Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Bridging the Word and the World

5/7 2020

Learning Online Brought us Closer to Jesus

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MDiv student learning onlineYears ago, I attended a retreat to prepare for an extended overseas mission trip. As we walked into the retreat center, we were greeted with a large, hand-written sign that read: “Change is our friend who brings us closer to Jesus.” The mission coordinator wisely knew that our venture would bring language differences, culture shock, reverse culture shock, loneliness, and confusion. As with any challenges, we could choose to view them as curses or opportunities.

I am reminded of this catchphrase now in this challenging season of global pandemic and physical distancing. I am reminded of it day in and day out because I am fortunate to be an M.Div. student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. PTS is a place where this season of change is bringing us closer to Jesus.


It would be impossible to capture all the ways that this community has embraced change and experienced God’s grace in the midst of the global crisis.

As I survey my own gratitude, I think these three aspects are worth celebrating:


Swift, Clear, and Compassionate Leadership

As soon as it became clear that we needed to brace for a global pandemic, PTS President Dr. David Esterline began to clearly and frequently communicate with the student body about the school’s response. There was never confusion about whether classes would be in-person or online, whether campus would be open or closed. I was comforted not merely by the clarity and frequency of the communication, but also its content. The Seminary’s Coronavirus Response Team has taken this crisis very seriously and implemented wise measures to keep us safe. One of these decisions was to move all classes this semester to pass/fail; this signaled to me that our leaders care not only about our physical health or academic metrics, but indeed about our holistic well-being.


Generous and Adaptable Faculty

Under regular circumstances, our seminary so values the classroom experience that it does not offer classes online. I think this is a strength in normal times, but it must have been a liability when it was time to abruptly shift all classes to online environments! Yet the professors (and IT department) worked extremely hard to move our classes online. There has been no “one-size-fits-all” solution. Some classes meet synchronously on Zoom, while others utilize discussion forums. Others are hybrids of e-mails, online lectures, forums, and video calls! While I can’t speak to every PTS faculty member’s response, my professors have been patient, hard-working, and gracious as we explore new methods of teaching and learning.


Amazing Students Learning Online

The students of PTS are incredible. Even before the campus was closed, a student had organized a Facebook group to help coordinate needs and services within the Seminary community. There is also a daily video challenge; every day, a different student makes a short video about themselves so that the rest of the students can get to know them better. Our student government has scheduled a weekly video lunch hangout and a weekly video game night. Of course these online interactions are a somewhat sad substitute for spending time together in person. The students miss each other! This speaks to the strong bonds of trust, respect, and affection among the students here.

How long will the pandemic last? What will change in our health care system, government, and economy? As seminarians, we might have more specific questions about classes, teaching formats, campus closures, and student life. The frustrating thing about a season like this one is that we don’t have any of the answers. It’s a bit like preparing for an overseas trip.

But when gifted administrators and faculty exhibit wisdom and grace, and when students band together in encouragement and love, one thing is certain: these changes will continue to bring us closer to Jesus.


Jon Mathieu is a Master of Divinity student at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. While his background is in mathematics, he has been engaged in ministry in Pittsburgh for more than a decade. Most recently he has served as a writer and program director at an evangelical church. Sensing God was leading him into new ways of thinking, believing, and loving, he became a fellow at the Newbigin House of Studies and a student at PTS. His writing has appeared on RelevantMagazine.com.


4/3 2020

Eucharistic Fasting: The Lord’s Supper in the Time of COVID-19

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communion service

Because my wife is a Lutheran pastor, over the last two weeks I have seen many blog posts and Facebook discussions about what to do about communion now that churches can no longer gather physically. Should a pastor maybe say a Eucharistic prayer over the Internet, with all her flock watching from home and commune bread and wine at the appropriate moment? Should lay members be authorized to celebrate the sacrament within their own families, the way some traditions allow for emergency baptism? What do we do now that Jesus no longer comes to us in Word and sacrament?

Especially for those among us for whom the sacrament is a means of grace, this is a real question.


Denominations Weigh in on Online Communion

The denominations with which Pittsburgh Theological Seminary partners are giving different guidelines. The Episcopal bishop of Pittsburgh has come out against virtual communion services, and so have Lutheran bishops. The Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) advised last week that for pastoral reasons Sessions can authorize online communion, thereby reversing advice from just a few weeks earlier. And it is understandable why churches come down differently, because there are so many difficult theological and liturgical questions that would need to be thought through here.

