Pastoring through a pandemic: Local pastors lead a virtual flock

Rev. Gary Zerr leads a virtual mass at St. Edward Church.

The Bible commands believers not to neglect meeting together in corporate worship, but stay at home orders and social distancing guidelines have made that challenging for local churches.

Prior to the pandemic La Luz Del Valle, a Keizer church located off Dearborn Avenue, was having regular services three times a week, visiting homes and hospitals, hosting leadership meetings, offering personal counseling and serving in men and women’s prison ministries. Now they have services on Facebook live and host meetings over Zoom and the phone.

Rev. Jose Dominguez, lead pastor at Luz Del Valle, is leading his congregation through the new and uncharted times.

Not knowing the spiritual condition of the church community is the one most difficult parts of leading a church through these times according to Dominguez. He said one of the other significant challenges that the church has faced was finding up-to-date pandemic information in Spanish.

Dominguez said it has been hard to do ministry at a distance. Not being able to reach out to the community because of social distancing has put a damper on their service efforts.

“We are united and together, but at a distance,” he said.

As a pastor, personally contacting, meeting and visiting members has been a struggle for Dominguez. Though he said he’s been connecting with the congregation through text messaging, Zoom meetings and social media.

Aside from a lack of personal interactions, the church has been struggling to garner financial support during the crisis. 

Rev. Gary Zerr is pastoring St. Edward Catholic Church, one of the more sizable congregations in the area. A typical weekday mass had upwards of 80 people, on the weekends it was around 1,800 attendees for each of their three services.

Currently they are offering masses in English and Spanish, which can be viewed live, with 25 people or less who are able to attend the service in person.

“What we’re hoping to do when we’re allowed to is to have 50 [people] present is to offer one Mass in three different detached buildings at one time…. not [two services] in the main church with live streaming and video and communion,” Zerr said.

To keep their parishioners safe, they are mandating masks, removing the books from the pews, adhering to social distancing guidelines, and cleaning after every service.

“It’s very strange to have Sundays off for a pastor,” Zerr said. He said it’s been 30 years since he held a job that didn’t work on the weekends.

Like Dominguez, Zerr is struggling with the inability to see his congregation.

“A pastor without his people physically present is hard for him and it’s hard for the congregation,” Zerr said. 

They have been live streaming their usual services like Bible studies, but it’s not exactly the same.

“Preaching to an empty church on Easter Sunday was unreal. [It was] very tough, because we would normally be jammed full at each of our services,” Zerr said.

St. Edward, like La Luz Del Valle, has been able to utilize social media to connect with its members. They are offering Zoom classes for religious education and still answering the phone lines.

“We call the shut-ins regularly since we can’t visit most of them right now,” Zerr said.

The pandemic isn’t all bad for St. Edward though.

“Many who are watching our Sunday services and who wouldn’t normally come to Mass on Sundays are discovering what we do and hopefully increasing their faith,” Zerr said.

Zerr sees God’s plan through all of this. Though he admits he’s not sure what, he does think some good will come of this.

“I feel God has a plan in this for us, for all believers and for the world,” he said. “I think every pastor in Salem is probably struggling with the same issue to want to be together again, safely,” Zerr said.