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By Mike Scott
In times of trouble or uncertainty, many people turn to the church for comfort. But the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t allow church members to congregate on Sundays, or for other spiritual times.
With Holy Week now past, we asked two local pastors, Dixe Laube of St. Paul United Church of Christ, and Shawn McAfee of Peaksville Christian Church, how they are ministering in these challenging times.
What attracted you to ministry? How long have you been a pastor?
Dixie-I have always been involved in the church…from the time I was born (1975) to today (2020), I loved being in the church. It was where I could be me, meaning I didn’t have to put on a front for anyone. I know a lot of fake people and the church is not to be one of those places. We come to the church because of our relationship with God/Jesus/Holy Spirit. They already KNOW who you are, so why act or change in the building. When I was fourteen, I was asked to teach a Sunday school class. When I was sixteen, I was asked to help counsel at Church camp. And it was at Church camp where my call to ministry actually happened. If one wants to know the truth, I have been a pastor since age sixteen, I am now 44. If one wants to go by doctrine and such, I went to United Theological Seminary from 2004-2009, and was ordained in 2009 by the United Church of Christ at age 33. So I technically have been an ordained pastor for 11 years.
Shawn-I grew up in the church but wasn’t plugged in very well as a child. As an adult we started to attend at Peaksville and the remnant group of faithful “loved us into the church” Rev. Paul & Rev. Betty Rathbun took our family under their wing and loved us and mentored us. I saw the need in our church after a few years. Peaskville had been what was known as a Sunday School Church. We had worship on the first and third Sundays and only Sunday School on the other Sundays. The church saw part of their mission was to train Culver Stocton students in the ministry for many years. Then Paul & Betty started serving the church in 1978 and continued for 20 years. In 1993 I convinced three other men in the church to take turns preaching so that we had worship every week. That was a challenge, but the congregation loved us anyway. After a year only Herb Doty & I were still taking turns. It was actually at a fifth Sunday Hymn sing in LaBelle that I felt the calling to Pastor. They were at a time between Pastors and I saw the difference in their membership as they so desired leadership and continuity in worship. It was that night in the parking lot of that church that I told Paul I knew I was being called. He continued to mentor me until his passing – although sometimes in the last few years he called me Pastor and thanked me for stopping by to check on “us old folks”.
I started preaching pulpit supply in 1993 with fully written out sermons that I read and tried to look up from and smile. I’ve been Pastoring at Peaksville for 22 years taking over, with Pastor Herb in 1998 after Paul & Betty retired to travel. For several years Herb & I also served the Wyaconda Christian Church, alternating back and forth each week. Herb was placed on dialysis after a heart surgery in 2006 and I have been the Sr. Pastor at Peaksville since.
Before this pandemic, what did a typical church work week look like for you?
Dixie–A typical church week before the pandemic for me was being in the church office Tuesday thru Friday in the mornings doing most of the business side of the church. Then, in the afternoons, I would make house visits, go to the Nursing Home and RCF. I would prepare for Bible Study, Confirmation, read and prepare for Sunday worship, and I would be out in the community, where I was needed. I also attended almost all of the home sporting events, along with middle school and high school music events.
Shawn-There isn’t a typical church week for a bi-vocational Pastor. Sometimes things are calm – other times it’s chaotic. I am blessed with a congregation of people that know I cannot be at every single thing. Often during my lunch hour I would leave the factory and go to the hospital in Keokuk or Fort Madison to see someone. In the early years I could see the list of patients in Keokuk and I would go room to room of those that were from Clark County. Now that list is not shared with Pastors. Sometimes a day would be leaving work at 5 p.m. and heading to Hannibal or Quincy to the hospital. Sometimes Iowa City or Columbia. A call from someone frantic that has family being transferred, an evening drive to Iowa City, getting back home at midnight or one a.m. to get up at 5 a.m. to do the chores before going to work. It’s a lot of touching base with membership by phone, especially older members that get lonely and like to keep in touch. It’s always knowing you’re not able to get to everyone, and hoping they understand. My plate is like that of a Thanksgiving platter with a large turkey and potatoes and cooked vegetables piled so high any could roll off with the slightest move. And sometimes my worlds of work, Pastoring, farming & civic activities collide together
How has that changed?
Dixie-What really has changed is the fact that I have learned how to record worships and post them to Facebook and our website. I never dreamed in a million years I would learn how to be a website designer. Honestly, that has taken up more of my time than anything else. I have spent more time on Facebook feeds with posting scripture, prayer, and Live Feed–to which I didn’t think I would ever do in ministry. I also posted a palm leaf for people to color…and am encouraging people to hang Easter Eggs so people can go on an Easter Egg Hunt. AND, our website has an Easter Egg hunt on it right now. We also sent flowers to many of our “older adult” members a couple of weeks ago. And it was truly appreciated as they have sent Thank yous back telling us how nice it was to have a flower on their doorstep, as it brightened their days.
