Video: Virtual Voices of Divinity: Adaptations in Ministry

February 3, 2021
"Virtual Voices of Divinity: Adaptations in Ministry" took place on January 14, 2021.
"Virtual Voices of Divinity: Adaptations in Ministry" took place on January 14, 2021.

This conversation and reflection on how ministers and chaplains have adapted to the current crises in our world while working to support their congregations and communities in their greatest time of need took place on January 14, 2020.

Following the panel discussion, participants were invited to participate in smaller, facilitated group discussions with each other.

Featured speakers were:

  • Stephanie Paulsell, Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies at HDS, Interim Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church;
  • Brandon Crowley, MDiv ’11, Instructor in Ministry Studies at HDS;
  • Jeremy Sher, MDiv ’16, Chaplain, University of California San Francisco Medical Center.



All right, so we have officially begun. So welcome everyone. And thank you all for being here for this event, which is titled Adaptations of Ministry. For those of you who don't know me, my name is in Anissa Conner. And I'm the Associate Director of Alumni Relations here at Harvard Divinity School.

So the next thing that I wanted to share was that this event is going to take place in two parts. Our first part will be a discussion with our panelists that you see here today. And I'll let them introduce themselves in a minute.

And at approximately 3:35 PM Eastern, we will pause and move into some breakout rooms where you'll be invited to join a smaller facilitated group discussion. And the discussion between our panelists will be recorded, obviously. And it will be something that we'll be able to share with you later. And we will end the recording right before we go into the breakout rooms.

So with that, I would like to hand it over to Professor Stephanie Paulsell, who we're delighted to have here today. And she will be moderating our panel discussion and facilitating the rest of this first half of the event. So thank you so much, Stephanie.

Thank you, Anissa. And thanks to you all for coming. It's really wonderful to see so many friends and former students and colleagues on the screen. I'm really honored to be here today with two colleagues in ministry, the Reverend Dr. Brandon Crowley and Rabbi Jeremy Sher, who I know are known to many of you.

How we're going to work this next half hour is that we're each going to quickly say who we are, what our HDS affiliation is. And then each of us will speak for about five minutes about the challenges and promises of this time. And then we'll have some conversation together. And we'll wrap it up before 3:35 so we can get everyone into breakout rooms. So if I could just, Jeremy, Rabbi Sher, if you wouldn't mind introducing yourself?

Thank you. Thank you very much. I'm just so privileged to be here.

I'm Jeremy Sher. I graduated from the Master of Divinity program in 2016. And I had the distinction and the honor of being the first rabbi to be ordained on campus, right there in the Brown Room at Harvard Divinity School.

So that was cool. HDS was a key part of my preparation for what I do today. And am I just kind of going into my opening?

No, we're all going to introduce ourselves quickly. And then I'll come back around. Thanks, Jeremy. Brandon, would you introduce yourself?

Yes. Thank you, Dr. Paulsell. And thank you to the Alumni Association for inviting me to share this afternoon.

My name is Brandon Thomas Crowley. I am the senior pastor of the historic Myrtle Baptist Church in West Newton. And I'm also an instructor in Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School. And I graduated with my Master of Divinity in 2011.

Thank you. So good to have you both. And I'm Stephanie Paulsell. I know many of you. I had many of you in class.

I've been teaching here since 2001. And I taught my first class at HDS the week of 9/11. And so yeah. There have been a lot of difficult times in which we have come together as ministers and students of ministry to try to figure out a path forward. And we are certainly in one again.

For the last little while since the summer of 2019, I've been serving as the interim minister of the Memorial Church, since Jonathan Walton went down to North Carolina to be the Dean of Wake Forest Divinity School. And I'll be wrapping that up at the end of the spring semester.

So Brandon, perhaps I could start with you. Each of us will speak for about five minutes. And then we will have some questions and conversation. So would you kick us off?

Sure. Thank you. So I've been pastoring Myrtle for almost 12 years now. In about five months, it'll be 12 years.

