By Annette Brill Bergstresser
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — The real-life challenges brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic are providing students at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, with countless opportunities to apply learnings from their seminary courses. One example is a Christian ritual course that sparked the creation of a conference workshop and then — in response to the pandemic — a webinar for the wider church on planning online worship services.
In the fall of 2017, an AMBS course on Christian Ritual in Worship taught by Rebecca Slough, Ph.D., brought together nine students in a room on the AMBS campus (the Roomers) and six students from a distance by video conference (the Zoomers). Slough, who retired in 2018 from her roles as academic dean and professor of worship and the arts and continues to serve AMBS as missional leadership development director, said that when she learned while planning for the course that both students on campus and students at a distance were enrolled, she offered to run separate sections to accommodate the different learning environments.
“The students at a distance wouldn’t have it,” she recalled. “One of them said, ‘This is our future, and we will all have to lead rituals through electronic means during our years of ministry leadership. Now is the time to learn.’”
Slough said she and her students did learn a lot together as they engaged the content she had planned. Each class session included a traditional or a new ritual. Zoomers participated fully in all of the rituals, and each student prepared and led two rituals.
“We made mistakes and had some frustrations with technology, but most importantly, we became imaginative and creative,” she said. “The class began to shape how we could lead interactive rituals through a videoconference platform by thinking first from the perspective of the ritual participants.”
Two years later, Slough and four of her students — located in Kansas, Virginia, Washington and Elkhart — drew on their experiences in the course to create a workshop, Ritual and Distance: The Reaches of Community, for the March 2–5, 2020, joint conference of Pastors and Leaders (AMBS) and Deep Faith (Mennonite Church USA). In the workshop, which three of them led in person and two led via Zoom, they demonstrated what they had learned about creating experiences of real connection and meaningful interaction with family, friends and church members across geographical distances. Following a shared communion ritual, they invited participants to discuss their observations, questions and ideas.
When social distancing practices began across the U.S. just a week later, the workshop leaders immediately began collaborating to adapt the content for a webinar to equip worship planners, leaders and pastors across the church to create interactive online worship experiences. The result, Planning Easter and Good Friday worship: Fostering meaningful interactions while physically separate, was hosted March 31 — the week before Holy Week — by AMBS’s Church Leadership Center.
The free webinar drew 176 participants from across the U.S. and Canada, and the webinar recording and accompanying downloadable resources (ambs.edu/easter-planning) had hundreds of views in April. The leaders reported receiving affirmation and gratitude from webinar participants.
“I was feeling a little stressed trying to conceive of how to transfer our Good Friday and Easter services to an online setting,” wrote Todd Gusler (M.Div. 2014), pastor of Rossmere Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in an email to AMBS. “Having a template to start with was very much a Godsend and a gift. Watching the webinar and reviewing the provided documents saved me many hours of lost sleep! My congregation was very appreciative and moved by the services.”
Michelle Curtis, a Master of Divinity 2018 graduate from Lansdale, Pennsylvania, who was a student in the course and also co-led the workshop and webinar, said that before taking Slough’s Christian Ritual course, she was “highly skeptical” of using videoconferencing in worship. Her classmates’ testimonies of meaningful connection and engagement with rituals at a distance changed her mind, however.
“The course prepared me to lead and pastor in the midst of pandemic — both by expanding my imagination for what is possible across distance and by giving me practical skills to lead and worship through Zoom,” she reflected. “We realized that worshipping together through Zoom requires a whole new set of social skills. Practicing these skills in the course prepared us to articulate and demonstrate them in the workshop and webinar.”
Curtis, who is beginning as co-pastor at Ambler (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Church in May, added that she received positive feedback about the usefulness of the webinar from millennial friends who are pastors and were already leading strong online worship services.
In addition to Slough and Curtis, the leaders included MDiv students Melissa Atchison of Manhattan, Kansas; Deb Coates of Brush Prairie, Washington; and Joyce Peachey Lind of Harrisonburg, Virginia.
Photo: Presenters show examples of visuals during the Good Friday and Easter planning webinar (clockwise from top left): Michelle Curtis (M.Div. 2018); Rebecca Slough, Ph.D., AMBS academic dean emerita and professor emerita of worship and the arts; and current Master of Divinity students Joyce Peachey Lind, Deb Coates and Melissa Atchison.