Growing up in the shadows of the Appalachian Mountains, the possibility of snow during mid-winter was strong. If not snow, then the threat of an unpredictable ice storm from the deeper recesses of the South. Moving up with a vengeance, like a Mike Tyson uppercut, knocking out power and leaving tree branches and power lines sagging.
During those times, rumbling road treatment trucks would hit the streets, working frantically. Throwing as much salt on the pavement as a country cook does on a Sunday supper.
All other life and activity came to a screeching halt. Schools were canceled, businesses closed, and while my family wasn’t the steeple-going type, I remember churches followed suit. The gates of hell might not overcome God’s kin-dom, but an inch of frozen water slowed it down.
I was in for a surprise when my family and I moved to Vermont in 2019. Bumping up against Canada, we saw heavy, wet, soft snow a few days before Halloween, our first year there.
And it never went away.
The temperature stayed at a frigid meat locker level. Snow was plowed, pushed to the side, and remained present through late March or early April. Life did not stop; it plunged on.
Wood fireplaces billowed smoke constantly, snow blowers came out of garages and shovels removed packed layers of white flakes around mailboxes. If it didn’t get moved, your mail didn’t come.
Businesses and schools operated as usual. I asked a homegrown parishioner if the six to eight inches would cause a delay in our daughter’s daycare schedule. He scoffed, grinned, and said, “Not for this. It’s just a dusting.”
Likewise, the ritual of Sunday mornings remained unphased. The idea of axing a service over snow was laughable.
And then, in March 2020, the pandemic hit us harder than a wintery nor’easter ever could.
We joined many other faith communities in closing our doors. Those first few weeks were rough—recorded Zoom videos produced in the parsonage library.
Much of it ended up on the cutting room floor before any sort of groove was hit. Finally, with six feet of recommendations and masks at the ready, I delivered my first of many sermons to an empty sanctuary.
Nothing in seminary prepared me for that moment. No previous experience helped me figure out what I was supposed to do. I felt like a lost contestant on the “Great British Baking Show.” Unsure of my next step, I glanced around at other ministers, hoping to find a clue on what to do.
Churches closed during this time, some permanently. Many pastors joined the Great Resignation.
Like me, those who came out on the other side did so spiritually limping. As months passed and COVID cases dropped, I hobbled out of Vermont and into Connecticut to accept a new call.
I often thought about how the last three years felt like a lucid dream gone wrong. People ask, “What was the hardest part?”
Before, I thought those weeks upon weeks of sitting in a silent sanctuary was what broke me. I don’t hold to this belief anymore. Something happened recently, leading me into my cellar of memories to sift through all things labeled “pandemic.”
The revelation began with a snowstorm.
Connecticut is Southern New England, meaning they have four seasons. While they are light years ahead of most states south of Maryland in snowstorm preparation, they aren’t Vermont.
This means you might get a school delay or closure if the Doppler radar fills up with too many “pink and blue” blips. This was the case two weeks ago.
A foot of snow was projected for Sunday. Church leadership and I kept an eye on the weather.
By late Thursday evening, we knew we would err on the side of caution and cancel services. The decision was easy as we knew we could record a service to upload online. I contacted the necessary folks, and we scheduled a meeting the next day.
When the time came, we gathered in the sanctuary, reviewed the order of service and took our positions. Sitting behind the pulpit, I waited for the organ prelude to end. With the last notes rising to the bell tower, I rose and stared out to an empty sanctuary, preparing myself for a trauma-inducing deja vu-like flashback.
In fact, it didn’t feel weird at all. The longer I preached, the more I sort of liked it. By the time I offered those at home the chance to grab whatever elements they had on hand to join me in Communion, I was full-on embracing the self-imposed isolation again.
What was happening to me? Or a better question, what happened to me during the pandemic?
It’s difficult to pin down, but something shifted in me during those bare sanctuary preaching sessions. A change, a mutation, in how I approach what I do as a minister— transforming me through the brutal, raw and freeing aspect of not having to show up and just keep turning the same old cranks.
The stale playbook of Sunday morning expectancy was thrown out the window. Church felt different because it looked, sounded, and was different. Being alone in an empty sanctuary again, I felt the absence of inspiration more than the absence of bodies, and I missed not having it.
When Sunday came, I awoke to a barely visible sun. Its shimmering was noticeable from behind ghostly transparent gray clouds. Instead of grabbing a dress shirt and jacket out of the closet, I was hopping in my bibs, wrangling the kids, and pulling out the sled from the back of the garage.
As hard as it might be to believe, the world didn’t stop when the clock struck 10:00 am, and I wasn’t behind a pulpit. No, it spun on without me. God ringing in a new day like she always does.
Outside, in the throes of making a snowman, I thought churches and their ministers could use more days like this. Snow covers all the places and landmarks we think we know.
It strips an area of its identity, burying the details, and allows us to see past expectations. Not seeing what’s there helps us see what could be there.
Just like an empty sanctuary.
Maybe we could use more of those, too.
received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and enrolled in the doctor of ministry program at McAfee School of Theology. When not spending time with his spouse and daughters, he can be found writing and baking late into the night. He currently resides in New England with his family. His thoughts and reflections are his own.