Even though the campus was uninhabited, more than 50 members of the Perkins community managed to worship together on March 25. Faculty, students and staff assembled via the online platform Zoom for a virtual service led by Mark Stamm and three students, with Alyce McKenzie preaching.

Perkins online worship service

Despite a few bumps along the way – in the form of unmuted mikes and occasionally out-of-kilter congregational prayers and singing – attendees welcomed the chance to gather.

“I’m thankful we can connect spiritually, despite our physical distancing,” said Ruben Habito, one of the virtual attendees.

The online chapel service is one example of how the Perkins community has come together and adapted in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic: with creativity, mutual support and empathy.

With classes meeting online for the rest of the semester, Perkins students at the Dallas campus pivoted quickly to master online learning platforms. Alumni serving in churches invented new ways to worship and foster community while practicing social distancing. Faculty members pitched in with resources, insights and perspective to support preachers and pastors in that effort.

Today, the future is uncertain. No decision has been made yet about graduation. Government officials are warning citizens to expect the shutdown to continue. In the meantime, here’s a sampling of the ways members of the Perkins community have stepped up to the challenge.

Perkins Faculty: Providing Tools for the Challenge

On Sunday, March 15, most churches in the North Texas area moved their worship services to online platforms. The Office of Public Affairs and Alumni/ae Relations and Perkins worship and music faculty quickly assembled “Resources for Worship, Preaching and Staying Connected as Community,” a list of resources and tips for preaching and worshiping using online platforms. The page includes tips and guides, such as A Beginner’s Guide to Church Live Streaming
and How to Use Facebook Live: The Ultimate Guide.

In a blog post, Alyce McKenzie, director of the Center for Preaching Excellence, tackled the question, “How can we preachers appreciate and make the best use of this mandatory opportunity to preach to an empty room?” She wrote, “Our current situation calls for a change in wording of the childhood rhyme ‘Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and there are the people.’ Our revised COVID-19 version is, ‘Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors, where are the people?’ The answer is, at home.” Read Dr. McKenzie’s blog  “Preaching to an Empty Room” and Preaching to an Empty Room Part Two.  Also listen to Dr. McKenzie on the Louisiana NOW Podcast, “Preaching to an Empty Room, A Conversation with Alyce McKenzie, sponsored by The United Methodist Foundation of Louisiana.  

The page also includes insights about music and online worship from Dr. Marcell Silva Steuernagel, United Methodist Communications and Discipleship Ministries.

Dr. Silva Steuernagel, Assistant Professor of Church Music and Director of M.S.M. Program at Perkins, offers some insights on how “do church” online in a variety of ways in his new blog “Doing Church’ Online: Some Insights.”

“We are living a unique moment, and the learning curve involved in this transition might be uncomfortable for some of us,” he said. “People need Jesus’s message of hope and love as we move through this season of confinement and uncertainty.”

When worship services move online, what happens to Communion? United Methodists have already grappled with that question for years. In 2013, a group of United Methodist leaders called for a moratorium on online Communion and requested an in-depth study of the issue. Read this story from Discipleship Ministries for insights on this issue, which includes a link to Dr. Mark Stamm’s article on the topic, “Online Communion and the COVID-19 Crisis Problems and Alternatives.”

Perkins Alums: Going Virtual

Rebecca Guldi Tankersley (M.Div. ’15)

With Dallas County virtually shut down, and large gatherings prohibited, churches in the North Texas Conference and beyond were challenged to find ways to preach, worship and minister to their congregations and their communities while practicing social distancing. Many Perkins alumni/ae experimented with new approaches.

Rebecca Guldi Tankersley (M.Div. ’15), Associate Rector at the Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration in Dallas, is praying the Daily Office online (9 a.m. Morning Prayer, Noon Prayer, 6 p.m. Evening Prayer and 9 p.m. Compline). Morning Prayer is hosted on Transfiguration’s Facebook page, and the rest of the Daily Office may be viewed from Tankersley’s Facebook page. Follow along with each day’s written prayers here.

Rev. Pam White (M.Div. ’14)

The Rev. Pam White (M.Div. ’14) senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Rowlett, Texas, addressed church members via Facebook.

“We want to be the church in the best way that we can,” she told parishioners. “We want to know what’s going on in your life, and we want to support you. At a time like this, we need to be church, together, for the world.” She is coordinating with the mayor, businesses and others in the city of Rowlett to coordinate citywide efforts and to respond to needs.

“We already serve weekend backpacks for 90 kids in several schools,” she said. “We will make sure those needs are still met.”

Two Perkins alums were featured in a United Methodist News story about how small churches are coping during the crisis, including the Rev. Vic Casad, superintendent of the East District of the North Texas Conference (D.Min. ’94) and the Rev. JB Bryant, pastor of Poetry United Methodist Church, about 40 miles from Dallas (M.Div. ’18).