But COVID-19 has completely changed how I think about pastoring and how I practice ministry. And it's changed it in ways that I could have never predicted just 12 months ago. And I want to be honest that the idea of leading a virtual ministry was not something that I ever really wanted to do. Nor had I ever thought about preaching weekly to an empty sanctuary with no in-person services.

The idea of worship being restricted to Facebook Live, Bible studies on Zoom, church ministry meetings via conference call, pastoral visits and counseling sessions over FaceTime, and socially distanced weddings and restricting all funerals to graveside services with a maximum of 15 persons. These are all the sort of practical functions now of pastoring and ministering, for me, to the persons in my congregation in the midst of COVID-19.

And to be truly transparent and honest, for a nearly 150-year-old historically Black congregation in New England, adjusting how we do ministry during COVID-19 has not been easy. Strict social distancing guidelines prevent me from being present with my members during some of the most difficult moments in their lives, which is a part of pastoring that I cherish being able to walk with individuals through their life experiences.

In addition, the amount of outreach that we are doing as a congregation to not only members of our own congregation, but to the broader community, has skyrocketed. We are facing an unbelievable amount of persons who are seeking our assistance as a result of eviction, a large majority of them being African-American women. A number of our members are experiencing being laid off. And they are trying to figure out ways to pay bills.

We have a card drive initiative at our church where, when persons are in need, we don't hand them cash, but we give them cards so that they can get the resources that they need from various stores. And we also pay a person's utility bill or their rent directly to the company instead of giving them money. And our benevolence fund has-- we've been using more funds from that than we have in the last 12 years.

Another thing with my congregation being a bit aged, we are trying to figure out ways of being in community and ministering to many of our members who are seniors who are dealing with loneliness and isolation. These are the difficult challenges where we've had to come together as a community, not me as this sort of dictatorial leader saying this is the vision. We're brainstorming together as a community to try and figure out how we can meet the needs of our constituents and not just put on a performance once a week that's streamed live on various platforms.

However, in addition to the challenges, this time has provided an opportunity for us to re-envision worship, to refresh our liturgical practices, which some would say had grown stale with tradition. And it's also given us an opportunity to reimagine what it means to actually be a Black congregation, something that I find that we had sort of gravitated towards as an identifier. But through our intense Zoom Bible studies and just sort of thinking about the ways that God wants us to show up in the world presently, we started the process of trying to not only redefine, but to figure out what it means to be a Black church. Not only in the middle of a pandemic, but especially what it meant to be a Black church this previous summer and what that means ongoing.

And during this time, I think another aspect that I want to share is that my church is a predominantly Black congregation, a historically Black African-American congregation in the city of Newton, which is a suburb of Boston. And considering the fact that the economic backlash of this pandemic has disproportionately affected African-American persons it goes without saying that Black churches much like mine have had to fill in this gap for many of our Black congregants in the form of rent assistance, as I talked about earlier. And it is my humble assumption that as a result of the tense 2020 political climate and the past four years colliding with this pandemic, many Black churches like mine have had to rethink what our mission really is and what it is that we've been called to do in the world.

And for my congregation, we've attached ourselves to this idea that we are rekindling the pre-Reconstruction Black church notions of mission that are dedicated solely to the advancement of Black persons and advancing the Black struggle for freedom, justice, equality, and preserving the dignity of African-American peoples. And in that light, we've been very engaged and active as it pertains to social activism as a congregation with voter registration, trying to make sure that the pandemic was not in any way standing as a block towards access to voting and getting registered to vote. So in our context it's been a constant reimagining and rethinking and using our spiritual imagination to figure out what it means to be the body of Christ in a pandemic.

Thank you so much, Brandon. Jeremy? Can I call on you?

Sure. Thank you. Thank you very much, Professor Paulsell.

I'm here on what's been known for thousands of years as Ohlone land, that for the past century and a half has been called Oakland, California. I am a hospital chaplain working in San Francisco, California. And we've been in the news in terms of just we had really led the country in this region in COVID adaptation. And now we're in the opposite situation ever since Thanksgiving.

