For the last 6 months my church congregation has not met traditionally because of the lockdowns stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. In the coming weeks and months we are anticipating starting to hold more regular meetings – even if it still looks different than it had been. Before we go back to these more normal settings I wanted to record some of my thoughts and feelings on what I’ve learned about the Sabbath and church over the last six months.
I will start with a description of what our Sundays looked like pre-lockdown and post-lockdown. I have a feeling that even after all of these lockdowns finish church might never go back to being the same as it was before. I’m hoping that there are things that we’ve learned from this experience that will help us to make our church attendance even more meaningful in the future, so I want to record now what it has been so I can remember in the future.
This year our ward met at 10:30am (which is my favorite time for church, I’m really ticked that COVID has robbed us of so many months of that meeting time). Each Sunday morning I would need to get all 6 of us showered, dressed, hair done, fed, diaper bag packed, lessons prepared, shoes on and everyone in the car by about 10:20am.
Since my husband rarely gets up before 9am (and I try to avoid traipsing the kids in and out of our bathroom while he sleeps) the whole rigamorole had to happen in less than an hour and a half. I would try frequently to get as much organized on Saturday night to avoid the scramble, but most Sundays still found us sliding in a little late and a lot frazzled just before the sacrament if we were lucky… just after it if we weren’t.
Sacrament meeting was frequently spent trying to keep our 2 year old reasonably reverent and the kids quietly occupied with coloring or snacks in the hope that my husband or I could glean a little bit from the 3+ talks in the meeting. I have the rule that no distractions come out until after the sacrament, and that if I have to take a child into the hall they don’t get any freedom to move around. I try to be careful not to reward misbehaving in sacrament meeting with the freedom to play in the halls. Although a lot of what I’ve written about deals more with discipline, I really did enjoy those sacrament meetings. Even when I couldn’t pay full attention to every second of the talks I pretty much always walked away with a few moments that touched my heart and had a message for me personally. Attending sacrament meeting always was a boost for my week and well worth the hassle of bringing my circus to it.
For second hour my husband would head off to Sunday School (he’s our ward’s Sunday School president), my older 3 would head off to primary, and I would go to nursery with our youngest (my current calling is as a nursery leader). I have the younger class of nursery kids so our main goal was to minimize crying for the full hour 😛 We would squeeze in a super brief lesson and have some fun with singing time, but primarily the kids played with toys and I would chat with my partner and the other parents that were trying to acclimate their kids to nursery.
I love little kids so I don’t totally mind being in the nursery but I really miss attending Relief Society. I like Sunday School well enough, but I miss Relief Society. Having the opportunity to connect with the other women in my ward is something my soul needs more than the discussions in Sunday School. It has helped at least to have another teacher that I enjoy visiting with and that we have lots of parents that end up staying around to help their kids acclimate to nursery – but it’s not the same. When I was growing up I probably would have thought that was crazy but I cannot adequately express how grateful I am for the organization of the Relief Society. Not just for the Sunday meetings but just for the unity of sisters and the support system we have. I love being a member of the Relief Society.
Having been in nursery since my oldest was in nursery (my youngest is the only one who has been good at going to nursery on his own… so of course he’s the one that I was called to be a nursery leader for :P) I have to say that I super appreciated the change from the 3 hour block to the 2 hour block for nursery kids. It’s SO much easier to keep nursery kids happy for 1 hour than 2 – not just half as easy, like 100x easier. I’ve been grateful for the opportunity to serve and I’m really grateful for the friends that I’ve made connections with as a nursery leader.
After church we would gather everyone back up, drive home, and eat lunch. By the time lunch was over I was typically EXHAUSTED and as much as I would try to stay awake I almost always would fall asleep for most of the afternoon while my husband took care of the kids. Then it was time to make dinner and feed everyone. In the evenings we would sometimes do games as a family, or go outside, or just leave everyone to their own devices. Then bedtime as usual and that’s our Sabbath.
When the lockdowns started we began doing virtual “church” with my family. We would meet for about an hour on Zoom with my parents, grandparents, some of my siblings, and a rotating selection of friends from my parents’ ward that could use a group to meet with. For the first couple of months we assigned out talks and tried to make it like a sacrament meeting. About halfway through we switched to making it more of a Sunday School lesson and had a less structured Come Follow Me discussion with a song and a prayer on either side. The Come Follow Me style was much more successful and we wish we had done that from the beginning, but you live and learn 🙂
Our virtual “church” meetings have had different start times but mostly between 11am and 1pm. I have still insisted that my kids get dressed nicely for church – however shoes have not been required. It was actually funny the first time we were able to attend a sacrament meeting with our ward again because I hadn’t realized that my kids had all grown out of their church shoes – oops! It has been much more leisurely getting ready for these meetings – particularly knowing that if someone still has wet hair, no shoes, is still eating some toast etc. they can still participate in church. With the extra time/reduced stress I’ve found that I’ve been better able to do some personal Come Follow Me study before church. I’ve gotten SO much more out of our meetings and my scripture study in general with just that little bit of study time before church. After our services ended our family would hang out on Zoom for a little while showing off whatever we were working on – gardening projects, my brother’s chickens & puppy, my dad’s woodworking, my nephews’ new squishamellows etc. It’s been fun to have a few minutes to just connect with family since we all live far apart.
