January 2021
Being Church In A Pandemic

Called To a New Land

In the 1980s, some tech-savvy kids in a South Bend, Indiana parish youth group introduced Julie Lytle, their Youth Director, to online communication in the form of digital bulletin boards (remember them?). By the time she left that position to begin PhD studies in Theology and Education at Boston College, early forms of email made it easy to stay in touch with her former charges. The rapidly expanding set of online digital tools for communication became a research interest that led to Julie’s commitment to explore and promote the rich possibilities that digital media offers the 21st-century Church.

Now Associate Professor for Educational Leadership and Director of Distributive and Lifelong Learning at Bexley Seabury, Julie credits those high school students with bringing her into the digital era. “The kids were the ones that really called me into a new land and invited me to become a ‘digital immigrant,’” she says.

Helping faith communities see the richness of being on online

Julie’s book, Faith Formation 4.0, published by Church Publishing in 2013, explores the whole ecology of faith and considers how our efforts to be story-keepers, story-sharers and story-makers have evolved over four eras of human communication – oral tradition; written communication; mass mediated communication, which includes the invention of the printing press and the rise of radio and television; and digital media.

“We’ve been in this digital age since the sixties,” she says. “There was a tipping point that started in 2000 with the explosion of social media, and it is now hitting another tipping point due to the pandemic. If you look at the early Internet, people were using it like print. They miss that it’s really interactive, where we can have anybody be a source or a destination. The real richness is that we really can have conversations, not just one-to-many but many-to-many.”

Julie has seen that possibility more than 25 years and worked to encourage churches to take advantage of digital media to reach those who are missed in our congregations, those who aren’t being served. “The pandemic has driven us to that,” she says. “There’s an urgency that tells us we can’t do things the way that we are used to and here we have this tool that was sitting there underutilized. So if you think of the Christian community in its wholeness, we were only reaching the folks that could physically get to our churches. We now have the capability of doing more. Now is the time to rethink: what is it that we really want to do?”

Learning new ways to be church

Since the initial coronavirus lockdown last March, congregations everywhere have been in a mad rush to figure out how to be church when it is difficult and often impossible to gather in person. A result of that has been to develop ways to gather online for worship, education, prayer and meetings. “We’ve moved most of our services onto YouTube and Facebook,” says Julie, “because that’s a familiar and easy way to distribute or live stream. These are broadcast media that aren’t designed for the kind of engagement we have when we’re physically gathered, but they can replicate a lot of it. We are starting to think more creatively, because we’ve been in this longer than we thought we were going to be.”

Thinking more creatively means giving up some things that we think we need to do. This can be difficult, but it can also be freeing. Taking Christmas as an example, Julie points out, “many churches were in a place where they kept doing everything that that they have always done, even though they have fewer people to do it and were feeling overburdened instead of energized by it.” She saw it more as “a clean slate, a great, creative opportunity to rethink the possibilities. We don’t have to keep doing the Christmas pageant in the same way. We can do it differently or create some alternative that’s still meaningful for the children and their families.”

As faith communities have adapted to the pandemic, easy access to online worship and activities has often meant more members showing up, particularly those who are homebound or physically challenged. “When the pandemic hit, churches thought this would be a short-term response,” says Julie. “We’ve now had enough practice that we’re realizing there are some long-term benefits. There might be some things that we want to keep online. And there are some things that we’re missing, that we’ll want to shift back to when we can get physically gathered again. So what’s the right proportion? How do we balance those elements?”

Sharing gifts and working collaboratively

Julie is convinced that this moment offers us an opportunity to rethink the way we operate as individual congregations, to discover ways to share our gifts in what she calls distributed leadership. “Distributed leadership means getting out of our siloed mentality,” she says. “For example, does every church have to do its on own online service and its own religious education? The fact that the Internet breaks geographic bounds means that we can think more productively about how to share the gifts that we each have and maximize them in that way, so we really can be a united community in a bigger sense of what being Christian is. Some parishes thrive at being able to tell their story in a digitally mediated way; others are really challenged by it, but might have something else that’s their gift. Is there a way we can help them support each other?”