Rather than trying to answer all those questions, I want to suggest a different approach to the whole issue.


As a society, in the course of a few weeks or maybe even a few days we lost everything we thought that was firm and certain – economically, socially, personally. We suddenly discovered how little grip we have on life. We are trying to survive – in some ways, literally – not knowing what life will look like at the other side of this disaster.


Dealing with the Unknown

As churches, we are sharing in the challenges and anxieties. At the same time, we have a little bit more experience in living while not knowing what the future looks like. What society is experiencing in the course of just a few weeks, we have been living for a number of years. As mainline churches, we have been losing everything that was firm and certain. We have been discovering how little grip we have on things. We have been trying to survive without knowing what new forms life will take on the other side.

When, in the context of all that, we have been think about faithful, missional leadership, we often talk about the need for discernment rather than quick, technical fixes. We have been learning not to try to control things by rearranging the deck chairs and trying to continue with all the things we know and hold dear but rather to live into the place where God is leading us and to ask, “How is Christ present even here? How is Christ at work? And how can we follow him where he goes?”

Right now, Christ is present among us in some ways, but not in others. We know and trust that Christ rules all things, including sickness and death. We know and trust that Christ comes to us as we sing and pray. We know and trust that Christ comes to us when we gather together virtually and hear his word read and proclaimed. But Christ does not come to us through the gifts of bread and wine. And I wonder if, rather than quickly trying to fix that, it wouldn’t be better to embrace it. To engage in a Eucharistic fast.


Eucharist Fasting

Eucharistic fasting is not easy. After all, we are people of flesh and blood, and we do not just want to hear about the goodness of the Lord, but we want to taste and see it. Nonetheless, it is Eucharistic fasting, and not feasting, that Christ seems to give us at this point. And if so, we shouldn’t try to avoid it, but live into it.

Years ago Joseph Ratzinger (the later Pope Benedict XVI) wrote a meditation in which he suggested episodic Eucharistic fasting as living in solidarity with those who, for all kinds if reasons, cannot come with us to the Lord’s Table.[1] And at this moment, there are many of those. The families who cannot not afford computers or Internet connections to check into our virtual services. The elderly who have never mastered these technologies. The sick who are in the isolation of the ICU. The coronavirus patients who are dying without the presence of family, of a pastor, or the consolation of the sacrament.


We are living in Lent. It is the season when we give up on things to prepare ourselves better for the amazing, surprising, transforming presence of the resurrection Lord. Maybe part of this is indeed to give up the Eucharist.


Lent will take longer than normal this year. In many parts of the country and the world it will not be Easter again till June, July, or August. Nonetheless, Easter is coming – when we can physically gather together again, sing together, pray together, wish each other the peace of Christ, and once again receive his bread and wine.

[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Behold the Pierced One: An Approach to Spiritual Christology (Ignatius Press, 1986), 97/8.


The Rev. Dr. Edwin Chr. van Driel occupies the Directors’ Bicentennial Chair in Theology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He teaches mainly in Christology, ecclesiology, and the interaction between Biblical studies and theology. Van Driel is deeply invested in helping the church think about its existence and calling as it moves into an increasingly post-Christian world. Van Driel is the author of Incarnation Anyway: Arguments for Supralapsarian Christology (Oxford University Press, 2008) and is working on “Rethinking Paul: Protestant Theology and Contemporary Exegesis” (forthcoming from Cambridge University Press).


4/2 2020

Clergy Self-care During a Pandemic

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clergy self-careA couple of weeks ago, I e-mailed my pastor to ask how he was doing. He wrote back, “I’m good – just trying to figure out the most effective way to ‘be church’ in the midst of this time.” My pastor’s words capture well what I’ve heard from so many clergy colleagues over the last few weeks: how do we do this sacred, embodied work when we can’t be together in the same room?

