These days, ministry for me looks a lot like preaching to the dot. You know the dot I’m talking about – the one on top of your laptop, phone, or tablet where your camera is located. In our sanctuary, we actually have a red arrow pointing toward the dot so that we’re not confused about where to look on Sunday mornings!

As someone who entered into a pastoral tradition as Covid-19 began to unfold, the dot has witnessed some beautiful and brutal (or what my friend Emily Hull McGee would call “brutiful”) moments of ministry for me.

In early March, I became the final candidate to be pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky. We had just begun to make plans for a call weekend the day the world began shutting down due to Covid-19, and we quickly decided to hit “pause” on the call weekend. After all, how could I announce to my beloved church back in Waco that I would likely be leaving them soon…on Faceook Live of all places?! How could Highland present a pastoral candidate until the church could meet them face-to-face? And how could I ever move without hugging my church family goodbye?

We thought we would let Covid-19 “blow over”…until, like the rest of the world, we began to realize that it wasn’t going away anytime soon.

That’s when we began to embrace the dot.

In June, I preached in view of a call at Highland in an empty sanctuary. I participated in church-wide Q&A’s on Zoom calls, carefully responding to each question while looking ahead at the dot in front of me. That Sunday during worship, the sound went out on the live-feed just moments before my sermon. The dot caught my spontaneous celebration in the pulpit when the sound finally returned and we were able to move forward. Later that day, the search committee announced to an empty sanctuary that I would become the next pastor of Highland, although the dot caught our excitement together in the choir loft that morning, too.

In July, I said goodbye to Calvary Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, my beloved church of the past 11 years. I wept (yes, ugly cried) in front of the dot as I shared my final sermon with the people who had been the family of God for me in this place. I tried to bless them in every way I knew how without being able to see their faces. I still yearn for the day when I can go back and worship with them again face-to-face.

In August, I said hello to my new faith community, robed up for the very first time with the rest of the ministers, and joined them in an empty sanctuary for my first Sunday as their pastor. I preached to the dot without ever having met 95% of the people in my new congregation.

In September, I began to meet my new church family through Zoom rooms, outdoor gatherings, drive-thru events, and socially-distanced meetings in the sanctuary. To date, I’ve had over 60 one-on-one meetings with over 150 people. These times are more sacred for me than most people probably realize, because they allow me to get to know the names, faces, and stories of the people behind the dot. Each Sunday, I somehow feel more and more connected with the heartbeat of the congregation gathered for worship, even when I can’t see them face-to-face. Somehow, the dot binds us together in these odd and yet holy moments.

Over the past few weeks, the dot has empowered significant moments of ministry for us. Our young adults hosted a virtual storytelling night for me to hear from the congregation the various stories that have become part of the DNA of our family of faith. Another week, the dot allowed us to collectively cry out for justice for Breonna Taylor from the front lawn of our church, just blocks from where local protesters were marching.

Like most of you, I have a love/hate relationship with the dot. On one hand, it is our saving grace right now, enabling us to connect in such innovative and meaningful ways that might not otherwise be possible.

On the other hand, I loathe the dot. We all know that even the best experiences online cannot begin to replace being together face-to-face. I have found this to be especially true in times of both grief and celebration. We have lost so many of the rituals we use to mark sacred moments within the life of our faith communities. There is a tangible loss because of that – I can feel it every day.

Despite our rather complicated relationship, I must admit that when I look back on the year 2020, I will remember each of these brutiful moments, because the dot has borne witness to them all: the joyful, the sacred, the painful, and the exciting. All of them holy.

I don’t know what ministry will look like for any of us in the years to come. However, I have a feeling that the dot will continue to be a faithful and creative companion on the road ahead.

Mary Alice Birdwhistell is the pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.