Third in a series on how Loveland area pastors and ministers found ways to reach their assembly: Prince of Peace Pastor, Jonathan Eilert talks about reaching the church family during COVID-19
By: Chuck Gibson
LOVELAND, OH (May 11, 2020) – The Rev. Jonathan Eilert is Lead Pastor at Prince of Peace (POP) Lutheran Church in Loveland where an average of 450 people attend weekly services. He is assisted in his efforts by Pastor Lorne Hlad, and directors of several ministries including family and youth mission, music, choir, and kids ministry programs.
Prince of Peace (POP) Lutheran Church, Loveland, OH (Chuck Gibson)
Rev. Eilert only recently felt like POP was settling into the new routine of providing services to their community while closed due to COVID-19. It was near the end of April and beginning of May. There wasn’t much chance to rest before he found himself turning attention to plans to reopen the church.
“Now we have to start planning to come back,” said Eilert.
Eilert has already reviewed lists of articles about what churches need to do to reopen to the congregation. He pointed out an article entitled “20 Questions every church
should answer. . .” and a subsequent article with twenty more questions. In addition to leading Prince of Peace in Loveland, he serves as Chairman of the Board for Wittenberg University in Ohio. He participated in discussions there about reopening for fall classes. There are ripples of steps to ensure health and safety.
“It will be the same for church,” Eilert said. “We’ll have to be farther apart, fewer people, some people being turned away, we’re not singing. How satisfactory of a worship experience is that? Are we better off delaying for a little while longer so we come back to the kind of worship experience that’s satisfactory? Those are the questions people are wrestling with.”
All discussions about returning to church remain a bit premature due to the reality it may be a while before opening can happen. Eilert expects to come back in stages. It may be July before they come back. His focus remains on connections with the POP community while closed. It is a lot like what other the churches are doing.
“We’re basically doing the same things,” he said. “I think that’s true of most churches, with variations in each of our contexts. We’re all trying to do essentially the same thing with minor variations. We’re starting to contemplate how this is going to change the nature of our church to some degree.”
Rev. Jonathan Eilert, Lead Pastor, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Loveland, OH during virtual meeting (Chuck Gibson)
The longer this goes on the more likely it will begin to influence how people understand the relationship to their faith. It may change how people think about the way they exist in a faith community. The digital online response to reaching people during the COVID-19 closure of churches is forcing the church to “catch-up” to culture. Eilert sees this as an area where the church has not been innovative, but rather reacting. How does he hope to use this experience?
“Let’s establish real connections,” said Eilert, “not just on the surface, but deeper connections.”
Here is what Prince of Peace Lutheran Church is doing to stay connected with community during COVID-19:
- Sermons recorded out on location: Good Shepherd sermon recorded at the gates to a working farm, Emmaus sermon was done on the bike trail in Loveland, My house has many rooms – from home
- No funeral services and have lost three elderly members (not COVID related) Honoring them on a Sunday from a cemetery so the community can grieve their loss.
- Creative engagement has received a good response
- Bible Study via Zoom call
- Pastor Lorne has started theology teaching via Zoom connecting a lot of people. They are able to break into small groups. Very positive response.
- Wednesday Morning Faith Connection with Pastor Jonathan – Reading scripture, reflecting, praying and just checking in to see how people are.
- Youth minister meeting and teaching via Zoom
- Pastor Jonathan also conducts a weekly Wednesday community interview recorded and shared
The online Bible study small group has grown. People involved have told Eilert it is easier to invite someone than it is to invite them to come be physically present at the church. The numbers indicate a lot more are engaged with the weekly livestreamed services on YouTube Premiere and Facebook real time responses from Eilert during the service.
“We have a wider audience now on the weekend,” Eilert said. “We were averaging 450 people total in worship on weekends before this pandemic hit. Our average viewership is somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 people between YouTube and Facebook.”
A lot of those may be families sitting there watching together potentially doubling the number. Eilert has no way to gauge how many are “unique Loveland viewers” may end up coming to Prince of Peace Church in Loveland. He has had the unique experience of reaching his former church community in Wooster, Ohio where he served before coming to POP. It has given him a good feeling “to give them significant spiritual experience with a leader they know” while they are currently without a pastor.
“The community has been extremely appreciative of what we’re doing; trying to be creative,” said Eilert. “First we tried to recreate what we do in the sanctuary. It is not good with this medium. Livestreaming, recording throughout the week, close-up is more engaging.”
Prince of Peace staff have also used more direct connection methods to engage the community while closed:
- Birthday call list: making individual connections with Happy Birthday calls
- Care Team calls: regular calls reaching out to specific individuals
- Youth director calls: to High School youth and to younger kids
- Weekly service projects for the community:
- Letter writing to community
- Sending cards to people in the community
- Making masks for people in the community
- Usual support for LIFE Food Pantry (Utilizing Space in POP building)
- Also supporting NEST
POP Kids School & LIFE Food Pantry are part of the community support & engagement (Chuck Gibson)
Feedback has come mostly from the senior age group in the Bible Study group. They have expressed concerns about the potential to become infected by the virus.
“They are concerned about what they see when they go out; people wearing masks, not wearing masks,” Eilert said. “You also hear some loneliness – people have lost a spouse – they are all alone at this time.”
Eilert counts his blessings with six people in his own house, though, he admitted with a chuckle, it can get noisy. Though he is not isolated as some, he recognizes special days like birthdays and anniversary celebrations have been lost. One family had to cancel plans for a trip to New York for a planned special celebration with family there. Easter and the family Easter dinner was hard for a lot of people. What is the impact on community, on Eilert himself?
“It’s hard to take time off to disconnect answering email, responding to messages all different hours every day,” said Eilert. “That takes a toll. We are the church, we are about connections, serving others. Are we doing enough? Are there more ways to connect and serve? Always that question.”
Eilert is eager to see what comes next. He wonders if we’ll hold onto the good from this experience of bringing families closer together, slowing us down, living with less stuff. It will be interesting to watch. He plans to remind people in a sermon. You know, just to help us all remember the good which has come from connecting while disconnected.
Prince of Peace Lutheran Church is located at 101 S. Lebanon Road Loveland, OH 45140
Click here for more about Prince of Peace Lutheran Church