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Pastor embraces technology for ministry during pandemic

Posted: September 16 2020 at 12:08 PM
Author: Diane Strzelecki, NIC Communications Specialist

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Pastor Toni Lucas preaches at an outdoor worship service at Albany UMC.

On a warm and sunny Sunday morning in July, Albany UMC was holding an outdoor service in the parking lot as dictated by COVID-19 safety concerns. As Pastor Antoinette (Toni) Lucas, 76, preached in front of the church’s gardens, a hummingbird darted from flower to flower, a blur of wings and movement silhouetted by the sun. It was a reminder of God’s creation amid a time of uncertainly, and a vision that Lucas has hung onto as she continues her ministry.

Lucas was in her third year serving Albany and her fourth year as a pastor when the pandemic hit and Illinois’ stay-at-home order began. “I was sitting there thinking ‘what can I do’?” she remembered. “How can I stay in touch with my people when we can’t be in the sanctuary and they can’t come to church and some of them don’t have technology and some of them don’t want technology?” Lucas began with a tool she had already been using to keep in touch with family members in the UK: Facebook. 

A former legal secretary, Lucas was proficient with most office systems and software, but video recording, editing and uploading was a new thing for her.  “I just tell people you can teach us old dogs new tricks but it just takes longer,” she laughed. 

Lucas began recording herself in her living room reading from a book of daily devotions. The first time she did it, it felt strange—and then she says had to come to terms with the idea of posting it for everyone to see. When the weather got nicer, she moved outside to her yard. 

DeKalb District Superintendent Rev. Brian Gilbert describes the devotionals as having the feel of sitting on the front porch and learning about God together.  “I find myself using her Facebook post every day as a way to start my own prayer time and keep myself centered and am grateful for her work both professionally and personally,” he said.

Lucas describes her tech team as her, her iPhone and her laptop. She originally used her cream pitcher and sugar bowl to prop up her smartphone when filming, but found that a cross made from a railroad tie and horseshoe worked better. 

Pat Reynolds, a member of Albany since 1987, enjoys the devotionals. “Pastor Toni is good with technology – more than me—and there were some challenges involved but she pushed through,” she said. “I really appreciate her doing that.”

Soon Lucas began recording herself preaching a sermon and uploading it to premiere on Sunday. It turned out that uploading was the greatest challenge. “It takes forever and I lose patience,” she admitted. “Sometimes I didn’t go to bed until 1 am because I was waiting for the upload.”

In July, Lucas discovered the church owned a video camera and Albany began worshipping in the parking lot. As a result, they film services for those who can’t or who are unable to attend. 

Lucas also hosts a small online study group. “We’re starting our second book looking at racism and white privilege,” she said. “Like the devotions, I can have a group that includes people who could never be physically present because they don’t live around here.”

“She stays with it: if Pastor Toni says she’s going to do it, she does it,” Reynolds said. “If she says she’s praying for somebody, she’s praying for them. Any contact you have with her is worth it because she’s just so positive.” 

Lucas added another upload to her repertoire in mid-September: a Sunday school video of her reading a book to the children posted weekly on Facebook. To accompany the video, the church assembles monthly lessons by age group and packages them in pizza boxes for parents to pick up.  

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For Lucas, it’s about including everyone. For those who aren’t computer literate or comfortable with technology, she mails monthly letters; for the children, she also sends letters with coupons for ice cream or other treats. For those who don’t have Facebook, she either texts her daily devotion videos or attaches them to an email. 

“I can’t tell you how many times during the pandemic I’ve said out loud ‘God, really? You waited for me, gave me this call so I could be a pastor now, during all this?’” Lucas said. However, she’s convinced she’s where she is for a reason and feels for her colleagues who’ve never had to engage in ministry through times like these.  “I’m too dumb to know the difference,” she laughed, but then sobered immediately when considering the challenges. “How do you not let anybody fall through the cracks?” she said. “Doing a funeral without being able to give a hug is the worst thing I’ve ever done.”

Although Lucas and the congregation are relatively comfortable with virtual fellowship and spiritual connection, she anticipates returning to in-person worship in the sanctuary. “We didn’t get to have Easter in our church, so the first day back in the sanctuary it will be Easter,” she said. “I don’t care if it’s Valentine’s Day! We may even have two Easters next year.” 

As for her embrace of technology, Lucas remains philosophical. “It’s what you make of it—as is all life: what you make of it,” she said. “You do what you do and people respond. Is it polished? Was it professional? No, probably not by anybody’s measure. But did it get the message out there? Yeah, and some people watched it.”

“She always holds herself to a high standard and she doesn’t have to—she’s good enough,” Reynolds said, adding that Lucas usually sends an email apology if something didn’t go right. “It doesn’t bother anybody, you know? But she’s really humble.”

“Toni’s leadership in the local church is to be celebrated,” Gilbert said. “During this difficult time, she has adapted and used technology to reach out into her community and beyond. What started, I think, as a personal challenge for growth turned into a great ministry offering devotions on Facebook Live that help people center themselves and grow in their own discipleship.”

Lucas encourages people to embrace technology for sharing God’s message. “This is the world we live in and you’re either going to get on board or you’re going to miss everything,” she said. “So I’m on board. I don’t want to miss anything.”

Albany UMC worships at 10:15 am on Sundays. Visit the church's Facebook page to watch the online services.

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