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Church members divided over priest's pandemic leadership: 'It's a really scary time to be in ministry'

Posted at 6:24 PM, Nov 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-08 11:32:52-05

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. — A Chesterfield County priest is struggling to lead her church through the obstacles presented by the pandemic. COVID-19, she said, has driven a wedge between parishioners.

“Our service was less than half of what we would have had attending on a Sunday two years ago," St. David's Episcopal Church rector Elizabeth Felicetti said.

In her 11 years of leadership, she said nothing could have prepared her for the last two.

“I thought I had seen a lot with what we went through exploring whether or not we were going to offer gay marriage as a church, as well as the 2016 election," Felicetti said. "Those things were very challenging, but the pandemic has been even more challenging.”

She said she hoped for clarity in 2021, but said this year has proved to be more daunting than the shutdowns, capacity limits, and mask mandates of peak pandemic.

“It's a really scary time to be in ministry," said Felicetti. “In 2020, we did have the bishop and the state and the country telling us what we had to do. In 2021, all of that has lifted, and now we're making those decisions ourselves.”

The rector said blame has now shifted toward her instead of outside forces.

Her church members, which she described as diverse with varying perspectives, have become divided over her decisions to strongly encourage masks and keep some COVID-19 safety protocols in place. She explained that disagreements have led to fewer people in the chairs on Sundays.

“We are definitely, attendance-wise, down and pledge-wise, we are down," Felicetti said. "In the past, people die, people move, but new people come in, and we're not seeing the growth."

Dana Blackman, Director of Youth Formation at St. David's, said similar challenges have been playing out in the children's ministry.

“We’ve had Bible stories around the campfire, we've been trying to do outdoor Sunday school," Blackman said as she described efforts to continue engaging kids and their parents. “As children get vaccinated, we can start moving back inside and being more comfortable having them back in their classrooms.”

Felicetti, who also battled lung cancer and breast cancer during the pandemic, said she felt the weight on her shoulders.

She has pulled extra hours to accommodate everyone with different opinions on her leadership.

She'll continue to try and unify the church, but her concerns only grow as coronavirus lingers.

“If the church is going to close in these difficult times in our country and in the world, then what does that mean for people," she asked. "That breaks my heart."