It’s okay to start backing off the Zoom live-feed and hybrid worship offerings. I remember the refrain, that we’re going to keep live-streaming until Jesus comes home. But now, as we enter a new phase of the pandemic (but still very much with Covid), I believe our opportunity is to reflect critically on our priorities and approach to community-building, especially double-check our use of technology and the goals we’re pursuing as the Body of Christ.
So here are some starter invitations, or questions as we find ourselves at the dawn of a new phase of the pandemic, still walking with Covid (and all those anxieties and opportunities that came along with it):
1. If you’ve got a live-stream team, celebrate them. Your folks who invested in that technology and designed amazing systems have met the future, and they deserve a great celebration. You may wish to ask them about their longer-term plans and thinking. They may have really good ideas about where to go from here. Some may sense it’s time to wrap up the ministry, or their part in helping that ministry. Celebrate them. All of them.
As I write this blog I am in Abilene, Texas with my wife, Margaret, visiting our son David and his family – part of a month-long road trip during my six-week sabbatical. (David is Rector of the Church of the Heavenly Rest in the Diocese of Northwest Texas.) Our first stop from Connecticut was western Maryland, where Margaret’s brother hosted the annual family reunion followed by a visit with old friends from Hartford in Oklahoma. While there will be stops along the way, the next few weeks will include additional visits with family and friends in South Carolina and Virginia. All these summer gatherings continue to be wonderful opportunities for relaxation, refreshment, and reconnection.
This month we offer five reflections on hybrid church and digital ministry. Please share this digest with new members of your vestry and extend an invitation to subscribe to ECF Vital Practices to receive Vestry Papers, blogs, and the monthly digest.
“In today’s world, if your church needs to choose between a youth minister and a communications minister, you should probably choose the communications minister.” I wish I could remember who said this at a conference I attended long before the COVID-19 pandemic, because I would like to thank him.
This provocative statement shook me loose from an outdated assumption I had made about church staffing. In a culture with an insatiable appetite for the quick exchange of information, we need to consider church communication to be a ministry in itself, not just the infrastructure that supports other ministries. And, we need to prioritize it.
Transformation. From a cynical perspective, it’s nothing more than another buzzword that’s been overused by consultants like me.
Yet when I read how various dictionaries defined transformation, my heart softened. When we talk about being transformed, we’re talking about a making a significant change – a radical change – as some sources say, for the better.
As we begin to emerge into a post-pandemic world that will most certainly still include COVID, the church is right to consider what being transformed will look like. How do we transform as a church writ large and as individual parish communities?
Do you want to have meaningful conversations about spirituality, especially with non-members? If so, I encourage you to consider three principles.
First, avoid jargon. I define ‘jargon’ as any word you have not used outside of church activities during the last week. Certainly ‘exegesis’ applies, as do ‘salvation theory’, ‘eschatology’ and ‘incarnation’. But have you considered ‘narthex’ and ‘Eucharist’? My suggestion is if you find the need to use such words, explain them at the same time. In writing we would say ‘narthex’ (lobby).
I know! We went to school for a long time and want to make sure people know that. When I lead spiritual gifts identification workshops I say the real gift of tongues is shown by an accountant who can explain a balance sheet! Maybe there is a similar statement for clergy.
In my book, Behold What You Are: Becoming the Body of Christ, I suggest defining liturgy as “the work of the people and a public work, expressing and forming of the Body of Christ, given for the world.” As such, whenever we find ourselves planning or preparing for a liturgy, we might ask:
How is this liturgy engaging the people?
How is this liturgy public?
How will this liturgy express who we are as the Body of Christ?
How will it form us as the Body of Christ, given for the world?
We can apply these questions to everything from how we welcome to how we sing, from how we collect the offerings to how we send people forth.
In a world before the pandemic, many of us may have felt that our glass was half full or that our cup runneth over. But for many of us engaged in the ministry of faith formation, it now feels like we are trying to drink from an empty cup while trying to fill up the cups of others. And once we are aware of our cup's emptiness, we can take steps to fill it.
This is the conclusion of a two-part article. The first part described a survey created and sent to faith formation professionals and volunteers asking them to rate their level of functioning. You can read more about how the survey was conducted and the results here.
We’re all longing for meaningful connection in this strange, new land of Coronavirus, and especially as we try to be church online.
But, in fact, we’ve seen virtual connection that is beautiful and holy – in the face of Mister Rogers, that Presbyterian pastor-turned-TV personality. Mister Rogers knew how to connect with his viewers. So much so that many of us who watched would answer his deeply personal questions, right there, out loud, in our living rooms.
How can we ensure Mister Rogers moments – and more – in our worship, meetings, formation, and fellowship? In serving an Episcopal parish in my hometown of Memphis, TN this summer, I am wondering what might guide our vision going forward. What questions should we ask ourselves about being church in 2020? How can the online experiences, birthed so quickly in the past 15 weeks, be retained, enriched, and expanded?
Sunday worship on Facebook. Coffee hour on Zoom. Staff meetings on Teams. At first, it was great to know that we could connect without being physically present. It felt like a bridge from our current situation until that time when we could be together again.
Then I started feeling exhausted. I couldn’t figure out why. I talked with friends, and they shared the following comments:
“I love being able to participate in the Holy Eucharist via Facebook, but there aren’t a lot of us that watch live, and I feel like I need to be commenting throughout the service, or I’ll look like I’m not really engaged.”
Last month, in a conversation about the theological nuances of whether or not the Eucharist could be celebrated online, a member of my congregation asked, “Is Jesus a Zoom bomber?”
