It all started with Murray. Murray was a sturdy sheep with a blue bow that I found at a yard sale. As a pastor it can be convenient to have a few sheep around, you never know when one will come in handy, and since I am a shepherd to a dog who requires care, feeding, cleaning up and other basic care, I really appreciate my stuffed animals.
And then there was the Christmas Eve script that called for a few sheep to be hurled in the air by a very frustrated actor, and Frankie and Goldie joined the family. I wrote about them and Murray in an early post https://michelesomerville.blog/2020/02/11/a-pastor-and-her-props/ So I won’t say too much here.
Although I have these treasured props, I have tried to eliminate many of them as I moved into retirement. My office is small, about 8’x 8′ and general storage space in the house is limited. Plus, I am often guilty of “out of sight, out of mind” so I need my props to stay where I can see them. Still, space is limited.
But when someone gives you a gift out of love, or even something you forgot you asked for (I did send out a request for ‘gently used stuffed sheep’) you have to be gracious. Periodically, new sheep showed up at the door of “Shepherdess Shelley’s Home for wayward Sheep,” and in the process they were upgraded from “props’ to flock.
Occasionally, when preaching on the 23rd Psalm or the passages from John 10 about Jesus as The Good Shepherd, Murray would accompanied me to church. I can hold a stuffed animal and preach.
I began to sense other possibilities when I was forced to record services at home, due to pandemic restrictions. I had enough sheep to gather them in front of the camera, while I hid from view and recorded the 23rd Psalm. Wish I had been smart enough to snap a picture, but my talents are limited when it comes to technology.
I would have had a few more sheep for the fold, but my dog, Sheba objected. I had given her two “Lambchop” stuffed sheep with squeakers. They were still in good shape, so I thought to include them in the service.
When Sheba realized I had taken her toys, she came into my office and retrieved them one after another, and returned them to their proper place on her bed. Selfish dog, or foolish me? Truth be told, I may have initiated this burst of selfishness.
I had brought Frankie and Goldie home from church and set them on my office chair while I decided on a good home for them, and then I went out. When I got home, my husband asked if I had given them to the dog. She had come into the office, pulled them from my chair and put them with her other toys, er, friends. Cuddle buddies. Needless to say I retrieved them to save them from a fate worse than dog drool.
While many colleagues lived close to their churches and were able to record their services in the church, in empty sanctuaries due to COVID restrictions, I am retired and live in a neighboring county. At the time of the Governor’s Stay at Home orders, that meant that I could not travel to church.
It was okay. In addition to the Governor’s Stay at Home Orders that were in place last Spring, our Bishop has asked us on two separate occasion to refrain from in person worship for the sake of safety. The first time, between the Bishop’s request and the Governor’s orders, we were out of our sanctuaries for four months. The second request came at the start of Advent, early December 2020, and we are more or less holding steady until further notice. That means once again many of us are recording in empty churches. I appreciate the call to safety, even more since COVID hit our home. So this is not a complaint, just an explanation of why one would record church services in an empty sanctuary.
I had seen pictures that colleauges had posted of sanctuaries that were empty, but had pictures of parishioners in the pews where they would be sitting had they been present. Because I was still recording from home, I didn’t understand. Recording from home in front of my computer, the congregation was missing, but I had a place I could look, at the camera, and imagine I was speaking directly to the flock.
This time, I am able to travel to the church to record the service and the congregation has decided to do Drive-In Church, so several members come to the parking lot to tune in to the service and participate. But that is how I discovered how discouraging it can be to preach in a mostly empty sanctuary.
I don’t know if it is true for all pastors, but many of us rely on facial expressions, verbal responses and other body language to know if what we are saying is registering with the flock. And worship is meant to be interactive. It is hard to be interactive in an empty room, or a mostly empty room.
You see, I am pretty sure that there is an unwritten rule for pastors and other speakers, that if you are preaching, or speaking and look at one person too long, it quickly becomes uncomfortable. With other people in the room, you can gaze around, look at different people, make eye contact without it becoming a staring contest.
But where do you look if the only other person in the room is the tech person in the back and the pianist? While I did not do that, it was the tech person at the church I currently serve that started the process that brought my new “flock” to church.
He came up to me after the first service and said, “Pastor, I think you are missing your congregation!” “You don’t have anyone to look, at so you are looking down.” He was right, and I quickly knew what I had to do. I had to invite a new flock to join me in worship, that would not cause trouble for me by breaking the “no in-person worship” directive from the Bishop.
If you took the time to stop and read the original post, A Pastor and Her Props, you might have observed that E. Lilly and Lollipop had different names in that post. I do feel sheepish about this, but there are reasons. As pet owners, we do not normally change the names of our pets when we adopt them. We did in Sheba’s case, but she was the exception. When I gathered the flock to take them into the sanctuary, I could not remember the names of the lavender sheep. I asked a few folks I thought might possibly remember and they did not. I searched my memory, I knew their names were something sweet and silly, but to no avail. So I settled on renaming them and doing so publicly, on Facebook.
Naturally, once their pictures and new names were on Facebook, I went back and reread the post that introduced them, and there, to my surprise were their original names. Too late, I am not renaming them again, I do not want to cause an identity crisis among the flock. I can’t even blame COVID, just time and age (mine).
Okay, they are cute, but why are they there?
There is a short answer to this; they give me a place to look when I sing, when I talk, and they make me smile. Because they are generously present and genuinely attentive, I don’t feel as though I am preaching to an empty room. Although, one of my colleauges who saw my pictures on Facebook said she thought Bath-sheepba was nodding off. I had to admit that Bath-sheepba might have been suffering from “long winded preacher” syndrome.
What would a service for this flock look like?
There are times when services are planned around special needs or a special focus. I want this service to be inclusive of both flocks, the folks in their cars or at home and the flock in the sanctuary. The opening song would be “Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us.” (words attributed to Dorothy A. Thrupp, 1836, Music by William B. Bradbury, 1859) The scriptures would be the 23rd Psalm (The Lord is My Shepherd…) and the Gospel would be John 10: 11 “I am the good shepherd…” They love hearing about the good shepherd, it comforts them. All of that coupled with their favorite Christmas song, The Friendly Beasts. https://youtu.be/fWWIBtVq6lI
I have heard a rumor that their favorite all time song is The Wiffenpoof song, and when the sanctuary is empty, they can be heard to sing, “We’re poor little lambs who have gone astray…bah, bah, bah.” They are pretty bashful though, they will not sing with me.
Not all of the sheep were strong enough to make the journey from my home to the church and they make up the homebound flock, who are eager to hear the word proclaimed online, or in a practice run, snug in my office. They don’t seem to mind and not one has been heard to utter “Bah-humbug” in response to my sermons, so I am grateful. And they do their best to help keep me from taking myself too seriously!
Not holding back the tide,
Copyright 2021 Michele Somerville, The Beach Girl Chronicles and https://msomervillesite.WordPress.com