Pastor Larry Terrell Crudup (M. Div. ’14)

Pastor Larry Terrell Crudup (M. Div. ’14) has launched multiple virtual and telephone-based platforms to keep members of Tabernacle Baptist Church of Oklahoma City connected and cared for. Using a free conference call number, anyone can participate in Wednesday noonday prayer (12 p.m. every Wednesday) and Bible study (every Wednesday at 7 p.m.) or listen to an audio recording of Sunday worship (Sundays at 11 a.m.) by phone.  To join, call 563-999-1001 and use access code is 477619#.  For Sunday worship, a small group of church leaders records worship on Thursday, which is then streamed on YouTube Live on Sunday morning at 11 a.m.  Join live at liveauthenticallytbc.online.church or view recorded videos at the church’s YouTube channel.  Crudup adds that the church also maintains a telephone tree, an important option for those older members who may not be tech savvy.  “I record a 2-minute message of encouragement, which goes out to all of the families in the church, or to groups of families, each week,” he said.

Victoria Sun Esparza (M.Div. ’19) created an online resource page for the COVID-19 crisis. The page has resources for parents and families as well as some new articles and mental health resources. “Please share with your congregations,” she said on Facebook. “Many parents need extra support right now.”

Hannah E. Cruse (MSM, ’19) has recorded six hymn videos with piano accompaniment and text “so that people can sing together even if they can’t go to church together.” You can find that Youtube playlist here. She is taking requests, so email her at thechurchmusiciansassistant@gmail.com! Cruse just released a free singing workshop geared toward volunteer singers available here — an option for choir members who may enjoy brushing up on their singing technique while stuck at home. Cruse also started a Facebook fundraiser to assist church musicians who rely on weekly income from churches and are now out of work due to the COVID-19 crisis. She writes, “Some churches are still paying their musicians even though services are cancelled, but most churches cannot afford to keep this up.” Stay informed about Cruse’s work by joining her mailing list at The Church Musician’s Assistant.

Many students and alumni expressed gratitude for the instruction they received at Perkins, which prepared them to quickly adjust and move worship services into the virtual realm at the churches they serve.

Rebecca Garrett Pace (M.S.M. ‘13), Director of Worship at White Rock United Methodist Church in Dallas, wrote, “I’m remembering the heated debate we had in my Word & Worship class [now Introduction to Christian Worship] many years ago about virtual/online communion. Rethinking my stance currently … Thank you, Perkins, for helping me think critically, creatively and calmly when it seems so hard to do so!”

Perkins Students: Pivoting for the Duration

Before leaving for Spring Break, Perkins students underwent training for the online meeting platform Zoom. Now they are completing their education this semester online.

Bridwell Library is closed to walk-ins until further notice. Virtual help for library services can be found by visiting the library’s Get Help page at smu.edu/Bridwell/Help. Updated library hours for Virtual Help ONLY are Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

At least one student has singlehandedly brought a church into the digital age. Gina Hahn (M.Div. ’20) has helped launch online worship at the church where she is serving as a pastoral intern.

Ridgewood Park United Methodist Church had never done live stream or videotaped worship services. Since March 12, Hahn has created video training, done one-on-one set-ups to get connected to Facebook, Zoom and other social media platforms, run the Facebook live streaming worship and set up the church’s YouTube Channel.

“The feedback during worship and afterward has been amazing,” she said. “We have a diverse community that comprises families with young children to a huge (majority) group of seasoned members ages 60-98. During this crisis, it has been a blessing to see God at work. Because of the capability of Facebook live streaming, which is a free platform, we have witnessed people from other states, some as far away as Hawaii and Georgia, get reconnected with their church home that they grew up in and reconnect with members during worship through the comment section of the Facebook live streaming.”

Hahn credits her Perkins education for her ability to quickly adjust.

“A big shout out to thank our beloved Perkins professors: Wes Allen and Alyce McKenzie for their Intro to Preaching class, and Mark Stamm for his Intro to Worship class,” she said. “You taught us, prepared us and videotaped us. We had to watch ourselves … so that we could become better clergy, ministers and lay leaders. We could not be creating these online worship experiences throughout the North Texas Conference and beyond without your guidance!”

Other Perspectives

Faculty weighed in with insights from their various academic perspectives. On Facebook, Robert Hunt, director of the Global Theological Education program, offered insights into Islamic law in a short video presentation and shared a statement relating to COVID-19 from the Islamic Society of North America and other groups. He noted, “It is always useful to know how our neighbors of a different religion reason in a time of crisis. This statement comes from the most important American Islamic groups. It is a great example of how Muslims think through a crisis from both Scripture and first principles.”

Ted Campbell, Professor of Church History, offered a reminder that history teaches us that crises often spur positive change. In a talk to Texas Annual Conference extension ministers a few years ago, he described the origins of the Houston Methodist Hospital – built as a response to the global influenza pandemic of 1918. Today, it’s one of the top medical centers in the nation.

“Protestants in many areas of the United States did not really get seriously into healthcare until the influenza pandemic of 1918,” he said. “Up to that point, at least in many areas like Texas, Catholics had the long lead in creating healthcare institutions and infrastructures.”

And, as he often does in difficult times, Hal Recinos offered new poems that speak to the new reality of the Perkins community and the world.

Pandemic ©
illness is a creeping thing
floating in the air inhaled,
falling on the surfaces of
ordinary things, like God
who never talks or a microbe
impossible for the naked eye
to see. you wonder with all
the calls for social distance
aiming for better health of
the things that trail behind
you or the storybook days
you took for granted nudged
closer to the dark or the heads
turning with laughter in the
places you now miss. time
has never moved more slowly
and the end you see no one has
yet imagined yet here we are
waiting for it to ring louder than
the phone and gorgeously dressed
with formal notice.
h. j. Recinos