We’ve had permission from our church leaders to administer the sacrament in our home. So after we finished socializing with family we would gather the kids back up on the couches and my husband would bless the bread and water and distribute it to each of us. It’s my 2yo’s favorite thing, he’s always asking us to do “prayers on bread? prayers on water?”. Even though he refuses to eat the bread, he gets SO excited to drink the water.
We found that our little multicolored Ikea cups fit nicely in our little muffin tins and so we’ve had the sacrament cups in muffin tins and the bread on a plate. I will say that I will have a hard time getting used to tiny pieces of bread and tiny cups for the sacrament again after having a 1/6th of a slice of bread and a decent drink of water each week! Distributing the sacrament to just 6 people doesn’t take very long so I instituted that after the sacrament we would do 2 minutes of meditation. That sounds fancier than it is, I just required my kids to sit quietly and take deep breaths for 2 minutes. I just wanted to still maintain a sense of reverence and pondering with our sacrament even though we didn’t have to wait for anyone else.
I found that without the anchor of church my kids had made Sunday just a play day so I instituted a new rule for our family. No friends or electronics (besides Veggie Tales/Animated Scripture videos) until 3pm. Yes, it was a super arbitrary rule but my kids needed a line of demarcation to make Sunday feel different from any other day besides the Sunday dress and the <1 hour of Zoom church. To be honest it was more of a limitation on quantity of electronics time than anything else – my kids could easily play on electronics ALL DAY and I wanted them to stop and find other things that were positive that they could do.
I’ve actually really liked this rule for our family. I like that I’m not saying NO electronics or friends, just that they need to first focus on church things. We’ve also for a long time had the rule that they can play with friends if those friends are already outside on Sunday but they cannot knock on doors and lure friends out. I didn’t want my kids interfering with other families’ sabbath day observation. I’d always felt like this was a really dumb rule until I was sitting with a group of moms in my neighborhood and discovered that most of them had a similar rule in place- great mom minds think alike!
I still will frequently nap after church but I don’t have the same level of exhaustion that I would come home from church with. I don’t know how much of that was just a Pavlovian response to coming home from church. However, my Sunday naps are really just a tool for me to catch up on sleep from the week so you wouldn’t think that attending church would affect it either way. I like going to bed at the same time as my husband even though he stays up later than I should and gets to sleep in at least an extra hour every morning than I do and I’m the one who is up with the 2yo in the middle of the night. The cumulative sleep deficit between us by Sunday is at least 7 hours – so that nap is a good way to reset to be ready for the week. However my favorite thing to do is to institute “Early Bedtime Sunday” where in lieu of taking a nap I go to bed at like 9pm (instead of 12am-2am) and consider that my “nap”… and let it roll into a full night’s sleep. For awhile I’d convinced my kids that Early Bedtime Sunday was an exciting thing but they don’t buy it anymore 😛
Sunday evenings and dinners haven’t really changed that much. However we have more frequently done virtual family activities like JackBox games with our extended family.
Things I’ve Learned
Obviously in a lot of ways our Sundays haven’t been all that different either before or after the lockdowns. Our desire to avoid commercial activity has remained the same, trying to make it a family day has been the same and our focus on the Savior has been the same. However the ways it has been different has been enlightening to me and I thought I would share some of the things that have stuck in my mind.
The most interesting thing to me has been to see how I personally have treated getting dressed for Sunday services. Since I was a little girl General Conference has been my FAVORITE because we could wear our pajamas to church! I’m not one for loving to get dressed up all the time so you would think that home church during lockdown would have been the perfect opportunity to just stay happy in my PJs while feasting on the word of God. However, I have put on a dress for church every single Sunday of the lockdown. Before lockdown I would probably have told you that I dress up for church mostly because of societal expectations, wanting to conform etc. However I recognized that just that small shift of what I was wearing changed my mindset towards feelings of reverence and respect. My attire may just be an outward symbol but it means something to me about the respect with which I approach the day.
However I also realized that this won’t change how I approach General Conference. Even though by all accounts General Conference should inspire even greater reverence, I approach General Conference the way that I would approach a movie marathon. Ten hours of soaking up the words of the apostles and prophets calls for stretchy pants and snacks! I know it sounds backwards, but attending those meetings in my pajamas is part of how I show respect for them. The pajamas are part of the feeling of conference for me – cozy, at home, wrapped in the word of God – when I get dressed up it feels like any other Sunday. Obviously for the times I’ve been able to attend conference in person I’ve done everything to be dressed appropriately for the venue. However, at home I need to be in pajamas, with my laptop, a blanket and something yummy to munch on so that I can be fully engrossed in the learning at hand.