So I will talk a little bit about my hospital ministry and how that's changed. I also run a little online congregation that I've been doing since 2018. So I've actually been doing a monthly online Kabbalat Shabbat Friday night service since 2018, with the idea of offering it to hospital patients who are confined to bed and wouldn't be able to attend an in-person chapel service, anyway. So I've actually adapted that somewhat less, except that people are coming to it for lack of local alternatives.

And just to talk about what it's like to be a hospital chaplain, there's always a little bit of danger to this work. There are always those patients who may have a contagious illness. And you put on PPE, personal protective equipment, go and visit them. That sense of danger is amplified, for sure. So you know, there is definitely a fear factor associated with going to work every day.

On the other hand, I have been going to work. So I haven't been confined to home. I've been commuting.

And when we have these stay at home orders, it's just a glorious commute over the bridge. There's no traffic. It's not all bad. But there's definitely that fear factor.

Our hospitals have restricted visitation in order to reduce the number of people present in the building. And that has had a devastating effect on patients and their well-being. I don't oppose the policy. There's no particular way to avoid it.

But it has been really, really hard for people. We make exceptions at end of life. There's usually limited visitation allowed. But I've had situations where a Catholic patient needs that priest to come and do last rites. And the priest counts as one of their allowed visitors for the day. So then, the patient's son or daughter can't come.

And it's going through hospital bureaucracies to try to get one additional visitor on a patient's last day of life has been something that chaplains have been called upon to advocate for. And then it falls to us to be that one person in the room. And I serve all religions of people equally. So I've done Jewish Vidui, which is something we do at end of life for people. But I've also held space for Christians and Buddhists and people of many different-- and for atheists.

Both at end of life and just people who are in the hospital for other conditions that have to live with these restrictions and can't have visitors-- I had an acute rehab unit for a while, which is a place where people are learning to walk again after an accident or a stroke, that kind of thing. And they could be there for a good month or more. And to be in rehab for that number of weeks without family visitors has just been really, really hard. And it falls to the chaplain to provide that human companionship that they're missing because of the pandemic-related restrictions.

So that's been challenging. We are doing more phone and Zoom visits to COVID patients as well than we did in the past. And as my colleague Brandon said, in our field, too, that's been a challenge to adapt to, how to hold space where physical presence has been so important to creating that feeling of ritual, that feeling of gravitas in the room. How to do that over Zoom, or worse, over the phone, has been challenging. And we're adapting as we speak. We're just working on that.

Prior to my hospital work, I did street chaplaincy, working in Oakland and San Francisco with our neighbors who are unhoused. And the established programs I was working with have closed. So those services are simply not being provided in the same way at all.

Some of the free food programs are still open, thank goodness. But the kind of ministry that we were doing on the street in collaboration with established nonprofits is just not happening right now. So that's been a real problem for the outdoor community.

The other thing that I want to mention and I don't want to neglect is the other pandemic that we're dealing with, which is the pandemic of fascism. Anti-Semitism is back. It's a much bigger part of my life than it's ever been for the rest of my life.

I had a friend who recently moved across the country, driving, who may be here. And we had to sit down and plot out those neighborhoods that might have been safe for them to find lodging for the night for fear of violence. So it was, like, where's our Green Book? We've gotten to the place where we need a Green Book for a queer Jewish person to migrate across the country.

We have what my brother calls the New Right that is coming up, that is very scary and based in a lot of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. And in the Jewish community, we're having to adapt to that. We're having synagogue vandalisms. People with swastikas on their house.

So I'll leave it there. We have just had both of those challenges hit us this year, the twin pandemics. And it's just been a challenge. So thank you.

Thank you so much, Jeremy. I don't want to add too much, because I want us to get to our conversation. But when we were planning for this, we did talk about the many sort of interrelated, interlocking pandemics that are happening now that the violence, police violence in particular against Black and brown people, the steady encroachment on democracy by an authoritarian, and then COVID-19.

