The Coronavirus Economy: A Methodist minister on preaching to the iPhone (and losing the choir)

June 9, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

Like many places of work and worship across America, life changed practically overnight at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. in mid-March.

Make that literally overnight.  On Saturday, March 14, Pastor Sherrie Ilg, was preparing to minister to her congregation just as she had on any other Sunday; the next morning, she found herself giving her first-ever sermon over Facebook Live. In the time since, the church has expanded its virtual offerings and community outreach, as Ilg and her parishioners have worked to adjust to swift, practical, and deeply profound change.

In her 10th year at the church and her sixth as lead pastor, Ilg spoke with Fortune in late May for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, about how the pandemic has affected St. Paul’s services, members, and clergy like herself—and how church, as she once knew it, may never be the same.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Pastor Sherrie Ilg addresses the congregation with Fidel Taylor, African National Choir Director, in an English and Swahili service at at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in a time before the pandemic.
Sherrie Ilg

Fortune: How would you describe life at St. Paul’s pre-pandemic?

Ilg: St. Paul’s is a core-of-the-city church. We were the first Protestant church in the city, the first public religious service in Linn County, Iowa. So we have this long traditional history and a historic building that’s on the National Register of Historic Places. We have traditional services as well as a casual, contemporary service; a chapel service; and in the most recent years, an African National service with worship in African languages. We’re known for music ministry and our work with youth and children. We’re connected with the community. We’re known for the missional connections that we have in Cedar Rapids. And of course, the United Methodist Church has worldwide connections where mission is very important.

When did you realize COVID-19 might impact St. Paul’s?

Around March 6 or 7, I returned from a short break, and we learned through that week of the threat coming closer and closer. I remember having a conversation with our associate pastor and others saying that we may need to make some changes soon. We felt that we would have a little more time to make those decisions.

But on Saturday night, March 14, we received word and strong encouragement from the Iowa bishop to move to online services only and maybe even begin that the next morning. So there was a Saturday night conversation and posting on local media that we would go online only on March 15. We took what we had planned and got a phone on a tripod and went live with Facebook. That that was our first attempt. It happened a week sooner than we had prepared for.

What was that like?

Doing anything over Facebook was totally new, as was not having anyone in the pews. We are now preaching to the space between us and someone watching on a computer across the city or across the country.

You don’t have a response or a reaction to see, “Are you listening folks?” With that void of people, your mind and your imagination take you to connecting with those across all space and time.

It’s interesting, in the month of February, I had just finished a sermon series in which we looked at Mr. Rogers and the movie A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and some themes from that. I had read about how Mr. Rogers preached. He was a Presbyterian pastor and saw his children’s work was actually his calling to ministry. And he saw the television camera and the space between where he was and where the children were watching as the sacred space—that it was holy ground. For me, that was preparation for what I was doing myself: imagining and holding the space between where I was to where someone might be.

You mentioned music ministry is a big part of St. Paul’s. How are you handling music right now?

We have had one or two musicians, someone on the keyboard and someone singing, or the same person on the keyboard and singing. We have a postlude and a prelude on the organ, which is meaningful to people, to simply have music touch their hearts.

How has the congregation reacted with this sudden shift?

I don’t remember the numbers on that first Sunday, but certainly it has grown. In the weeks to follow, we had a real effort to try to help everyone understand, those at least who had a computer at home, how you access Facebook and how you find us. And we’d ask, “Would you please call someone you know that might be new to a computer and help coach them through?” We’ve definitely had people grow in their confidence in using online technology.

For those who don’t have access to technology, we’re trying to have a phone call strategy in place so that everyone’s going to get at least a phone call: “How are you doing? Do you need anything?”

Our Easter services, normally we would have 500 to 600 people in the sanctuary. We had 2,600 people online, so there are things that we’ll continue doing with online worship and spiritual formation, post-pandemic. We’ve learned some new things. It has been a catalyst for us to step into some things that we were more slow to do.

Can you talk about some of those things? How have you been using technology for worship and other activities?

