COVID-19: Encouraging each other in a time of need

Participants of the LWFs 19th International Seminar for pastors held at the LWF Center Wittenberg in March 2019 connect via video conference. Photo: Michael Grimmsmann

Wittenberg Seminar participants connect online during pandemic

(LWI) – "We started as a WhatsApp group because we wanted to stay in touch across continents," says Damaris Grimmsmann (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Hanover). Since then, the group of 20 pastors from 17 countries has developed into a stable network to share fears and concerns, encourage each other and exchange new ideas for church work, especially now because of the Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The pastors met in March 2019 during a two-week international theological seminar that the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) regularly offers at its center in Wittenberg. The concentrated theological discussion, personal exchange, and joint excursions welded the participants together for much longer than the duration of the seminar.

“I got an unexpectedly clear perception of the word ‘pandemic’ through our group,” says Lise Palstrøm (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark). “We are all affected. Some sooner, others a few days or weeks later. While some still regard meetings with fifty people or more as non-problematic, others are experiencing lockdown or cases of COVID-19 in their social surroundings or congregations.”

Tom Hoffmann (Lutheran Church of Australia) initiated a meeting of the international group of pastors on a video conference platform two weeks ago. “I had the feeling that it would be good to see each other,” he says. “We know each other and trust each other. We had shared about the birth of children, challenges in the work of our churches, and other topics.” Now was the time to build on this connection.

Negotiating time zones was a challenge. Hoffmann stayed up until midnight. For participants in Europe, it was early afternoon, and in the USA, they had to get up early to join. Urwin Holband (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Suriname) joined the meeting via mobile phone while commuting. “It was very encouraging to connect globally in this way,” Grimmsmann recalls. “It was also frightening to realize the scale of this crisis.”

South Africa is one of the countries experiencing lockdown most recently. Petra Röhrs (Northeastern Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Africa - NELCSA) is relieved because it reduces the need for people living in townships to commute in overfilled transport facilities with a high risk of infection. However, the new situation does not only have socio-economic implications but cultural ones as well: “Social distancing is a concept not catered for in the South African context,” she says.

Meeting in a video conference proved to be such an excellent way to bring the pastors together that they are keen to do this more regularly. During the first meeting, many participants were discussing the use of digital tools and other means to do pastoral work during the times of the pandemic. And one of the tasks many pastors currently face is preparing for the Holy Week and Easter when congregations are unable to meet physically. They are convinced being globally connected in this way may prove to be helpful for exchanging ideas.