It’s also been interesting to see that my focus during church time for my kids shifted from reverence via silence to reverence via participation. In sacrament meeting with so many people meeting together it was most important that my kids weren’t distracting others. Bring on the fruit snacks and coloring books! In a virtual meeting I can mute our family easily so that I’m less concerned about their volume and more concerned that they’re getting something out of the meeting. It’s caused me to reflect on what things I bring to church for my kids – are they meant to help them focus or keep them distracted? And how can I balance the two needs? Obviously my kids need to not disrupt the quiet of the meetings, but how can I instill in them a desire to be attentive and not just tuned out?
The Individual Nature of the Sacrament & Atonement
In a typical sacrament meeting the ordinance is performed for the masses – a whole congregation with probably 200+ people in attendance. While I still take the sacrament individually the prayers are said just once and the distribution happens on a large scale. However one week while we were in lockdown my husband and I were on a getaway by ourselves in a hotel room. We partook of the sacrament and when he said the blessing on the bread and on the water it was just for the two of us. It really felt like the sacrament was being done just for me. The sacrifice of our Savior felt so intimate and personal. Yes, He died for everyone, but He also died for ME. He took upon Himself the pains and sins and struggles of ME. He cares about our whole ward, but He also cares about my little 6 person family. The production value of our at home sacrament service with muffin tins and Ikea cups might not be the highest, but the personal connection between the Atonement and me has never been stronger.
Gratitude for the Priesthood
On the topic of partaking the sacrament at home – I have never been more grateful to be married to a faithful priesthood holder. As the lockdowns started I watched several of my friends of other Christian faiths lament the loss of the opportunity to receive communion. I don’t think there has been a single week since the beginning of the lockdown that I haven’t been able to renew my baptismal covenants with my Heavenly Father. In fact, I have probably missed the sacrament LESS during lockdown than before because it was impossible to be late for the sacrament when my family would wait for me to start. I am so grateful to be a member of the Church where priesthood power is not reserved only for a few but is shared freely with every worthy man who is willing to live righteously and serve others.
It has also made me very grateful for a church with no paid clergy. Certainly ministers in other churches do not go into the profession for the money, but I’ve been especially grateful that my church leaders weren’t motivated to push boundaries and pressure people to come to meetings because their livelihood was jeopardized otherwise. This has given me great confidence as things have slowly been restarted that the decisions are being made solely for the interest of the congregants and not influenced by the amount of money in the collection tray. That’s not meant as a jab at ministers and priests in other churches – goodness knows I’ve watched so much of the pro bono service in my own congregations and thought “so-and-so deserves a salary!” It’s just been interesting to see other churches scramble to find ways to get back together while watching members of my own church take a step back and a deep breath, then redirect their efforts towards personal ministries rather than pushing to get back to the church building.
Church as a Social Activity
The final thing that has been an interesting discovery for me is how much attending church – with the exception of the actual ordinance of the sacrament – for me is really a social activity more than anything else. A few months into the lockdowns our ward began sacrament meetings again that are shorter, physically spaced out within the chapel and require masks. We were permitted to attend every other week based on which half of the alphabet our last name was in. Our family attended the first week we were able to go but after that decided that we were better fulfilled by partaking of the sacrament in our home. The value for us of being IN church is the other people! It’s the opportunity to talk with other people about their struggles and share our burdens and work together. It’s the chance to smile at someone, give them a hug, and see how they’re doing. The talks in sacrament meeting are great, but I have every general conference talk for 40+ years that I can listen to online in addition to podcasts, scriptures, books… I don’t need to attend sacrament meeting to enhance my gospel study. But I need church for the support and structure that it gives to me and my family.
I think before this experience I would have been totally affronted by someone suggesting that church was a social experience rather than a spiritual one. However now I understand it differently. The social aspect IS the spiritual aspect. We attend church to renew our covenants, but that can happen in 10 minutes. We could administer the sacrament through a drive-thru and it would have the same effect. But church gives us the opportunity to LIVE those covenants. We can mourn with those that mourn and comfort those who stand in need of comfort. Church is where we are given the chance to lift the hands that hang down and strengthen the feeble knees. Church lets us not only hear the word of God but help teach it to one another in our classes. Plus, it gives other people the opportunity to do the same for us. I read a quote once that said that the people around us are the portion of humanity God has given us to love. While certainly we ought to reach our circle of love beyond those who share our faith, I do believe that God gives us these church organizations to assign us some particular people who are especially in need of the love we have to offer.
In the end I’m grateful for the opportunity that I’ve had these last few months to reexamine how I approach the Sabbath. I will really miss our lockdown church services and avoiding the Sunday scramble. I hope that there’s some way to preserve some of what we’ve had while church hasn’t been in session. I will definitely miss this special experience that we’ve had in the midst of all of the turmoil in the world right now. It’s neat to see the blessings and the ways the Lord reaches out to us, even in the darkest of times.