The Church in Pandemic Times: Compline as Pastoral Care

by Cara Ellen Modisett

In non-pandemic times, conversations about liturgy and conversations about pastoral care tend to fall into separate categories. The first is primarily performative, shaped by ritual and music and tradition, creating a beautiful space in time for prayer and worship as the body of Christ. The other is immediate, unpredictable, emotional, a facing together of things that cannot be faced alone.

In pandemic times, maybe it’s no surprise that I’m finding that liturgy and pastoral care are intersecting more and more, as we are physically distancing from one another to protect each other and ourselves – a sort of contradiction, this separating from one another out of love for one another.

During non-pandemic times, VTS holds at least three worship services every weekday – two in the morning and one in the evening. In the fall semester, several of us re-launched compline, adding a fourth service each evening at 8:30, singing or speaking the nighttime order of service in what we call the octagon room, with a single candle, or in other spaces on campus, including the ruins of the old chapel (on Transgender Remembrance Day) and in the fireplace-and-armchair-bookended hall outside the refectory. 

The quiet intimacy of the service, led by student volunteers each night – and even by a visiting scholar who made it part of his routine while on campus – lent itself to conversation afterwards, freer and more vulnerable intercessions, laughter, unexpected singing.

As COVID-19 spread this spring, many of us were quarantined. One of our students thought of starting morning prayer on Facebook Live, and then it made sense to move compline online, and since then we have continued the practice, still led by volunteers, incorporating poetry or personal reflections or celebrations of saints or, occasionally, some singing.

I know many who have avoided social media, or adopt it reluctantly, because it seems impersonal and detached, and yes, there is much on social media that is not healthy or spiritually nourishing – political arguments, trolling, clickbait, misinformation – but I’ve found that the migration of compline from offline to online has been remarkably beautiful, and its sense of pastoral care continues, even on Facebook. It has been good to see parishes, priests and non-ordained folks start to adopt and lead compline and other daily offices. After all, the roots of the daily offices are in individual and intimate worship, in homes, in monasteries, with family or solitary. 

It may be strange to lead the offices especially on Facebook or YouTube Live, when you can’t see the faces of the people with you, but the human connection is still very much there. The comment thread can become a space all to itself for prayer and conversation. The less-formal quiet nature of the service allows for a leader to shape it in ways that suit a particular congregation, adding reflections, prayers, space for quiet, music. 

In a time when so many are feeling grief, anxiety, fear, the regularity, personableness and reassurance of the daily orders – morning, noon or evening – perhaps are something we very much need. Leading compline (for VTS) and noonday prayer (for my sending parish, St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal in Roanoke) for me this summer has ended up being a wonderful way to stay connected with friends from school and to re-connect with friends I haven’t seen in years, prompting some (online) conversations about theology and church and faith. It can be a devotional practice for those who attend, and also for those who lead – and a wonderful way to lift up lay leaders, especially those who may not have been confident enough so far to lead a service in physical church.

Pragmatically speaking, here are some take-aways from my own experience.

  • Choose the platform that suits your community. We started on Facebook Live and experimented briefly with Zoom, but found that FB worked better and engaged more people for compline. It’s at the end of the day, people are looking for a space that is peaceful, where they don’t need to feel the pressure of being seen (pajamas are perfect for compline).
  • Be welcoming. If you’re hosting a service on Facebook, you can see (in many cases) when a person joins, and you can see when they “like” or “love” the video or when they post a comment. Greet them by name, be conversational, and allow for gentle interruptions in the liturgy to respond to comments or prayers offered. I’ve found some inconsistency in how visible comments and likes are, so experiment with device and browser to determine which is the most reliable.
  • Remember where the camera is on your computer, and look at it, not at your own screen – then you’re making eye contact with your congregation, and there’s a greater sense of connection from their end (and likely from your end too, knowing that they’re meeting you face to face).
  • Include the appointed Psalm for the evening (if you’re using the daily lectionary and not the Psalms in the compline liturgy) in the Facebook description; you might also want to link to the online BCP for those who may not have a hard copy.
  • Don’t be afraid of silence. Some breathing room may feel awkward the first one or two times, but some space for quiet is just as effective online as it is in person. I usually start with a few moments of silence, and I leave space in the prayers.
  • Speak both the officiant’s and the people’s words (call and response).
  • The “hymn suitable for the evening” is a wonderful place to add a poem or a devotional reading, or the biography of a saint, or an original reflection – if it is based on a scripture reading, you may choose to include that reading instead of one of the passages in the compline liturgy. If you’re confident in singing, you could lead a chant or a short hymn here.
  • Take time with the prayers. Feel free to explore collects and prayers from elsewhere in the BCP. I usually end with one of the last two (“Keep watch, dear Lord” or “O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world”) because they are familiar, comforting and beautiful.
  • Don’t sign off too quickly – ease folks out of the service with a few words of good night, any announcements about upcoming services you might wish to include, etc.
  • Acknowledge individually any comments or prayers added to the comment thread after the video has posted (or during the service, if you are comfortable multi-tasking).
  • I often post a link to the reading, or a photo of the book cover, if it’s not my own words.

If you click on this link you’ll find a customary for online compline, created for VTS, but I think you’ll find it helpful in any parish or organizational context. 

Cara Ellen Modisett is a rising second-year M.Div. student at Virginia Theological Seminary, a postulant for holy orders from the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. A pianist, essayist and teacher, she served for most of a decade as music director of St. Elizabeth’s in Roanoke; for minister of communication at Church of the Holy Communion in Memphis, Tennessee; communications director at St. John’s, Roanoke and communications advisor for the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. Her non-church work included years as magazine editor, public radio reporter, university collaborative pianist and college English instructor. She curated and wrote the Prayers of the People for General Convention 78 and is a contributing editor for Episcopal Cafe.