As part of our ongoing series, we speak with Tanya Walker, lay leader and secretary of the North East Victoria Presbytery.
What is your local church?
My local congregation is Benalla Uniting Church, a mainly older, traditional congregation, but with a developing ministry with younger families on the fringes.
How has your work been affected by the pandemic?
My leadership involvement in the congregation has been organising and leading fortnightly alternative worship gatherings on Sunday afternoons. The focus of these gatherings is to create a welcoming and participatory environment for those on the fringes of the church or those with little experience of the church, so that they can come along and be part of a community, connect with others and develop their faith. A large part of how we gather is participation and this includes the sharing of a meal.
Because we usually gather together, we have had to rethink what we need to do to keep this community going.
How have you responded?
On the last Sunday before churches were closed, our group decided to meet in a park for our worship. We observed the social distancing requirements and we brought our own meals to eat instead of sharing. This worked really well, and I had hoped we would still be able to continue to meet like this, but I soon realised this would not be possible. This really challenged me in how we would stay connected. but we found a way. We set up a Zoom creative worship space, firstly on Sunday afternoon. This space was to invite those who would normally come to our alternative worships, but I also extended the invitation to others in the presbytery.
Are there special challenges being in a country town?
Perhaps some might say access to certain shops and other physical things, but when we are all in isolation it doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
Are there special advantages to being in a country town?
There are huge advantages. Partly the distance away from cities is an advantage. Having fewer people in an area means there are just not as many people around in order to have the physical distancing challenges that may exist in larger populated areas.
The other advantage to a country town is that I believe we are more connected to our community and to each other. We all seem to look out for each other, and people don’t need prompting to do that because it already happens. We talk to our neighbours because we know them well already. I have only seen positive outlooks in people that I come across. People are respectful of the rules, and people are friendly and open when we see each other. Finding ways to individually connect with our members is easier because we are more likely to see them on a walk, or at the community garden, or in our neighbourhood.
What do you most want to preserve or focus on during this period?
What I have found really interesting is that in providing a space where we can connect for worship via Zoom, there have been more and different people wanting to be involved, perhaps because what is being offered in their own area does not meet their needs, but also perhaps because at this time any social connection is valuable.
To continue these connections beyond this restrictive time would be really helpful and a few of us are looking at ways to meet up for worship across the presbytery once a term. This continues development of relationships that have been building with younger families in leadership roles across the presbytery. These families often are in positions on their own with very few others in their demographic in their congregation, therefore creating these opportunities to connect where distance is not an issue is very helpful.
I also want to encourage those who have joined us for the first time to continue to build that relationship during this time and then invite them to our worship together when this is over.
What is most challenging?
Perhaps a challenge for us at this time is bridging the gap between those who can connect in through technology and those who are simply missing out because of this. Finding ways to maintain faith connections with those who cannot tune into online worship options.
The other challenge is with some of the single mums in our group. They are particularly vulnerable at this time because they are doing it tough on their own, with no other adult contact and they have had to enter the school term with their child at home and having to take on added responsibilities.
Has there been any positives to come out of this?
I believe there are many positives. Creating deeper connections with people, perhaps even with some who may not have been the ones I would normally connect with.
The natural inclination of many people in our church and in our community is to look out for each other which means that people are making a greater effort to do this. We are being called on to step up in a new way and this helps us to see the mission of God working in a new way.
The other positive is learning from the older people in our church, who have wisdom and experience that we all need to listen to. We think they are vulnerable, but they also have an immense amount of strength that we can also draw on at this time.
Do you have any ideas or advice from your experience to share with others?
My main advice would be to not limit yourself and your abilities. In being encouraged to try something different and in taking on the challenge, there are so many rewards in knowing that you are reaching out to others that makes a difference in their life. Don’t be afraid to simply call someone or connect someone into an opportunity because we don’t know where that will lead in the future.
As a lay leader in the church I feel as though there is more freedom to try creative options as we are not tied to other expectations of the way church should be, even in times of isolation.
In this time when others in our community may be struggling we, as followers of Christ, can go forward without fear and know that if we love others as we would love ourselves, then we can make the world a better place.
In this time of challenge and for many distress, do you have a personal message or faith reflection that you would like to share?
At these times I have often thought of the Footprint poem. When we think that we are alone or in isolation or doing it tough, remember that God is always with you. It is in these times when we think God has left us, that God is actually carrying us through the hard times.