Now Zoom bombers generally have a negative connotation. They join in on a public Zoom with malicious intent displaying racially charged images or words, for example. Bad stuff. Because of them, most churches using Zoom for their worship in this “stay-at-home” season, have stopped advertising their login links online, thus making Zoom worship less accessible to newcomers. So businesses and churches and Zoom technologists have been working hard to inhibit these imposers. Under these connotations, Jesus is certainly not a Zoom bomber!
But what if we go back to the earlier medium of photographs and photo bombers. Photo bombers are people who show up unexpectedly in a photo of a newlywed couple, for example, or behind a family posing at the beach. They were often simply inadvertent. But even when intentional, they were funny or sweet. Not malicious.
“What’s your brand?” A collective silence fell over the room of vestry members, clergy, and staff.
Finally, someone asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Brand of what?”
“Ahh...” The silence continued.
We don’t often, if ever, think of the Church as a brand, whether globally, nationally, or on the congregational level, but it’s a question well worth exploring. From my perspective, brand is nothing more and nothing less than your promise to the consumer – in this case to your parishioners and those considering becoming parishioners.
As Episcopalians one of our primary roles are to be evangelists spreading the Good News of Christ near and far. By the example of our lives and in conversations with family, friends and strangers we share the message sometimes awkwardly and are all on a journey to improve our witnessing. We have sometimes encountered interpretations of the scripture that are in opposition to what we have learned and have had to reconcile and address the misinformation. Examples are the biblical justification for slavery and the role of women in the church. Corporately and individually as church leaders we tackled these issues within our conventions and congregations and have successfully changed the narrative to align with our biblical teachings.
Did you ever think there would be a day when nearly everyone would acknowledge that “we’ve always done it this way” is no longer a valid excuse? I think it’s today.
Those who resisted live online communication are now regular attendees of Zoom worship and meetings. Those who never tried morning prayer are now regularly experiencing it in their home, often with their priest as their guide and prayer leader. Churches that were slow to offer online giving are now scrambling to make it available.
All over the church, creativity and courage are overcoming pandemic fear and isolation. Some examples:
“Zoombombing” is when an uninvited person joins a Zoom meeting, usually for the purpose of gaining a few cheap laughs at the expense of the participants.
Because Zoombombers sometimes use racial slurs, profanity, pornography, and other offensive imagery, faith communities have begun to password protect their online worship services in order to prevent univited Zoombomers from entering.
I would like to suggest that password-protected online worship services are a huge missed opportunity for evangelism.
While the COVID-19 lockdown over the past several weeks has been difficult for all of us, it has created incredible opportunities to connect with one another in new and innovative ways, even while physically apart. I have truly enjoyed my telephone and video conversations with many of you during which we have shared our struggles, fears and doubts as well as our hopes, dreams and yes, moments of joy. I cherish the many clients, colleagues and friends of ECF struggling to be faithful disciples during an unprecedented period of isolation and stress. This strange and difficult time is bringing out the very best in so many of us and it’s helpful to know that we are not alone.
We are also using this time to think, pray, discern and dig deep. We are trying to put aside those things that seem rather insignificant and rediscover values that lie at our very core – faith, family, friends and partners. Organizations like ECF are also engaged in this process, and we are reconnecting with our core values including partnership. I firmly believe that the only way the Church will move forward during and beyond this crisis is by identifying, developing and nurturing strategic, missional and transformational partnerships. I often say that partnerships are fun because they provide opportunities to meet and connect with other people who share our passion and commitment. But partnerships are also critical to our ability to survive, and even thrive, as the Episcopal Church. As we slowly emerge from this first phase of the pandemic and begin discerning what the Church and the world may look like, partnerships will provide us with the strength and courage to work together and carry us into a hopeful future.
I am in awe of the work I see happening across our diocese and around the country to reshape the central gathering of our church. I’ve had the privilege of engaging with some of these leaders and congregations as they map out what this looks like and how this happens. Some thoughts around evangelism and connection as we continue to redefine this work in the coming weeks and months:
Make sure people can find you online.
First things first, make sure people can find your congregation online. Maybe it’s a website, or a Facebook page, but now more than ever, our online presence is essential. We also must make sure folks can find our online worship gatherings easily. For many, this will mean redesigning some pages on our websites so that the landing page and gatherings pages point to both the times and the ways in which people can engage.
During this time of quarantine from the COVID-19 virus many are reflecting on its meaning for the church. Concerns abound: the doors of our churches were barely open, now they are shut; our attendance was dwindling, now it’s zero; our income was falling, now it’s further decreased; our pastoral care was spotty, now it’s non-existent; our community outreach was fragile, now it’s shuttered. This is a pessimistic view and thankfully creative church solutions are already being deployed to address these unusual times. We can further explore.
For many homebound on Sunday mornings the televangelist on the religious television stations have been a source for worship. Many televangelists have been vilified for questionable activities, however for some their popularity and longevity demonstrate success in ministry. Below are some observations.
The emerging and ever-changing challenges of the coronavirus are really quite daunting. The entire landscape of human gatherings has been changed in rapid succession. And yet COVID-19 has encouraged amazing creativity on the part of Episcopal worshipping communities, clergy, and lay leaders. We’re not normally early adapters, we Episcopalians, nor are we the quickest when it comes to innovative technology, but we’ve leaned hard into some new territory – connecting people who cannot be together in person. No one wanted to learn adaptive leadership and remote technology in this way, but many have learned – and learned it on the fly and really quite well.
YouTube channels have been created or, in some cases, more populated. Zoom is the tool I’ve been using, and we experienced this past Sunday the struggle of getting so many Zoom accounts to go live on Facebook at the same time! Facebook live is another popular option. The good news is that we’re learning together how to do church in a virtual space. Many can see what’s going on in other faith communities as well as share pro-tips and horror stories.