Formation for the Missionary Church
Digital Ministry Is Here to Stay
Callie Swanlund and Jeremy Tackett have been forming digital communities for many years. As priestpreneuer and digital evangelist, respectively, they help people listen to God’s call, share their faith stories, and spread the good news. In this conversation, Callie and Jeremy talk about innovative ways of bringing church to all people, from How2charist: Digital Instructed Eucharist to embodied digital retreats. During the pandemic, many individuals and communities had a steep technological learning curve, while others were ready to serve as guides. Rather than viewing digital community as a stopgap that will be thrown out once in-person gatherings resume, Callie and Jeremy believe that there is beautiful and accessible ministry that takes place in the digital realm. Most importantly, communities must share the gospel in ways that are unique and authentic to them, not trying to replicate another community with a different set of resources and tools.
Callie Swanlund is a priest and Episcopal Church Foundation Fellow serving in Philadelphia, helping others find their spark, and building a creative ministry. She leads individuals and groups in the work of Dr. Brené Brown as a certified Daring Way Facilitator. Callie is a mama, creator, lover and dreamer who has created a virtual and traveling space – The Epiphany Space – where others can discover and use their creative gifts and learn the digital tools to tell their story. Callie has been a member of Gathering of Leaders since 2017. Find out more at CallieSwanlund.com, listen to her podcast, Journey to Epiphany, on all platforms and follow her #WholeheartedWednesday movement through @callieswanlund on social media.
Jeremy Tackett serves as the Episcopal Church’s Senior Manager for Creative Services and Digital Evangelist. For more than ten years, Jeremy’s professional work and personal, creative ambitions have centered around finding “what’s next” for sharing the message and mission of the Church. Collaborating alongside pastors, priests and lay church leaders, he has worked to lead the way in creating strategies, tools and content to serve the Church’s mission and further the reach of its message. A native Kentuckian, Jeremy currently resides in and works from Philadelphia, Penn.
Hello, I’m Callie Swanlund and I am an Episcopal priest in Philadelphia. I serve a parish part-time, and I have a ministry called the Epiphany Space where I help people discover their gifts and be courageous and vulnerable in their relationships and in their vocations. And I get to work with this person who helps me shape people’s stories in a digital way.
Hey, everybody, I’m Jeremy Tackett, I’m Callie’s partner in technology and in life. Professionally, I am the digital evangelist and senior manager for creative services for the Episcopal Church, which is a big, long title that means I get to do all of the fun digital stuff with presiding Bishop Curry and a lot of the stuff that you see come out of the Episcopal Church. So I spend a lot of my time thinking about – even before the pandemic, and certainly now – how do we capture digital things as part of ministry and how do we bring that into what we’re trying to do in the church? The reason that we’re standing here in our house, basically looking like we’re on a set, is because we got to do that a little bit even this morning.
Callie: As anyone who has had to adapt plans in the pandemic knows, which is literally everyone, there is a snowstorm in Philadelphia this morning. So we had to create a little studio here at the house and stream morning prayer from home this morning.
What does it mean to do digital ministry?
Jeremy: Yeah, and being a bit adept at how we set all this stuff up and how we do all of these different pieces is very helpful. So we really brought this into the world, but it’s a really good chance for us to talk about, what does it mean to do digital worship and digital church and really make that part of our life and the work of discipleship and evangelism and formation and all of those things in what is definitely not a cathedral?
Callie: Both of us have been oriented towards doing digital ministry for years already. It made the transition a little bit easier for us when everything shut down and went online. We had already come together a few years ago to create the How2charist, the digital instructed Eucharist, which is available for free, if you don’t know about it. It’s a formation and evangelism tool, but How2charist was a way of sort of pulling back the curtain and helping people understand that the whys, why we do what we do in worship. And the way to get that out to a broad audience was to be able to capture it on film and disperse it everywhere.
We’ve been already finding ways of doing that, of telling our story in the digital realm. I think that the idea behind How2charist, of pulling back the curtain and seeing what’s behind the scenes, I think all of that applies on a more global level to digital ministry. I think a lot of people think that there are secret pieces of knowledge that they should know about how to do this and that some people already had that downloaded into their brains and some people had to learn it mid-March.
