Church leaders embracing new methods to reach parishioners during weekend

A sign on the door of the Prince Albert Alliance Church advises parishioners that worship services are suspended during the COVID-19 outbreak. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

At this time last year, Prince Albert Alliance Church pastor Mark Bergen was preparing for a solemn Good Friday communion service full of reflection and prayer.

He’ll be doing most of those things this year, although those prayers and reflections will have to come from home.

Bergen is one of dozens of Prince Albert pastors, preachers and priests doing their best to minister to local congregations during the COVID-19 outbreak. The lead up to Easter Sunday has been a challenging time for them, but also an uplifting one.

“People are patient and encouraging,” Bergen said during a phone interview from his home on Thursday. “They realize what we’re up against.”

Like most churches across Canada, Bergen and his congregation won’t meet in person this weekend. Instead, they’ll stream their Easter and Good Friday services over the internet, and hold small group and prayer meetings over video conferencing services like Zoom.

Bergen said it’s been encouraging to see church members take the initiative and help out seniors and other vulnerable members of the congregation, whether by getting groceries, or just checking in with a quick phone call. Things are tougher with services, however, since not every parishioner has access a computer. Those are the people Bergen worries about.

“We’re doing the best we can,” he said. “I think people are still being encouraged. We’re using technology in the best way possible to continue to feed the flock, to use the metaphor that Jesus used.”

“They miss that human interaction, that human touch, and I know that’s going to be the story throughout (Canada),” he added. “Our country is saying, ‘we pull together by staying apart,’ and we’re saying as spiritual leaders is, ‘in staying apart, let’s keep coming together the best way we can: online (and) phone calls.’”

Churches and other faith-based organizations were originally exempt from 250 person cap on public gatherings implemented on March 13. However, that changed over the next week when the provincial government dropped the cap down to 50.

Prince Albert’s Messiah Lutheran Church was one of several local churches to announce the suspension of all their weekly activities shortly afterwards. Their list of cancelled events included worship services, Bible studies, two choir tours and a men’s retreat in Kinistino.

“There is deep concern about this virus spreading and so we are following the recommendations of the Saskatchewan Health Authority, the ELCIC National and Synodical Bishops—dated March 16, 2020—and that of local governments,” reads a message from pastor Fran Schmidt on the church’s website. “We especially want to keep our community and our congregation safe, particularly those who are most vulnerable to contracting this virus.”

Roughly two weeks later, Mayor Greg Dionne followed with a message urging church goers to stay home during Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter Services. While some church leaders in the United States have fought similar requests, their counterparts in Prince Albert won’t be doing the same.

“All our churches are closed for public worship,” said Bishop Michael Hawkins of the Anglican Diocese of Saskatchewan. “We’re not encouraging people to gather physically at all, and that’s for Anglicans all through the province.”

The diocese officially suspended services at all its churches on March 17. Instead, they’ve provided online resources for parishioners, and has started livestreaming services from church leaders in Saskatoon.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Prince Albert has also suspended church services during the pandemic. Instead, they’ll be livestreaming Good Friday, Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday services on Facebook.

“This is the only road to go down, because we cannot group more than 10 (people together,)” Bishop Albert Thévenot said during a phone interview. “This way we are grouping everybody, but they are doing it from their home or from their residences, or wherever they are. We are reaching a lot of people, and I think it’s better than not praying at all. Because of the circumstances, I think, we just have to go this way.”