Shawn-Pastoring is more difficult. Pastoring is a hands on or personal activity in many ways. I rely on that personal touch. I am uplifted by peoples smiles. I try to sense how they are doing emotionally, spiritually & healthwise by what I can observe. Sometimes I pick up on things and can reach out to let them know they’re not alone or just to allow them to talk. Other times I’m not so good as I’d like to be and I miss things. I’m concerned that I can’t see each person and know how they are doing. I’m concerned about their inability to be around other Christians that help lift them up. We’re a family at Peaksville. An extended family, yes, but some members count on that social family. Some yearn to be together each week. Some deal with anxiety & depression and coming together helps. I’ve learned how to Facebook live – but that is directional sharing. I miss the interaction. I miss the normalcy.
How are you helping your congregation celebrate Holy Week without being able to do the traditional Palm Sunday/Maundy Thursday/Good Friday/Easter activities?
Dixie-As most of St. Paul UCC knows, I have taken our worships to the internet. Palm Sunday was one of my favorites because we did a Palm parade in our cars and drove through town. I led the parade and we had a GREAT turnout. Again, something we hadn’t ever done…and it turned out great. Throughout Holy Week, I went on Live Facebook stream and read the Daily scripture lessons. My Monday night wasn’t so great…but as the week progressed, I became more comfortable sharing insights and such. Theodore even made a few cameo appearances. Maundy Thursday will be recorded, as will be our Good Friday worship. Easter will be done Live and I pray the Holy Spirit blesses that day because it is a day of great celebration…to which we all need right now.
Shawn-Palm Sunday was a Facebook Live message from within the church. Music is hard to do. I don’t play an instrument. I couldn’t ever get my eyes to read two lines of music at the same time and play with both hands on the piano. I wish I could…. and I’d love to play the violin. However I believe music is an extremely important part of worship. It touches our soul in ways a sermon cannot always do. I stepped up my commitment to do a nightly Facebook live posting. I’m not really calling them sermons but Reflections on the last night of Jesus. Good Friday morning I am giving the crucifixion account from scripture. I’ve taken each gospel account and interlaced them together to come up with the chronological events in order and will share that with the congregation. Easter Sunrise has been a tradition at Peaksville since the 1920s. It survived the depression and WWII. I did not want a pandemic to change that, nor do I believe people want to postpone Easter. The Hebrew people didn’t postpone the Passover and we know that the Passover followed the first full Paschal moon after the spring equinox. The community needs a sense of something being normal – even if that normal is somewhat different. Easter Sunrise Service at Peaksville will be using old school technology to allow us to be together yet separated. We are doing a drive-in church service transmitting the message into the car radios of all who attend. Pre-packaged purchased communion will be distributed in zip lock bags to those that want it and I will preach from the front walk of the church. I wouldn’t consider this any other year as I would normally think this is very gimmicky. However in light of the pandemic its’ the only way I could come up with a way we can worship as a group, with music. I am convinced though that the church is at it’s best when the church is persecuted. The virus doesn’t persecute the church in any way, however it does make the church get out of it’s normal routine and search for ways to protect the community and yet still preach the gospel. For that I am grateful. I can see God’s hand in this and an awakening to what is important.
What new or different challenges is your congregation facing now? How are they responding to the challenges?
Dixie-I think the new or different challenge we are facing is the fact we cannot be together. We LOVE to socialize and we aren’t able to do that right now. Some of us are not computer savvy, so I am not sure how many of the St. Paul UCC people are able to worship with me…or anyone else…though I pray they are worshiping some how. I think most of them are responding to the challenges as best as anyone of us are. We are all keeping our distances and learning new ways to be the church. That’s what I preached on March 22 to them…we do not need the building to be the church….because WE are the Body of Christ in the World now.
Shawn-The entire gambit of emotions from anger to fear. Those that want to worship no matter what an order says to those that are so fearful that it’s paralyzing their rationale. Church family are losing jobs and taking pay cuts or cuts in hours that hasn’t happened in their lifetime before. Business owners are trying to figure out how to weather through this and wondering how they will make payroll, bank payments, utility bills and just the necessities of their business. Those working are wondering if the person next to them has been exposed to someone with the virus and the person next to them is wondering the same about them. Some are approaching with the approach that it’s not a big thing, others thinking it’s inevitable and in God’s hands. Some are afraid to go out at all, others being cautious and responsible, others doing their normal thing and not thinking about who they may take something to if they contracted it. I believe God is placing upon the hearts of many to re-look at their lives and think about what is most important to them. Material items don’t give comfort in the face of uncertainty. Debt over their heads has a heavier feel in the face of uncertainty. The church isn’t in the building. It’s in the heart of the believer. It’s still very much alive and people are responding in many ways. Some are sewing masks for people and medical staff and EMTs. Some are working hard to only put positive items on social media. Some are sending more cards than they have in recent years, calling others and sharing news. Some are shopping local only – to help get our neighbors through this. People are being tolerant with church on line and are staying faithful to mailing their tithes. People seem to get it that we’re all in this together and that it takes a village or community to weather through this time.