Jeremy: I think even going back a little bit from that, things like the How2charist and the way that we approach digital ministry in each of our own work and when we’re being collaborative, is as much a mindset as it is a technology or having the right camera or the right piece of thing. One of the things that made How2charist work is it was something that could only be done in a digital space. It wasn’t trying to just recreate something that you could do in the room, but it was adding elements and adding a whole other dimension that you couldn’t get, unless we merged these two worlds of analog and digital.
I think in some of the more successful stories that I’ve heard of people that are doing this work now, it’s the folks that are taking exactly that kind of approach, where you’re not saying, “Wow, we have to try to recreate church just as it was,” or, “We have to try to make our small group exactly the same,” or, “Confirmation is going to look exactly like it looked, but now it’s on Zoom.” It’s being able to say, “This is an opportunity to do even more and do it differently,” and, like with the How-to-Charist, literally get different angles on what you get. I’ve heard so many people say, “No one’s in the back of the room when you’re on camera and nobody has a bad view or a column in front of them and they can all hear it pretty well.” So just even making that shift to thinking about digital not as a barrier, but as an expansion of what we’re already doing, completely changes how creative you can get.
Pros and cons and possibilities
Callie: Yeah. So, for example, I have a retreat ministry. I love traveling around the country leading retreats. In 2019, I did that in abundance and had great plans for doing that again in 2020, and had to rethink what retreats might look like if everyone was grounded at home and not able to travel. So in the fall, I developed something called the BYO cabin retreat, where if it was safe, people went near where they were to an Airbnb or cabin and they joined in on a meeting. I wanted something that was more embodied than just sitting at the same spot that you take all of your business meetings from, but also available, something that works in the time that we’re in right now.
So I had to start in my head, building a list of – you know, you have your pro and con list of Zoom and digital gatherings – I have shifted my mindset to see what is possible with digital that’s not possible. So for this BYO cabin retreat, I had people from both coasts of the United States coming together and they didn’t have to pay travel costs to be there. They were able to interact with one another in a way that some quieter folks sit back and don’t always speak up when we’re gathered in person. But when you have comments, maybe some of the introverts, maybe some of the quieter people feel emboldened to speak up. So I’ve been growing my list of ways that digital ministry actually reigns supreme.
Jeremy: I’ve heard much the same from folks who I’m working with across the church, from all over the world, who are experiencing digital ministry, and what they’re finding is they’re no longer limited by the physical boundaries of who can get to their church services. That really means two different things. For one, maybe it’s the folks that are homebound in their own parish, folks that for a number of different reasons, can’t get to church on Sunday morning, but it’s also reconnecting those folks who…maybe it’s a child that’s moved away or a family that’s moved away to another town.
In our own parish, we had some folks who went and lived in a different part of the country for part of the pandemic, but they’re able to join in to worship. So I hear again and again, that folks are seeing this as an expansion of what is possible for them. But at the same time, I also hear lots of folks going through that pro and con list like you were talking about of it’s not all just easy – and it’s not just push a button and then you get a really crisp picture, and you’ve got mics and you’ve got all the stuff that we have here and lights and cameras and action, but it really can be frustrating to make it happen.
Forget comparisons, stay true to your unique call
Callie: Absolutely. So not everyone has the same setup, not everyone has the same tech know-how surrounding them. I think there was a back order on ring lights in March and April because everyone was like, “I need a ring light,” all of a sudden. But besides the technology piece, I think there’s also…it goes deeper. It goes into the place of our vulnerabilities and our tendency to be comparing ourselves to one another. I’ve seen throughout the pandemic, we are a people that compares ourselves to one another and says, “Oh, they’re doing something better over there,” but it’s become even more prominent that people are comparing themselves to one another because they’re only seeing the digital realm. They’re only seeing what’s curated. Unless you’re putting your blooper reel out online, you’re not seeing the behind the scenes. You’re seeing the very cut, polished, final product. I know you’ve had a few words to people in the field doing this work who are prone toward comparison.
Jeremy: Yeah, we all are. I have had to remind folks a lot of times, and I’ve made a number of posts on a Facebook group for Episcopal communicators, where after I see a number of frustrations, I want to just remind folks that whatever you’re doing is okay, and it’s enough. If you looked right outside the frame of this picture and you got all the way just past the edges, you would see a chaotic mess and you would see stuff in the floor and you would see half empty coffee cups and we all have that. So part of it is remembering that what is on screen is a curated version. And yes, there are some places that have really nice cameras and really big budgets and they’ve got somebody in the congregation that does this. The tendency is, and maybe you’ve even heard feedback from people in your own congregation that says, “Why can’t we look like the National Cathedral?” Or even going outside the Episcopal church, “Well, there’s a megachurch down the street that’s doing million-dollar streams.”
