If you had asked Michael and Karen Crichton at the beginning of 2020 what they thought the immediate future held, they would have said, “India”.
In mid-2019, they undertook cross-cultural training with CMS at St Andrew’s Hall in Melbourne. Late in 2019, Mr Crichton was invited to become pastor of the Delhi International Christian Fellowship (DICF). He resigned as rector of St Alban’s Lindfield and made preparations to go to Delhi. All that remained to do was celebrate their daughter’s wedding and get on a plane.
“Our daughter got married in March  – and that was the weekend when lockdown restrictions were introduced,” he recalls. “We were meant to fly out to Delhi five days later but, thanks to COVID, we never got there.”
We were meant to fly out to Delhi five days later but, thanks to COVID, we never got there.”
Anticipating a short pandemic delay, Mr Crichton began to run online services for his congregation on the other side of the planet.
“I would pick songs, a Bible passage, I’d prerecord the service leading and the preaching – and other people would do the Bible readings and prayers,” he says. “At the beginning I thought, ‘I’ll be doing this for a couple of months – that’ll be fine’, and it ended up being 15 months!”
The couple moved from Lindfield to a rental property in June 2020, and from the rental property to the rectory at St Clements’, Mosman in December, as Mr Crichton had become acting rector. All throughout this time he kept up his work with the Delhi church.
“I figure I was one of the busiest clergymen in Sydney, with two churches,” he says with a laugh.
“It was pretty full-on!”
Most church members at DICF are expats and a number had returned home because of COVID, so people were logging in for the services from the US, Japan, Singapore and Africa, as well as India. Everyone kept in touch via WhatsApp, posting prayer points or making comments live during the service.
By early 2021, the pandemic seemed to be settling. After meeting solely online for almost a year, unable to see each other because of restrictions, church members in Delhi finally met face to face again in February and March.
“... you can’t give people a hug or cry with someone face to face.”
“Everything was looking good,” Mr Crichton says. “We’d waited a little longer before committing to leave to make sure everything was fine and because we wanted to get our vaccinations. Then the devastating wave of the Delta variant hit.
“It’s hard to appreciate what it’s been like for them compared to what we’ve been through. A number of members... had parents or other relatives die and they couldn’t be with them, and couldn’t get them the oxygen or medical care that they knew they needed. That was pretty tough. We had the WhatsApp group... but you can’t give people a hug or cry with someone face to face.
“When I saw on the news the images of funeral pyres, of bodies piling up everywhere, I thought, ‘We might not get there for another 12 months’... and at that point I knew we couldn’t go. We felt that God was shutting the door rather than us having to decide to pull the pin. We were really sad. We had our hearts set on going, and we also felt a sense of responsibility for the church. But this [ministry from a distance] couldn’t continue long term.”
Mr Crichton spent nine months leading two churches on two continents, then – much to his surprise – became rector of St Clement’s last month.
“We’d been having lovely a time at Mosman and really enjoying our ministry among the people here, but we hadn’t thought it was an opportunity for us,” he says. “We’d kept on saying, ‘We’re going to India’... but it just wasn’t to be.”
He says June 27 was their last online service with the Delhi church, and he and his wife “wept through the whole thing” as they watched it and received comments and texts from members. “That was hard, to say goodbye,” he says.
The church is now looking for a pastor to lead them through online services for, potentially, the rest of 2021 – and Mr Crichton says the ministry is crucial for congregation members.
“It was hard to keep doing the services online month after month, because these are people we never actually met, but it became apparent as time went on that my services and preaching was actually a faith lifeline for them.
“It has been an amazing journey of faith but God has been faithful and kind every step of the way. Scripture says, ‘Man makes his plans but God guides his steps’. That has certainly been our experience.”