We’ve been able to add some spiritual formation opportunities. We have something happening every day of the week now, and we’re able to connect with folks who, for whatever reason, might not have been able to physically go to church, but they can take a lunch hour on Monday from wherever and join in a Lectio Divina prayer practice or a half-hour on Thursday morning to engage in prayer and praise. We’ve broadened our reach that way.

We’ve found that Facebook Live is a good way to do a hymn sing. We’ll do a half-hour, and you put in whatever hymn is meaningful to you, and we’ll play it and sing it. People love that, being able to hear old favorites and sing along.

We’ve added some small groups. I find myself in my role, as a pastor, in more direct spiritual leadership roles because I can do a small group on Facebook Live or Zoom. There are some good new opportunities that way.

Zoom technology has become our friend for all of our committee meetings. There’s a sense of efficiency there and also a struggle and anxiety with each of those meetings, trying to have people sign on and have it all work. There’s the level of frustration but also just a gratefulness to actually see someone’s face. It’s interesting how just a person’s face can tend to somebody’s heart.

We have the whole African National ministry, too. When asked how our African members are best connected, Pastor Daniel Niyonzima indicated that through WhatsApp messages communication flows pretty easily.  We were able to get all of our members into a new group there so that as we had reliable information from COVID-19, we could make sure that that was getting into homes.

And that’s been used beyond just COVID-19 information for Pastor Daniel to sing a prayer and pray. I was listening yesterday; that piece of technology has been a wonderful tool for connection through these times. Community is so strong with African families who have come here without much of anything, and the faith community is certainly a home. Being unable to come together physically in the church building is really, really difficult.

How are members of your congregation doing with the pandemic? What do you hear from them?

It is kind of evolving how we’re experiencing this pandemic. Now that we’ve been in it for 10 weeks, there’s an acknowledgement of this fear, of that initial fear and the lingering grief and all sorts of losses. We’ve had members of our congregation die from COVID-19. We’ve had other members test positive. We’ve had, of course, dealing with a disappointment and ministering to all sorts of disappointment. We’ve experienced the loneliness—many people who may be living alone or may be in a care facility. We’ve embraced what the role of faith is in a time like this. But we’re also a people of hope, and Easter was right in the middle, so we find that place of hope as well.

We’ve been thinking, “How is it that we can respond to our community?” We’ve been sewing face masks and offering those. We’ve had some care baskets delivered around the city. And we’ve started a whole new initiative called “Share Love, Share Hope, and Share Life,” an invitation for those who do have economic resources to share with others. A love gift can be made, and you can indicate what part of your gift you would like to give to help individuals or families who have been economically impacted by this virus or what money you would want to give to our local mission partners. We’ve identified seven of those that are really working with the most vulnerable.

So it’s trying to be mindful of how we’re experiencing it as a congregation, and then also just our own care, ourselves as clergy. We need to take care of ourselves in order to be able to care for others as well. Our bishop has required that all of the clergy in the state of Iowa take three days off for renewal leave sometime within the month of May so we can catch our breath. They prepared a worship service so that we could use that and have a Sunday off.

How would you describe how this experience has been for you?

I think it’s just been a really, really full time. We do look to all of what we’re called to do: We’re called to love God and love our neighbors, and so we keep those things in front of us and all of the decisions that we’re making. With all the decisions, there’s a weariness that comes from that, and you do feel tired out. I’ve been trying to self-isolate, working from my dining room table for the most part. I do go into the church, but I really haven’t gone many other places because I have my own family members who are especially vulnerable, and I want to be able to be with them as needed.

I think I’ve found myself in more times of prayer, with others online but also just for my own self. I’m trying to get outside as much as I can. Knowing that I’ve got a lot of support—we’ve had just a lot of outpouring from the congregation back to the pastors, and that’s meaningful. It is meaningful to say we’re doing okay.

I really have a dedicated team. We have a fairly large staff to divide things up and have people tending all of these various areas of ministry and coming together in a weekly staff meeting where we start just by having people check in and say, “How are you doing?”

