Newport This Week article with Della+
Newport This Week – Leading a Church During the Pandemic
June 25, 2020
By James Merolla
The past eight months have been a whirlwind of changes and challenges for the Rev. Della Wager Wells. She ended her law practice, was ordained a minister last June 29, and was assigned to Emmanuel Church in Newport on Sept. 1, 2019.
Just six months in, she was forced to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Watertown, New York, native spent her teen and adult years in Atlanta, where she graduated from law school. She raised a family and practiced law for 30 years there. Her husband, Jere, a longtime educator, now teaches at Yale Divinity School, where Della obtained her master’s in divinity.
How were you received here?
It was a good and swift transition. I had a fellowship last year at St. George’s College in Jerusalem, returning stateside in June. I was ordained at the end of June in the Diocese of Rhode Island, and Emmanuel’s longtime rector, Rev. Dr. Anita Schell, had just been called to another church. Emmanuel is a wonderful, welcoming church, and Jere and I love Newport. Just as I was beginning to learn my way around the church and hoping to begin to know Newport better, we all found ourselves learning new ways to be a church during stay-at-home orders.
What was the first challenge you faced when you arrived?
We found a wonderful Newport Restoration Foundation house, but it wasn’t ready to lease until Oct. 1. So, we stayed with very generous friends and parishioners as I started at the church and planned what was a five-legged move from our apartment in New Haven, storage in Fairhaven, a small clergy apartment in Providence, and two different storage sites in Georgia. We should have thought about downsizing.
As a newcomer, did the pandemic hinder you in any other ways beyond the usual struggles?
I know this will sound crazy, but no, I don’t think so. The pandemic, and the lockdown, are great levelers. We are all figuring it out at the same time. Nothing much looks or works like it did before the pandemic, so my inexperience with Newport and Emmanuel was probably less frustrating to others, and less of a difficulty for me, than it might have been if the seasons since my arrival had passed as they usually do.
What, if anything, in your previous ministries prepared you for this extraordinary circumstance?
I can’t claim a long history in ordained leadership. I have also been active in global mission work over the past 10 years, spending extended times in the mission field in Tanzania and Jerusalem, as well as training in London in asset-based community development. I think what prepared me best is the resource assessment and curiosity I learned in the mission field. When you don’t have just the tool or resource you’re accustomed to having, or that you were taught to use, it gives you a chance to see things in a new way and to recognize the abundant resources that are available. They may not look just like you thought they might, but sometimes they can work even better. I also was outside general counsel to governmental joint action agencies for 30 years. In these last months, my experience working with local elected officials and executive staff through change in community expectations and experience has been useful.
Did you telecast services virtually?
On Facebook Live, from our dining room. The Emmanuel congregation has been creative. Just two months ago, we could not have imagined doing anything other than checking the regular weekly email for service times. We’re all hand-washing like a bunch of surgeons prepping for a craniotomy. And while we may be physically isolated, we’re connecting virtually all the time. I’m just a newbie priest with a selfie stick. It’s our flexible, curious and committed congregation that is doing all the work of gathering together.
Can your church, really all churches, survive this, and for how long?
Yes, we can. And we can thrive. We’re still in the season of Easter in our church year, and in a lot of ways, this mid-pandemic world is a lot like life was for Jesus’ disciples right after the resurrection. We’re trying to make sense of what’s just happened. Many of us are grieving family and friends who have died or been affected by COVID.
Our world has changed dramatically, and things don’t look like they did before. It’s disorienting, confusing, and very different from the way it used to be. But it’s also liberating and new and life-giving. It’s a time for miracles and wonders as we figure out what our community is going to look like when we come out of this. This is a time for creativity and holy imagination.
Is there a particular Biblical passage that draws hope that you are sharing with your congregation?
Great question. Yes, from the Acts of the Apostles, the story of the days immediately following the crucifixion and resurrection, when the disciples were grappling with what it meant to follow Jesus in their new reality: ‘Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.’