A pastor in the digital age

Lisa Martens Bartel pastors a church 1,300 kilometres away, exclusively online

December 15, 2021 | People | Volume 25 Issue 26D
Emily Summach | Saskatchewan Correspondent
Drake, Sask.
Lisa Martens Bartel preaches to her congregation in Kelowna, B.C., via Zoom from her home in Drake, Sask. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Martens Bartel)

Over the course of the pandemic, many pastors and church leaders have grumbled about the woes of technology and the rise of Zoom worship gatherings. But for Lisa Martens Bartel, the move to online worship provided an unexpected ministry opportunity.

“I received an email through our farm’s website, completely out of the blue,” she says. That email came from First Mennonite Church in Kelowna, B.C.

The pastor was moving on and the congregation was hoping to find another pastor for the interim, while the church discerned its own future directions.

“It was a quick process,” she says. “I think it was about a week-and-a-half from the time I received that email to the time we agreed this was a good fit for everyone and drew up an agreement for me to serve as the pastor.”

Martens-Bartel and her family live in Drake, Sask., and own a busy market farm operation.

In her role with First Mennonite, she plans worship gatherings, including choosing litanies, music and preaching the sermon, all over Zoom. There are usually 12 to 15 households on the screen for services. Because of pandemic constraints, Martens-Bartel has never been to Kelowna, or met a single member of her congregation in person.

“One of the challenges at the beginning was how do I get to know people when I can’t visit them or have coffee together?” she says. “I started doing a question of the week at the start of each service. I asked things like, ‘Where have you all lived?’ ‘What are your hobbies?’ People were very willing to share and chat, and that gave me a good snapshot of who people are.”

For Martens Bartel, her role at First gave her a chance to test the waters of pastoral ministry, a vocation that she hopes to pursue in the future.

“It’s given me the chance to try out pastoral ministry,” she says. “There aren’t a lot of ways to do that in rural Saskatchewan, and our farm operation doesn’t allow for much travelling. I’ve been able to test my own call. By preaching week in and out, I’ve learned how to find a rhythm, and what I need to be doing. I’ve felt affirmed in my calling in my work with Kelowna, and they’ve been so kind and appreciative.”

Grace Kroeker, the worship chair at First, agrees with the assessment.

“We have good success with Lisa as our virtual pastor,” Kroeker says. “She is good to work with, and we try to keep in touch by phone, Zoom or email. As long as our equipment is working well, we have no problems.”

Technology issues have proven to be one of the bigger challenges of the arrangement. Kroeker offers some advice for other churches that might be considering a similar arrangement. “Make sure you have a tech person,” she says with a laugh. “We’ve become pretty good at our set-up, but it’s always a bit uptight on Sunday mornings.”

And while many of the duties of a pastor translate well over Zoom, there are downfalls with the lack of a physical presence. Pastoral care is difficult to do from two provinces away.

“When there is a death in the congregation or a funeral happens, or something like that, it’s hard to do that kind of connecting over Zoom,” Martens Bartel says. “I want to be able to be there, in person, for them.

She will remain in her role as pastor of First Mennonite through the end of April 2022, when work on her farm kicks into high gear again.

Her time spent in this unique arrangement has given her insights into some of the bigger movements of the Church.

“I think a hybrid [in-person and online] church is the future,” she says. “It allows people to come to church without having to be vulnerable right away; they can watch anonymously at first. It allows more people to access church too, like people who are housebound. There are lots of opportunities through online platforms that we haven’t explored, more ways that we can be the ‘Big C’ church together.”

Do you have a story idea about Mennonites in Saskatchewan? Send it to Emily Summach at sk@canadianmennonite.org.

Lisa Martens Bartel preaches to her congregation in Kelowna, B.C., via Zoom from her home in Drake, Sask. (Photo courtesy of Lisa Martens Bartel)

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