By Lindsay Peyton

Pastor Kenneth Levingston could very well be more excited on Resurrection Sunday than a child on Christmas morning. “For me, it’s indescribable,” he said. The Senior Pastor atJones Memorial UMC even reserves a hotel room the night before to be closer to church. He enjoys arriving before dawn. “I can’t wait,” he said. “No matter how early you get up, He’s already risen.”

For the past two years, however, Levingston’s tradition went on hold, as virtual worship became mandatory during the pandemic. Now, he is preparing for the first in-person Easter for the congregation since COVID-19 began.

Welcoming congregants back to in-person services, Levingston addressed how all are looking forward to Easter and the future. “I am thankful to God the days ahead are filled with hope, that life in the gathered church community will be safe and blessed much more than the last two years,” Levingston wrote in a recent letter to church members.

Still, he explained, the pandemic has left trauma in its wake and will require a lengthy period of healing. “There’s no way of walking away from this unscathed,” he said. “There’s great sorrow and sadness as we push forward.”

COVID-19 resulted in the loss of loved ones and even the ability to properly mourn them as gatherings at funerals were limited. Many individuals lost jobs and their homes. Church members grieved the inability to come together to pray – in a time when they wanted to more than ever.

“For many of us who were regular church attendants, it was like the air you breathe,” Levingston said. “To not have the opportunity to come was a shock.”

Nonetheless, the church found new ways to serve and connect. “The pandemic unearthed the resiliency of the church,” Levingston said. “We’ve adjusted and adapted. The Christian church has always adapted, from the very beginning – and has always found a way of telling the story.”

All ages began to join in worship and Bible study online. “It’s a great blessing to us,” Levingston said. For many churches, he explained, this was an opportunity to fully understand the necessity of media and technology to ministry in the current age. In addition, Zoom helped make administrative meetings that much more efficient.

Sharing the gospel continued, even in the midst of COVID, Levingston added. Giving to the church also remained strong. “That has been heartening, to see God’s people respond,” the pastor said.

At the same time, Levingston was saddened to miss many of the church’s outreach opportunities, especially going into the schools and partnering with the Star of Hope Transitional Living Center. Still, he noted, UMCs have partnered with other nonprofits and health care agencies to help in the community, providing access to voting, vaccines, food, clothing, medical care and counseling.

The pandemic prompted the pastor to ask challenging questions and rethink ministry in a number of ways. Some of the innovative events, like outdoor worship, could make a comeback.

Moving forward, one of Levingston’s top priorities is to honor those members who have been lost during COVID and to recognize how they are missed in the life of the church. He also wants to help members heal from the trauma of the pandemic.

A current challenge, Levingston explained, is to ensure all members feel valued and celebrated, regardless of the choices they may make. Some may wait to return to church, and some may prefer to stay masked longer than guidelines require.

The pandemic has validated the significance of the gathered community, Levingston said. He quoted Matthew: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

“We don’t know what the full reopening is going to be like,” Levingston said. “We don’t know who is going to be back. It’s going to be different.”

With the pandemic appearing to be trending downward, faith continues to propel this pastor forward. “It’s just about trusting Christ,” he said. “We never know what’s going to come our way, but we know Christ will lift us, and we can press on.”