Ministry in a Time of Pandemics: Rev. Jenny Hallebeck Orr
May 5, 2021
Rev. Jenny Hallenbeck Orr
Master of Divinity, 2003
Associate Pastor, McCabe United Methodist Church, Bismarck, North Dakota
Since the summer of 2014, I have served McCabe United Methodist Church in Bismarck, North Dakota, in varying pastoral capacities. Bismarck is North Dakota’s capital city, and we’re part of a larger community whose population is approximately 130,000. We are a rural “metro” area near the entry point to the American west — and each part of who we are features prominently in the story of our life together this past year.
In the Dakotas, our bishop asked us to shut down in-person gatherings from mid-March through mid-May 2020. At the state level, mandated business shutdowns only applied through May 1, 2020, so many local churches “reopened” at that time. Along with our Board of Directors, we opted to wait until the first weekend in June to reopen for in-person gatherings. For context awareness, most businesses and restaurants have been functioning nearly “like normal” since last May, and our local public schools reopened in the fall for in-person learning.
When I think back on this past year of ministry within the COVID-19 pandemic, I am most grateful for our reopening process at McCabe. Last spring, we created a Health & Safety Task Force that now makes recommendations to our Board regarding on-site COVID-19 mitigation. Our Task Force is comprised of staff members, Board members, and other church folks with professional knowledge to help inform our decision-making.
As our Task Force made plans last spring to reopen for in-person gatherings, we placed high value on creating an environment wherein ministry would happen in-person, but in ways that would be unlikely to spread the COVID-19 virus. For in-person worship, we designated seating to allow for physical distancing and limited capacity. For all in-person gatherings, what was first a “strong encouragement” to wear masks became a requirement when our community’s fall COVID-19 surge began.
In many instances, Jesus’s commandment to “love our neighbors as ourselves” has crashed head-first into the rugged individualism that permeates so much of our region. Given that, as well as the highly politicized nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, we at McCabe have encountered our fair share of anti-mask sentiment. However, both science and our own anecdotal evidence have proven the importance of our Health & Safety Guidelines. Many folks in our congregation — the members of my household included — have gotten and survived the COVID-19 virus. Yet, because of our on-site mitigation practices at McCabe, we have no reason to believe the virus was ever transmitted during any of our in-person gatherings.
Our decisions regarding on-site health and safety guidelines have been communal and that has been incredibly helpful in creating a culture where no one person is blamed — or gets credit — for our mitigation efforts. Community was what I valued most about my time at Garrett-Evangelical, and community has been a constant thread of hope and good news this past year. When our wider community has broken my heart with its anger and division over mitigation efforts, I come to church and see the ways our folks are willing to care for one another by donning a mask and respecting the other guidelines we’ve put in place. Whether our folks do these things joyfully or begrudgingly, they continue to do them. For that, I give thanks to God.