Physical distance didn’t matter when Janette Lyndaker Gallagher took classes for her divinity degree with Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and the same was true for her ordination in May.
Rather than take place where she is pastor at Community Mennonite Fellowship in Corning, N.Y., the May 17 service occurred on the Zoom videoconferencing platform due to COVID-19 pandemic distancing precautions. It is believed to be the first online ordination in Mennonite Church USA.
“One wouldn’t think Zoom would be a very intimate or spiritual platform, but the Spirit’s presence was palpable through the whole thing,” she said. “The time together was deeply personal and intimate. . . . I did not feel like I was sitting alone with my husband in my living room at all.”
The journey to her living room began late one night in 2009. Lying in bed, she distinctly perceived the words of what was then Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind.
“When I woke up, all I knew was I felt totally different and completely at peace,” Gallagher said. “That morning I got in the car and I turned on the radio and the first song I heard were the words ‘Sometimes your calling comes in dreams.’ Of course, then it was: ‘Oh my goodness, this really happened.’ I had to pull over to the side of the road.”
At that point, she was a single parent with a daughter in college. She didn’t think there was any way she could go to seminary. But she couldn’t shake that deep feeling of peace.
She talked to her pastor, Keith Zehr, at Lowville (N.Y.) Mennonite Church. She talked to fellow council members at the church. She kept receiving affirmation.
“Then in 2011 I married my husband, we decided to live in Corning, and by then my daughter was on her own with her own home,” Gallagher said. “I enrolled in a couple of seminary classes to see what it was like, and in 2013 I was admitted to the master of divinity program.”
She was part of the seminary’s first M.Div. Connect class, blending online courses with two weeklong campus visits each year.
Meanwhile at Corning, Gallagher was asked to be an elder in the congregation. Before she had even finished her seminary work, she was asked to consider being interim pastor. Graduation came in May 2018, and her pastoral role started July 2018. The interim role became permanent last October.
As things progressed, her ordination interview with New York Mennonite Conference was scheduled for April 3, which had to move online due to pandemic distancing.
Since that interview didn’t get delayed, Gallagher saw no reason to delay the ordination itself.
“My ordination interview was held via Zoom, so why wait on the actual ordination?” she said. “It made sense to me to pursue this ordination in a manner that reflected the space we are in due to the pandemic.
“As pastors, we all have been experimenting with new ways of doing church, so why not this ordination too?”
Terry Zehr, conference minister of New York Conference, said the pandemic has demonstrated it is going to be months before large gatherings will return to being relatively simple undertakings, which factored into the decision.
It was also helpful that Gene Kraybill was well-versed with Zoom and coordinated the program without hiccups.
“In retrospect, the one thing that Zoom did, there was no ambient noise, no distraction across the sanctuary,” he said. “Each speaker was in front of each of us. Whatever was happening we were 100 percent focused. . . .
“Somebody commented that maybe ordinations from here on out will be a hybrid, where yes, you may gather in a sanctuary, but somebody may pipe in for speaking. There are a lot of creative ways this can happen. The future is here.”
Blessing of presence
The biggest challenge was the traditional blessing with hands laid upon the minister. Gallagher’s ordination service was no different.
As conference district minister Phil Martin led a prayer, he asked Gallagher’s husband, Dan, to lay his hands on his wife, on behalf of the more than 100 church members, family and friends participating online.
“That was incredibly meaningful as well,” she said. “I could just feel everyone’s hands being laid on me just as if it was happening in person.”
The meaning was deepened by the ordination stole Dan Gallagher placed on her shoulders during the blessing. Crafted by a good friend, the fabric came from a dress her mother, Phyllis Lyndaker, made for her as a teenager.
“The neat thing was my dad went into a fabric store, which was unheard of, and picked out the material for that dress,” said Gallagher of her father, Norman Lyndaker, who graduated from Goshen Biblical Seminary, an AMBS predecessor, in 1971 and pastored at Woodville (N.Y.) Mennonite Church, North Main Street Mennonite Church in Nappanee, Ind., and Watertown (N.Y.) Mennonite Church. “His influence on my life was profound and I wanted a tangible way to feel his presence.”
Presence was also felt from friends joining the service from at least nine states across the U.S.
Seminary classmates offered readings and blessings from Arkansas and Kansas. Reflections were given by AMBS associate professor of congregational formation Rachel Miller Jacobs and Sonya Stauffer Kurtz, lead pastor at Zion Mennonite Church in Souderton, Pa.
“It was just incredible to look out and see people from all walks of my life who supported me all along the way,” Gallagher said. “It was just amazing.”