When I became minister of the Memorial Church, it was during the travel ban. And in the fall, students were flying into Logan. And they were being sent back to where they had flown from. And now we're here at the assault on the Capitol. And it definitely feels like a straight line there.

But as a professor who's become a minister, I was saying this to Dan Smith the other day, my respect for what the ministers on this call do has just increased exponentially. Because even before COVID-19, I feel that with all that was happening I just had to learn to move faster. I like to agonize over everything and agonize over every word. And fortunately, there's a member of the Memorial Church staff who used to be a print journalist. And he's used to tearing it up at the last minute and starting over.

So many times, as I'm sure you all did, too, I had to throw out a sermon 24 hours before I needed to preach and start over again. Or my colleagues had to redo the liturgy. Or I've had to learn to be a little quicker on my feet. And I hope that's a skill I'll be able to take with me, maybe, back into my classroom, into my work at the Divinity School.

One thing I would add to what Brandon and Jeremy have so eloquently said is that there's been an intimacy in this, I think, for me. We were always on the radio. And we just stayed on the radio rather than doing Zoom worship or anything where we're on the screen. We're like a podcast, or like a voice in your ear.

And so now we worship with our congregation. The service is done by Saturday. It's in the can at the radio station. And so we all listen together.

And that's been an unexpected blessing, a kind of a tightening of the bonds between us. At the same time, a kind of enlarging of them. Because now people who listen to us on the radio come to our Sunday school classes and our book groups.

And that's one of my questions, I think, for post-COVID is what do we do when we're back in our spaces? Do we say, well, we're back in our spaces. You have to come to our spaces. How will we keep our arms around everyone?

And I'll just end by saying that one of the ministries of the Memorial Church is to provide a space for protest and lament and vigil at Harvard. And that hasn't been possible. You know, people haven't been able to come stand on the porch of the church and lament something. And there's been so much to lament.

The first place I went other than a grocery store after lockdown was to a march that Brandon organized, a clergy march after George Floyd was murdered. And I'm sure-- I want to ask him what he has learned about organizing these events. Because that has been a longing on this campus that has been frustrated in various ways. Laura Glass, who many of you, I'm sure, know, a wonderful alumni of HDS, has helped people organize vigils and protests online. But it's not quite the same as doing it outside where everyone can see you.

Rachel Leiken, another terrific HDS alumnae, has been doing multireligious engagement work with us. And that, I would say, has been one of the unexpected blessings of this time is that multireligious work has been more natural, more quick to happen, I think. We've had to band together, especially to mourn the losses of COVID on our campus.

We rang our bell once for every 1,000 deaths back when it was 220,000 deaths. We're so far beyond that now, so quickly so far beyond it. And that was an effort that Rachel Leiken and Rabbi Jen at the Hillel, and the Zoroastrian minister, and many others put together in a really just powerful, beautiful way.

So there have been a lot of challenges and also some promises of things that I hope will continue beyond the moment when we get to go back inside our sacred spaces. But I want to stop and have us have a little bit of conversation. We have about, I think, six or seven minutes. So I'll just lead off and then invite Brandon and Jeremy also to pose a question.

But I did want to ask about protest. Our theme this year at the Memorial Church has been practicing hope. And protest is one of our practices. And I think people are really struggling with how to make their voices heard.

And Brandon, you've both organized in person, traditional sorts of marches and actions. But I expect there are other things that I don't know about that you've done that I'd love to hear about.

Well, I think for us-- thank you for that question, Dr. Paulsell-- the being reactionary, I think, is something that we've been very good at here in the Boston metro area as a group of African-American pastors who are serving this community. Reacting out of anger, anger that is righteous anger. We haven't had as much participation in the so what now. That's the area where I've been really trying to focus on and work with a lot of my colleagues.

Marching and protesting against police brutality is an initial step. And I think it's very good. I've been disheartened by the fact that when we started doing the work of calling our legislators, it was hard to get people to sign up on those lists.

