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New challenges for a church

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How did you come to Church in the Forest? I was working on an independent ministry in Stamford, Connecticut. Out of the blue, I received a phone call from someone who had been a parishioner of mine when I was pastor in Boston. He said a church in California had been looking for its next pastor for almost two years, and he felt like I could be the person. I barely knew a thing about Pebble Beach, but I really missed being in the chair. So I started talking to this church, and it’s just a wonderful place.

Where does the name Church in the Forest come from? We are in a historic forest, called the Del Monte Forest, which is part of Pebble Beach. Church in the Forest is a non-denominational Christian community, honoring the diversity of Christian tradition, striving to worship and live on its sacred treasures.

How would you describe the congregation? We have around 450 members. But before the pandemic, around 120 people probably attended church services regularly; many are secondary owners. It’s definitely a congregation of empty nests, and we’re not embarrassed about it. They have raised their children, they have overcome some of the anxiety related to career and professional status, and they are ready for great spiritual growth. I would say our youngest members are in their 50s. I just said a memorial service for our oldest member a few days ago. She was 108 years old. She attributed her long life to never having used a golf cart.

Did the church have in-person worship at any time during the pandemic? We had to close in mid-March. But the second we could, in June, we tried to return to worship. We had two services to expand our congregation, and we sealed the places on the benches with duct tape. We needed face masks and took temperatures at the door. We were allowed to continue this for about five Sundays. Now we have little outdoor memorial services when someone dies. We call him Kaddish, borrowing from the Jewish tradition of saying Kaddish over the dead.

Is your Sunday service available online? We record Sunday worship on Thursday and post it on our website and YouTube on Sunday. We have an amazing music director who brings in her best friends, and they perform about 15 minutes before each service. They are extraordinary musicians. We also have a podcast. Between the podcast and the video, around 80 people connect. It’s a little disappointing that it isn’t more, but our congregation is older and they just aren’t crazy about anything digital. They want to be in the room. That was one of the challenges of that time.

How has Bible study and fellowship been affected? Bible study and prayer continued virtually; they even prospered. It’s almost like people are digging their toes into the ground and saying, I won’t let this pandemic and this quarantine stop my spiritual life. And even though there is no fellowship in the chapel, our people call and talk to each other, get together on the golf course, or get together for a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

Do you imagine that church practice could be changed by the pandemic? Yes. Although people can become satisfied through virtual means, people want to be connected. So, more than ever, we are going to have to make this Sunday morning experience an open-hearted experience. Right before our forties, we had a series of sermons on church rituals. I preached on healing and healing rituals in the church, and invited people to come forward to be anointed and prayed for their healing. I was warned that no one was going to come forward. But the front of the church was packed. So, that lets me know that there is a hunger for it. I guess the question will be whether we design worship in such a way that people will say, I just don’t want to miss it.

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