How has the moment changed your message?

I’ve not had to really change our worship themes that we had envisioned for the summer. We’re going to be looking at a theme called “Drawn In: Living a Creative Life with God.” Creativity is important. I’m excited about those themes. Of course, the rhythm of service changes a little bit each week, and naming where we’re at, especially in the early weeks of this when we’ve just had to name—we are grieving, we are in a place of loss, we are fearful, and a sense of lament. Now we’re in this place of, “Gosh, this is how we’re going to be for a while.” So let’s think about that and begin to get a new, hopeful perspective, recognizing that it won’t be exactly how it used to be.

You don’t write sermons six months in advance, but you have a theme. So the application of those themes certainly connect to the day-to-day life of what our experience is and as we would understand the hearts of those who are worshipping with us.

Now we have new guests, and it’s interesting to think about, How do you follow up with them? How do you connect with guests that you’ve never met that found you online? That’s one of those kinds of strategy questions: How do you follow up and provide the next step in someone’s faith journey, if they’ve been stepping into the questions of faith more and more as a result of this time of pandemic.

Have you figured out how to do that?

You can certainly be anonymous watching something online. But if the person reached out, we do have prompts to share. Sometimes in a sermon, I will ask a question.

Last Sunday, we were celebrating graduates from high school. It was our graduation Sunday, and I didn’t explicitly ask it, but we have someone from our St. Paul’s staff who was monitoring the comments. And she picked up on something I said and posed the question, “What advice would you give to high school seniors graduating?” People just started adding all this advice in the comments section. So, if people do add a thought, or they offer the peace of Christ to someone online or they name someone for prayers, then we have a chance of following up. It’s a whole new world.

How are you thinking about reopening?

We’re getting some general guidelines from our Iowa Annual Conference. They have a red light, yellow light, green light strategy in place. We are all in the red-light strategy as United Methodist Churches until the end of May. Then they’ll be looking at that again to say if they feel they can move to a yellow-light place where, depending on your own local church, you would decide if it’s time to proceed with caution or not. For churches such as St. Paul’s, which has over 50 people in worship, it’s still recommended that we would continue online only. We may begin to open up with some smaller groups.

There’s not only the when question, but there’s the how and the what: What will church look like? People may have in their minds that when they come back, it will look as it did before, and it will not. We won’t be able to have a choir. We won’t be able to have congregational singing because of all of those concerns. There’ll be so much that will look different. We may end up reopening in various small group ways—or maybe small groups outside in the parking lot—because there would also be all of the decisions around sanitation of spaces, hard surfaces, cloth surfaces, and not running the air conditioning through the service so that it’s not moving virus particles. We have lots of work to do ahead of us.

Passing in the offering plate, that won’t happen anymore. Communion, all of those practices. What pews could people fit in? Taking a list of who’s present in case we need to do any contact tracing afterward. We’re working with our insurance company for liability issues, there’s a list of things that we’ll be tending to.

No churches have gone through this. A lot of churches are trying to share best practices. There are consulting firms, there are conferences, there’s tons of information for churches and conferences to read and ponder. Ultimately, our local church will make decisions in line with what the government says and what our bishop would say, but then there’s freedom for us to decide.  

Anything you would add?

I trust that God is always doing a new thing. The Scripture tells us that, so we’re just trying to pay attention to what that might be and how it will look at St. Paul’s as well as the Church universal. There are times in history where there are dramatic changes. And so this is one of those times. The heart of what church is, and the mission and the vision of church, will not change. But the ways that we will live it out and the methodology of being church and doing church will change.

There’s some new energy to that, balanced with the sadness and the grief and the loss through death and other things. But we’ll be okay. We’re people of hope, so we continue on and give thanks for the gift of life every single day. We’re in a theme right now called “Grateful Life,” and I had that theme selected prior to any pandemic. That seems to be spot-on for us to continue to be thinking about the gift of life and an orientation of gratefulness. Don’t take anything for granted.