On Cape Cod, where Julie lives, there are six Episcopal churches. “Do we need all six to be doing an online service,” she asks, “or do we somehow give each of them permission to do something that’s more at the heart of who they are, and let one hold the service. We may still gather as our own local communities for what is part of who we are as a local community. This would let us rethink what our resources are and what our needs are. We can be creative about how we can connect the local and the shared. We can imagine what needs to be done physically together and find ways to augment and support those activities using technology.”

Time to think outside the box

Julie recognizes that distributed leadership is a different way of thinking. “It can be threatening. Our economies go with who’s participating and salaries are based on giving within local communities. But we’re at a moment for being creative. Can we allow this opportunity to think outside the box and see what else is possible? Can we rethink what our resources and our needs are and how we can work together?

“What would happen if all of our pastors in a region or the deanery or however they’re organized, got together and really allowed themselves to dream about what their resources are, how to share with their communities and how they could collaborate together to do it as a great resource for the whole. We are typically better when we share. The sum of our parts is greater when we’re able to do it collaboratively, in my opinion, than when one of us is trying to do everything, some of which may not fit for his or her skill set.

“I believe things can work better when we do it together, so my argument is let’s do distributed leadership. Let’s figure out ways to get past some of the fears we have of losing our particularity to be able to see how we can share in a geography that blends the resources of each with all. I’m the type of a person that wants to seek out opportunities to communicate and to collaborate and what I have found is that things like Zoom and the digital resources that are available to keep us connected have expanded my capacity to do that kind of relationship/communication sharing as well as relationship-building.

“So how do we pay attention to that when we’re thinking about it from a faith perspective? Both in helping people to grow and understand who they are as God’s chosen and in what we do as we recognize the gifts we have to share as the body of Christ. Those are the key pieces for me.”

Maximizing resources with Pathways for Baptismal Living

At Bexley Seabury, Julie is working on a new program, Pathways to Baptismal Living, that offers people opportunities to explore and live and grow their faith that would not be possible without the capacity to connect digitally across the world. “I don’t want to recreate anything that already exists,” she says. “I want to collaborate. I want to make more of a clearinghouse, where things that already exist can readily be found by the folks that are looking for them. And if there is a need for things that aren’t out there, then we can build on it to create them. Our goal is to find ways to give people the tools they need and the understanding that they desire to be able to continue to grow and respond to God’s call in their lives.

“How do we structure things so that we maximize the resources that we have, especially in an environment where we feel like we have shrinking financial and time and other resources? How do we share things to really do that kind of sharing, where what I’m hungry for I can find and what you have to share I can partner with you to offer, in a way that we all feel like we have a place at the banquet? That’s what I’m hoping Pathways can end up being. That’s what I hope we as a church can find a way to do, using technology to keep us connected and to build those relationships.”

It was more than 30 years ago, that some young people called Julie into the new land of digital communication. And so it is that she calls us today to throw off our reluctance and enter this new land, rich with possibilities to connect and share and grow in faith together.

Julie Lytle joined the faculty at Bexley Seabury in 2018 as Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Director of Distributive and Lifelong Learning Initiatives. She has degrees from Boston College, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Julie teaches courses in congregational development, digital evangelism, educational leadership and faith formation and has extensive expertise in the area of distance education. Before coming to Bexley Seabury, she served on the faculty at the Episcopal Divinity School, where she developed their distributive distance learning model for masters degrees. Her research interests explore the intersection of theology, faith formation and technology and the ways people connect with one another and resources to enact the Dream of God.

Interviewer Susan Elliott is a writer and editor, working with the Episcopal Church Foundation, Forward Movement, RenewalWorks and parishes and other organizations in the Episcopal Church. She was Director of Communications at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., for more than two decades. She is the writer of ECF’s 2015 Vestry Resource Guide and collaborates with Jay Sidebotham on “Slow Down. Quiet. It’s Advent,” now in its 26th year and published by Forward Movement.


This article is part of the January 2021 Vestry Papers issue on Being Church In A Pandemic