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Tallahassee Faith Communities In The Wake Of The Pandemic: Part 2 - First Presbyterian Church

Woman in dark clothing smiling.
Paul Crane
(used with permission)
Pastor Margaret Fox

WFSU is taking a look at how a number of Tallahassee's faith communities are recovering from the COVID pandemic. Several of them have new leadership to guide that process. In this second of a series of reports, we spoke with Reverend Margaret Fox, the new pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

Founded in 1832, First Presbyterian is one of Tallahassee's oldest congregations. But Pastor Margaret Fox was really glad the parish had a totally up-to-date technical adviser when she came on board last November. That's because the church had gone totally virtual in its ministry.

"He pretty quickly switched to recording things digitally so we could pre-record worship services, which is what we were doing when I got here. My first Sunday in the pulpit was the Sunday after election day. But we recorded our worship on Wednesday. Which meant I didn't know who had won the presidential election, which wasn't totally necessary to the sermon, but it did seem as though that would be a pertinent detail in the lives of pretty much everyone in the country by the time Sunday rolled around."

Although Fox admitted that wasn't the only challenge she faced in taking on a brand new job in an unfamiliar place at a time of unprecedented disruption.

"I will say I think the congregation has done a wonderful job welcoming me into their life here. They were really creative and deliberate, especially at the start of COVID when we could barely see each other in finding ways for us to connect. So the staff came up with the idea of having a lot of drive-bys. Back in those days when we weren't doing anything in person and you were handing canned goods through the window for a food drive, or a coat through the window for a coat drive, or receiving a packet of Advent worship materials for use at home."

And Fox quickly discovered the hospitality wasn't confined to her own parish.

"And I will say the community of faith leaders was one of the big draws of coming to Tallahassee in the first place, was getting a sense of the real ecumenical and interfaith cooperation and interaction that exists here. The community has been incredibly invitational in terms of ways to lead worship and serve together. Even just fellowship; having lunch with other pastors in town. I have felt really welcome and not just by people in the Presbyterian Church, but also people in other denominations, and that's been great!"

Particularly gratifying, said Fox, because she is the first-ever female pastor for the venerable church AND she succeeds the beloved Brant Copeland who shepherded First Presbyterian for 35 years.

"This is a congregation that is used to being out there and a leader in things and I think that was a real gift of Brant's legacy and leadership here and I think that's a role for this congregation in the community. But as the new kid on the block, I've got to get to know people first and pay my dues here. And what I've felt has been this real sense of welcome and that's been wonderful."

Of course, on top of everything else, First Presbyterian, like nearly every other faith community, had to deal with the COVID crisis and now a slow transition into the post-pandemic era.

"As we think about emergence, which is a word that helps me structure how I think about this as 'emerging,' what are ways of continuing either a virtual or a hybrid ministry that will continue to connect us with people who aren't able to be physically present in the building. That's been exciting."

Particularly, she said, because the old church's sanctuary is returning to its true purpose.

Tallahassee's First Presbyterian Church
Tom Flanigan
Tallahassee's First Presbyterian Church

"For the months of May and June, we had sign-ups and small groups. We've opened up in July in terms of attendance and not requiring pre-registrations. It's usually a pretty slow month and has felt like the right size for the space."

Including the attendance of children, who she says have always been an integral part of First Presbyterian's services. Still, despite her enthusiasm about what she calls the parish's 'emergence,' those emotions are tempered by the realization of what's been endured.

"There's been so much loss in this pandemic in terms of human life and the disruption of peoples' worlds and social patterns. There's been economic loss and so much pain during this pandemic that I hesitate to portray it as anything like a good thing."

Which doesn't mean that Fox considers it an unmitigated catastrophe and best completely forgotten.

"As we emerge from this I think there are a lot of lessons to learn and things to be gained in the opportunity of coming back from a crisis and everything doesn't have to be the way it was before. They say, 'never waste a crisis,' what have we learned from this? But I think we also have to remember the grief and honor that grief and the pain that's come from this. I haven't talked to a single person who hasn't been affected by this and I think a lot of us in ways that we don't even realize. We haven't even counted the cost of this yet."

But regardless, Pastor Margaret Fox says she'll do whatever she can at Tallahassee's First Presbyterian Church to help her congregation make the transition to whatever comes next.

Follow @flanigan_tom

Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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