Really forcing the House here to pass measures that would restrict our police officers from carrying certain type of weapons in the streets, really trying to hold our elected officials accountable. And I've been really disheartened by that. But we're working very hard to try and educate our congregations first off so that people know what's going on.

But I want to just also speak about I think another thing that has recently come up that my congregation is working very hard with our health ministry to respond to is this thing that I'm calling vaccine hesitation in the African-American community, which is definitely understandable when you think about things like the Tuskegee experiment. I hear my grandmother's voice in my right ear reminding me of that. But we are trying our best to not just be a reactionary church. And that's what I'm trying to push my congregation to do.

I agree with you Dr. Paulsell, that protesting is powerful. But after protesting, we must transition into policy reform and to having conversations around policy. So I'm hoping that last summer will not just be one of those grand old moments when we look back on what we did and said, oh, we did some great marching in the summer of 2020, resisting against Trump.

I'm also hoping that as Trump moves out of office, I'm trying to encourage my congregation and the constituents in this area that that doesn't mean that racism magically disappears because you have a Black woman in the vice presidency and Joe Biden in the White House. That racism in America is systemic. And it's going to take intentional work to redeem this country, to redeem the soul of this nation, if it is redeemable.

The last thing I just want to say and then I'll stop talking is one of the biggest challenges for me, and I'll say this as a ministry studies instructor, because I'm teaching my students about this all the time and I'm a hypocrite a bit. And that is the maintenance of pastoral boundaries during this time has become a huge challenge, just people feeling the calls are coming at all time. And then I feel guilty that sometimes I'm watching Netflix when maybe I haven't responded to that email. Just self-care has become something that has been put to the side.

And so I also feel guilty often of being middle class and pastoring a middle class church and feeling as if that privilege should push me to just overextend myself. But pastoral care in the form of the pastor taking care of the pastor's self, or the spiritual leader taking care of herself, I think is something that we're going to have to revisit and talk about in the future. Because perhaps some of us have developed some very unhealthy practices around overextending ourselves. I know that I have. And I'm trying to work that out with my therapist.


I wonder, Jeremy, if you might speak to that, too. I mean, I think of working in the hospital and holding a lot of pain, a lot of sorrow. How are you caring for yourself?

You know, hospital chaplains have to think about this all day every day or else we burn out in two weeks. So I've actually sort of found my training useful during this time period. I don't do anything particularly different in self-care except that I do more of it. But making a clearer line between the workday and my own life is easier for me than I think it is for a lot of pulpit clergy. Just because when I'm not at work, I'm not at work.

On the other hand, I do overnights. And I sleep when they let me. But those boundary lines are a little bit clearer in my field.

I do want to talk about protests and Black Lives Matter just a little bit. We've had a lot of protest activity here in Oakland. I made the decision that is unusual for me that I did not go to in-person protests outside of my car, because I didn't feel like it was fair to my patients to put them in danger potentially that way. But I've done a lot of car caravans. So I've done a lot of driving around Oakland honking my horn with Black Lives Matter signs.

The conversation around Black Lives Matter, I'll speak only for myself, I have found monumentally difficult to have in the Jewish community. That would be a whole other session. So not to go into it right now, but it's been a very, very hard conversation. And we need to do a lot more thinking about Black Lives Matter in our community.

Well, I'm so sorry. Anissa has given me the warning. And I think that it's so important to have enough time for people to talk to each other. But I hope this has whetted your appetite to talk to each other and has given you some questions and some things to go into the breakout rooms with.

I think I probably speak for Brandon and Jeremy both to say that we'd love to hear from you if you had further questions or wanted to talk further. It's just a joy to see everyone. It's a privilege to be a part of this far flung community. And we really thank you for being present with us today. Thank you.

Thank you, Stephanie and Brandon and Jeremy. This has been a very timely discussion. Bye, Brandon. Brandon and Stephanie, I know, need to drop off in a minute.

But yes, we are at that time where we're going to transition into our breakout groups. And I just also want to say thanks again to our panelists and to everyone for joining.