What I want to encourage everyone to is the goal of digital, just like the goal of church, isn’t to be the best on the block. It’s not to do the most innovative thing or be on the cutting edge all the time. The goal is to share the gospel message the way that God has called us do it. That might mean a cell phone and Zoom. That might mean a phone call. That might mean a video that you cut together roughly, and it may mean a full production. But whatever you’re doing, however you’re doing this work, I want you to hear that it’s enough and it is good and it is holy and it is blessed. There is no need to compare and to feel like they’re doing it better. Open yourself up to be able to do this creative thing the way that you’re called to do it and see it the way that no one but you can see it because of your experience.
Callie: Right. God didn’t call and create us all to be just identical prototypes of one another. We are all created uniquely, and we’re created uniquely so that we can go and spread diverse gifts into the world. So we have to. We have to be ourselves and claim that and claim our own unique voice and tech knowledge and resources that we have available to us and to our community.
Now my biggest worry is that we’re all going to get vaccinated (that’s not my worry, I hope that happens very quickly) and once we’re all vaccinated, that people throw all of their devices into the river, which I can completely resonate with some days, especially at the end of a long day of schooling and Zoom meetings and everything happening over Zoom. But I don’t want this time to just be seen as a stopgap and be seen as, “Oh, we can’t wait until everything is in-person again and we don’t ever have to do any of this digital community anymore.”
A new, hybrid world of digital and in-person
Jeremy: Yeah. I have tried to continue encouraging groups that I meet with and individuals that I talk to, not to find a silver lining in a bad thing and make it all okay, but make a genuine, honest assessment of, how did this experience, how did this time, how did bringing in new tools expand what it is that you’re able to do? What are the things that you will never ever do again? Maybe it’s trying to do a choir on Zoom, but what are the things that you never ever want to lose? Maybe that is having even two or three people that could never make it into your church be part of it.
Maybe it’s a comment or an email or someone that downloaded a resource, someone took a class, that became part of your conversation that wouldn’t have been otherwise. Maybe it’s a way like the How2charist where you show folks something that they couldn’t see any other way. I encourage you to take that as we move into the new hybrid world of digital and in-person. And remember, I have a great friend named Jim Keat who says, “The opposite of virtual isn’t real. The opposite of virtual is analog, and both are real.” As we have experienced, not just a shift or a different direction but a broadening of our understanding, what are the parts that we can take away and continue to be part of what we do going forward?
Callie: Absolutely. Early in the pandemic, we had a wedding unlike anything we had envisioned and we found ourselves a little bit sad that our family and friends couldn’t gather with us. It was just the two of us and our two kids and our officiant that day. We got home and got a phone call from your grandmother. Your grandmother wasn’t going to be able to travel to be there in person, but because we streamed it out, she was there in person. She showed up with her whole personhood and was there. So that’s my guide. Whose grandmother is experiencing this thing now? What access have we given someone who didn’t have that access before? How are we creating community in new and holy ways?
Jeremy: What I think we hope that you take away from this reflection is maybe beginning, maybe continuing, that conversation of how you’re doing that in your context, because there is more that we can both learn from you than you could ever learn from us. Collectively, we can do this thing. We have done it and we’re going to come out the other side of it with a church that is stronger with more opportunities to worship, to form those who are following in this journey that we call the Christian life. I’m excited to see what the next How2charist is, what the next new virtual cabin retreat is, what the next new thing that we haven’t thought of is, because you took these tools and turned it into a part of your ministry.
Callie: Blessings on you and your ministry. We hope that you’ll reach out to either of us. We love being in conversation with people who are dreaming and doing this work in the world.
Jeremy: Grace and peace.
- How2charist: Digital Instructed Eucharist, The Rev. Callie Swanlund in partnership with The Episcopal Church, 2021
- Be Weird, Be True, by The Rev. David W. Peters, Vestry Papers, May 2020
- Q&A with the Rev. Kyle Oliver on Digital Ministry, an ECF webinar presented by the Rev. Kyle Oliver, October 12, 2017
- Burned Out on Being “Connected”, by Ken Mosesian, an ECF Vital Practices blog, July 6, 2020