had to not only prepare a sermon and a service each week but have also had to become knowledgeable of how to broadcast that service.  Pastors have been hosting weekly chats and Bible studies via Zoom or Facebook.  All that takes time and energy and many of the pastors I’ve spoken to are exhausted.

Please, help your pastor out in some way if you can.  Please don’t hesitate.  Do it!  The Bible commands that everyone take a weekly Sabbath.  Pastors need time away now more than ever.

I am so thankful for our VCI Coordinator, Rob Stewart.  As part of the VCI process, Rob put into place monthly gathering for churches involved in VCI.  After talking with him about the need to expand the groups so all pastors would have an opportunity to ‘check-in’ with other pastors, Rob organized additional groups.  I have been able to join most of the meetings.  Pastors in these small groups have told me how much of a blessing these meetings have been to them.  I am so thankful that we had the structure in place that we could use to involve all pastors, giving them a chance to share during this stressful time.

As we move forward, planning for the future, Presbytery leaders would like to have input from a broad spectrum of folks.  This task, referred to as Holy Listening, is a part of HPCC’s responsibility.  I will be working closely with them in the planning and implementation process.  When a meeting is being held in your area, please attend so your voice is heard.  More to follow.

One final piece of business.  There have been requests to simplify the Presbytery’s financial reports.  The reporting we have now is complete and detailed.  However, some people would like a report that provides an easily understood report of the financial position of the Presbytery.  The Presbytery treasurer and I have been working to develop such reports based on recommendations from Stan Bryde of Cathedral City Presbyterian.

We recently celebrated Carrie Black’s work with the Presbytery as she has resigned her full-time position to move to the East Coast.  We all will miss Carrie and are thankful that she is staying on to help with the transition for our new employee, Shaunda Goegebuer.  If you would like to send a note to Carrie, please use her email address at Presbytery: bookkeeper@riversidepresbytery.com.

We are keeping Tom Rennard, our Stated Clerk, in our prayers as he recovers from cancer surgery.

The Presbytery office continues to be a virtual office in the making.  Staff seem to be adjusting to the new normal while we explore scanning and communication tools that will enable us to work better virtually.

I continue to meet with the Presbytery Committees and Commissions and individuals using the Presbytery’s Zoom subscription.  Some days I have more than a bit of Zoom fatigue but am trying to practice what I preach by taking time for self-care, which I hope all of you are doing during these unprecedented times.

May God bless each of you on your faith journey as you seek to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world today.

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