What different needs are you ministering to?
Dixie–Not too many at this moment. However, what I foresee coming, though I pray it isn’t so, mental health challenges, depression, abuse (child, sexual, alcohol, etc), bankruptcy, unemployment etc. The other need will be ministering in death and those that have already died and funerals at later dates—that is difficult for many of us. We have already grieved the death of a loved one, though not corporately…and then later, all those feelings of loss will come back in a memorial worship for the family and community. Some say that it will be okay, but our minds don’t always work that way.
Shawn-The needs are all the same – just a higher degree of intensity with the range of emotions. As a Pastor you love people where they are at, regardless of whether you agree with them or not. You get a sense very early in your Pastorate that everyone processes things differently. Some don’t handle change well, some always worry, some get physically sick just thinking and trying to process information. These times definitely increase the intensity of this but it doesn’t change the basic ministerial needs.
Are you seeing people really worried about the coronavirus?
Dixie-I’m not seeing people really worried about it. I am seeing people angry because what they are missing out on: family vacations, family gatherings, social activities at the bars, graduations, Prom, and general parties…etc.
Shawn-Again – it’s all over the board. Most know that this virus is here to stay.. It’s not going to magically disappear after we stay away from each other for a month or two. It’s here. From a high level though we know if we can stop the surge and give the medical professionals time to find treatments and vaccines and tests. Then we can reduce the rate of death. But I expect we will never look at the common cold the same. We will get tested early so those future treatments can be administered early.
What challenges are you facing personally as a minister?
Dixie-I am feeling more weary; anxious; and depressed. I already went through anxiety and depression when I was diagnosed with my cancer in 2018/2019. I can somewhat get a grip on those. However, the weariness is what is taking a toll on me now. I am not sleeping well at night because I feel that I am not doing enough. I am not worried about getting the virus…heck some of us think maybe we already had it and the doctors didn’t know what it truly was. I didn’t have anything like that, but I was exposed to it enough. Anyway, my sleeping pattern is completely out of whack right now. And, I do not know how to fix it right now….praying that after Holy Week, it’ll fix itself.
Shawn-I’m drained. As a plant manager in the automotive industry I’m drained. As a Pastor I’m drained. I can’t come home and get away from the range of emotions, the fears of those that look to me. I’ve spent five weeks bringing our factory down a little close to stopping completely with every email and announcement from the car companies. I knew most of our employees wanted to be home yet we had legal obligations. In some instances some of our customers had to be told enough is enough and once we got to our current level I had to share with employees that I’ve worked with for 32 years that I had to lay them off also. Some due to the Federal government’s relief bill will be ok… Others will struggle. Then I come home and can’t see my church family. I call, I monitor the best I can on social media. I work on providing a little better on line service than the previous week and we started planning Easter Sunrise service a month ago, knowing full well from what I was seeing in China & Europe that there was no way we would be able to responsibly hold a service at the church. On the bright side I’m getting things done on the farm, the early garden is planted, the animals see me more, the new hay ground is planted, but I never get away from thinking about my church family, may friends, both churched and unchurched. I’m constantly thinking about how Peaksville can help lead in this time and the time after this is back to somewhat normal.
How are you making contact with congregation members in need?
Dixie–This may sound “off” though St. Paul UCC doesn’t have a lot congregation members in need. We are fairly healthy and self-sustaining, I think. I totally could be wrong. I have made some phone calls to some of my members and they tell me they are doing “okay” or “as best as they can be doing.” I continue to encourage them to reach out to me, because I really do not know what the needs are at this time. It was like when I was in seclusion with my diagnosis. I didn’t know what I really needed, and honestly, I am not a “doer” or a “fixer” or one that feel “helpless”. I read an article that said, “If you feel like you have to do something, then do it without asking because when people are overwhelmed, they have no idea what is needed. So, if you feel like sending a card, or a gift card, or making a meal, or whatever…just do it.” I think we all can take that advice right now and brighten someone’s day.
Shawn–Social Media and the phone. From 10 feet away in parking lots, grocery stores etc. It’s so good to see them from a distance. It’s so good to hear their voices. And I believe they think the same.
Can you recommend a scripture to help people during these unpredictable times?
Dixie-Psalm 23 is always my “go to” scripture. The Lord will never leave us and He is there guiding us and comforting us every step of the way. We have to rely on the Good Shepherd to call out to us and keep us safe.
I want to remind everyone that a crisis always brings us together and closer to God in ways we never could imagine. After this is all over, will we continue to be close to God? Or will we go back to what we were doing and take for granted that God is with us? These are thoughts that I believe all should hear and ponder because God has never left us, nor does your pastor in our daily routine lives.
Shawn-Psalm 46:10 is the verse I started with four weeks ago. “Be Still and know that I am God.”