The fact that “normal ministry” can’t take place right now is difficult for many reasons, but it doesn’t mean that clergy suddenly have more time on their hands. In fact, planning worship may take additional time and energy because clergy must learn and deploy new technology for a dispersed congregation.  Ministers may also feel that they should be in more frequent contact with their parishioners; conversely, fearful and anxious parishioners may reach out to their spiritual leaders more often, seeking comfort and hope. In these circumstances, ministers could potentially work many hours every day and still feel that they are falling short.


In the midst of a crisis, it can be tempting for clergy to forego self-care practices because everything else feels like an emergency.


But right now, self-care for clergy is more important than ever because this crisis will last a long time—weeks or months, at least.

Intense work patterns simply will not be sustainable in the long term and will likely lead to burnout. So, what might good self-care for clergy look like in these very unusual times? Here are a few suggestions:


Don’t forget the basics.

These days, there are lots of tips on the Internet for practicing good self-care in the midst of a pandemic: Establish a routine. Limit your intake of news and social media. Eat well and exercise. Take time to play and create. This is all good advice, for everyone (not just clergy) – follow it, as much as you can.


Conserve energy for what is most important for you and your congregation right now.

In the early phase of this crisis, many pastoral leaders have (understandably) focused on figuring out how to facilitate remote worship and educational experiences. This is important work – but in the coming weeks, pastoral care demands will likely increase as more people in our communities contract the virus and fall ill. (Check out these guidelines about how to provide pastoral care during this crisis.)

This will mean that clergy will have even less energy to devote to the usual tasks of ministry. If you are feeling especially stretched by the pastoral care needs in your community, consider the following:

Don’t reinvent the wheel.

This may not be the time to produce an original set of daily devotions for your congregation when there are so many other resources available online. Consider sharing outside resources with your congregation rather than trying to create them all yourself.

Leverage partnerships to share the load.

If your community is experiencing increasingly intense pastoral care needs and you are feeling overwhelmed by trying to facilitate weekly worship or Bible study, consider partnering with a neighboring church to share leadership. This might also help your faith community to connect with another congregation in the neighborhood.

Ask, “What is most important right now for the people I am caring for?” and, “Am I the best person to provide that?”

Use the first question to help you discern where to focus your limited energy and time. Use the second question to help you figure out when to activate your network of resources, especially if referral is indicated (for serious mental health needs, for example).


Recognize that some boundaries may need to change for a while – but boundaries are still important.

Right now, you may feel it is important to be available to congregants via phone, e-mail, or text message more often than you typically would. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t set any boundaries at all. It’s OK to stop working at a certain time of day; after that time, only respond to communications if there is a true emergency. And taking regular time off will be even more important than usual to give yourself a break from the intensity of ministry during this period. Give yourself some time each week, even if it is only part of a day, to rest and renew yourself spiritually.


Practice self-compassion.

No one really knows how to do ministry well in these circumstances. We can certainly learn from those who have ministered in the midst of other communal traumas, but we are all trying to figure this out as we go. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself. Offer yourself the grace that you typically offer to others.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that what your congregation most needs from you right now is not a new virtual Bible study or seamless online worship—what they most need is you, as healthy and whole as you can be. Self-care practices are vital for keeping us all grounded during a very stressful time; ignoring self-care at a time like this will likely only hurt us and our ministries in the long run. As the Rev. Matthew Crebbin put it in a recent blog post about ministering during disasters, “Do not surrender to the temptation of believing that God needs your own personal destruction to save the world. It’s not only bad personal self-care, it is bad public theology.” Let’s resist that temptation, and instead remind ourselves and those we are in ministry with that each of us is a beloved child of God, worthy of respect and care.


A graduate of Vanderbilt University (Ph.D.), Vanderbilt Divinity School (M.Div.), and Furman University (B.A.), the Rev. Dr. Leanna Fuller is in her element when teaching about caring ministry. Ordained in the United Church of Christ, her most recent book is titled When Christ’s Body is Broken: Anxiety, Identity, and Conflict in Congregations (Wipf and Stock, 2016). Fuller has earned numerous fellowships, awards, and honors. She concerns herself with church conflict, and her book uses two case studies to examine the issue toward constructive outcomes. Fuller advises pastors to develop an intentional plan for dealing with congregational conflict—before the conflict arises! Some of the first steps, she says, include acknowledging that anxiety will be present in such circumstances and that the more serious the conflict the more time it will take to resolve it constructively.



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