How Congregations Can Adapt and Expand their Ministries amidst Pandemic

on April 2, 2020

Church building doors may be temporarily closed, but the ministries of our congregations remain as urgent as ever.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down the in-person gatherings that have been central to the communal lives of our congregations.

Yet, throughout my neck of the ecclesial woods, the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church, pastors and congregations are faithfully adapting to continue their ministries in new ways.

I am sharing some of these lessons learned and adaptations made in hopes that you and your congregation may find some encouragement and helpful ideas to emulate.

My own congregation had advantages in being a bit ahead of the curve, as we have already had a practice for some time of live-streaming our Sunday morning worship services.

For others, this has been more of an adjustment. Pastor Scott Pattison of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Kokomo, Indiana, told me that online broadcasting of their services “was not a part of our church’s practice or personality” and they “went from 0-60 in less than a week.” They have navigated technical challenges to set up three cameras for each Sunday service, make their services available through both Facebook Live and YouTube, and post links on their website. Some congregations have found YouTube to be more accessible for people without their own Facebook accounts.

Many are hopeful the online shift may expand rather than maintain their worship ministries. New opportunities abound to creatively reach unchurched neighbors. Dayton UMC shifted their “Bring-a-Friend” plans for Easter Sunday, now encouraging members to invite friends to join them for online “watch parties” of the worship. Congregations that previously had no regular electronic communications, or no means for online or text-message have been forced to establish these. Pattison told me that St. Luke’s new online services is newly enabling the congregation’s shut-ins to participate in worship, and “[t]his will be part of what we do going forward.” Some congregations, for logistical and other reasons, have pre-recorded certain portions of their services before including them in live broadcasts.

Pastor Tony Alstott of Wesley Chapel UMC in Floyd Knobs, which was already livestreaming its services for several years, told me they have actually seen a dramatic net increase in worship participation since being forced to previously move online. Previously, they averaged roughly 450 people who physically attended worship in addition to roughly 40 devices connecting to the livestream. (With the latter, there are often multiple people in a household watching on a single computer screen, but this is hard to measure). Now the total number of devices connecting to Wesley Chapel’s livestreamed Sunday worship is over twice the combined number of online devices and in-person worshippers they had had. They have been intentionally thinking through what basic elements of Sunday service, like hospitality, look like in an online setting. This includes having an “online hospitality team” who interacts with remote worshippers in the comments.

The necessary bans on large in-person gatherings do not need to reduce our congregations to Sunday online worship and nothing else. Congregations are actively learning creative new ways to adapt and expand their between-Sundays ministries. Pastor Jeanne Winter of Zion UMC (also in Kokomo) told me her director of children’s and youth ministries is now offering online Bible studies for youth and posting family devotions. Pastor Mike Dominick told me he and his team at Dayton UMC “have subscribed to and are making available ZOOM videoconferencing to our leaders and staff so small groups, Bible studies, staff meeting, ministry teams and other groups can meet virtually rather than in-person,” and this has gone well. At Logansport First UMC, Pastor Beth Ann Cook has had a practice several times each year of having a “Paint with the Pastor” session combining some spiritual teaching, fellowship, and an opportunity for people to try out different means of creative expression. Last week, she switched the venue for her scheduled session to Facebook Live and had a number of people join with her that way (including my own children, who had fun).

Congregations are actively reaching out to check in on their people individually. Pastor David Warren of St. Paul’s UMC in Poseyville has a team of about eight volunteers who have “divvied up our membership and constituency to contact regularly to keep them connected to discipleship and tend to their needs.” This includes at-least-weekly phone calls “to share what we are learning through our digital connections and finding out if they are in need or if they are ill.” Others are taking similar approaches. At St. Luke’s Kokomo they are initially working through already-established smaller groups, and then creating new groups for people not yet connected, to prevent anyone falling through the cracks. Pattison described how St. Luke’s is “using the ‘Jethro’ principle,” in reference to the episode in Exodus 18 when the father-in-law of Moses persuaded him to appoint a network of deputies to whom he could divide up and delegate the work of judging disputes, rather than wearing himself out by doing all the work himself. At St. Luke’s, this means “one person will call no more than ten people.”

Indiana United Methodists are also faithfully reaching out in loving service to meet some of the greatest needs of their neighbors in this time. Examples include:

  • For those on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19, Logansport First UMC has prepared for the nurses of a local hospital packets of chocolate bars along with notes offering encouragement and assurance of prayers, all delivered through the parish nurse who also works at that hospital. This was extremely well received.
  • Amidst school closures, St. Paul’s UMC is meeting the needs of children in its school district now missing their free and reduced lunches. Warren has “a large rotating team of community volunteers gathering donations and making lunches (all while keeping safe distance and low numbers).”
  • As older and immune-compromised people now face risks if they go shopping for basic necessities, Dayton UMC is preparing a “Porch Angels” ministry, which Dominick describes as “connecting folks who are willing to serve with folks who are vulnerable and need someone to drop off food or medications on their porch” – to be advertised and made available “to anyone in our community who might need it.” The way it works: “We’ve asked people to email our Business Manager, who is overseeing the response. Volunteer servants are willing to pick up supplies for a vulnerable person and leave them on their porch, as they request.” Recipients pay either online or in cash.

As encouraging as much of this is, we must not lose sight of the major toll this epidemic is taking. As infection and death spreads, we can all expect to know people who are directly hit, if we do not already. The economic stagnation is increasingly hurting people’s ability to afford food, shelter, and clothing. Cabin fever and loneliness coming from the lack of non-virtual personal connections are serious psychological challenges which will get worse as time drags on.

Winter told me “it grieves me terribly” to not be able to visit an older lady with a recent broken bone, whose family also cannot visit her. Winter’s husband and oldest son are also on the front lines, the former as an Emergency Room paramedic and the latter as a police officer. She longs “to hold the babies at church as well as see our grandchildren” but cannot, as a matter of safety.

The county health department notified Pastor Alstott to tell him that a member of his congregation had tested positive for COVID-19. Alstott acted quickly, consulting with his board chair, executive team, staff, district superintendent, and insurance, all by noon. He then contacted every middle-school parent, because a family member of this infected individual had attended the youth Sunday school. Alstott further shared this electronically with the entire congregation. Happily, the sick church member has since been discharged from the hospital.

In this challenging time, Warren advises his fellow pastors to remember to “[s]tay in the Word for yourself and pray with your family.” He also encourages them “Listen to some pastoral sermons for you too and don’t just focus on teaching your people.”

Pattison’s advice for other pastors and congregations: “Don’t worry about if you have to keep this or that going after all of this, that will take care of itself. Live in the moment, listen to the Spirit, and your team – engage the opportunities.

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