6 ways to prepare for the post-pandemic church
What’s next? As church leaders struggle for footing in a ministry-shifting earthquake, they’re also scanning the landscape for a glimpse of the church that will stand after the dust settles.
So, when the Rev. Susan Groseclose organized a webinar to discuss present and future reality for churches in the coronavirus age, 135 participants from Holston Conference as well as guests from other conferences joined in.
“What’s Next? Missional Visioning for Now and into the Future” was offered by Holston Conference staff through Zoom on April 27. Groseclose is associate director of connectional ministries for discipleship.
The webinar was attended by clergy and lay members from each of Holston’s nine districts, representing large, small, urban and rural ministries. Suggested topics included digital presence, community, connections, congregational care, and engagement. After breaking into small groups, participants returned to a large-group format to talk some more.
Here are six realities that emerged from the first of what Groseclose expects to be a webinar series.
1. Take advantage of your built-in buddy system.United Methodists have a built-in connectional system that uniquely positions them to move forward in a social-distancing world, webinar participants said.
“The way that we are connected is the envy of some of our brothers and sisters,” said the Rev. David Woody, pastor at First United Methodist in Newport, Tennessee. “To share that content across the digital divide is something that’s been very unifying.”
Many church leaders are already sharing content and ideas through relationships developed in missional hubs, but other possibilities exist. When the pastor of a small church spoke of how difficult it is to create online worship experiences without music, the Rev. Micah Nicolaus suggested the sharing of musicians between churches that have and churches that don’t.
“We’ve got folks that want to sing and play music ... but we can’t bring them all together inside of a worship setting,” Nicolaus said, referring to social-distancing restrictions. “We’ve got folks who are looking to minister out there.” Nicolaus is senior pastor at Broad Street United Methodist in Cleveland, Tennessee.
Another church leader asked if congregations could unite to feed the growing number of hungry neighbors, as unemployment rates skyrocket and schools remain closed: “For those of us who have food pantries, would the congregations that do not have pantries consider sharing financial resources? We are trying to cover broad territories these days.”
2. Get ready for the church-report revamp.Church leaders are celebrating that online worship and Bible studies are reaching more people, new people, and faraway people compared with previous in-the-building methods.
“Even my church is seeing more visitors who are finding us who would never walk through the door,” said the Rev. Melissa Smith, pastor at Kodak United Methodist Church in Kodak, Tennessee.
The Rev. Terry Goodman, conference secretary, said the way churches report attendance during and after COVID-19 will have to be reviewed by his counterparts in other annual conference as well as the General Council on Finance and Administration. It’s not statistically practical for everybody to get a zero on attendance during the weeks church buildings were closed due to the pandemic, he said.
“Attendance reports are going to have to be very different,” said DeAnna Prather, communications specialist at St. John United Methodist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Prather said she tries to “jot down” the name of every person joining in worship on Facebook Live. She shares the names later with her church secretary.
Concord United Methodist Church provides a “digital connection card” for recording seeker info directly on its website. The Rev. Michael Vaughn, pastor at Telford United Methodist Church, said he uses a digital connect card through Google Forms to count participants and collect prayer requests.
3. Utilize the extroverts.Even when there’s an emphasis on digital communication, the “old school” ways of reaching some people are critical to reducing isolation and loneliness.
The Rev. Leah Burns said her church has many older members without access to or knowledge of using email or Zoom meetings. Other churches are located in rural communities with limited access to the internet, and some homes still do not have wireless due to the cost. Other than visiting those neighbors at a safe distance on the front lawn, church leaders are relying on the telephone.
“Bottom line is, it’s getting on the phone and doing that regularly,” said Burns, associate pastor at Second United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.
While some church leaders split lists of people to call among themselves, Anne Borsage suggested finding “a team of extroverts” who are struggling with isolation, too.
“It’s a win-win not just for church leaders but for lay people” to issue a call for extroverts willing to call others in need of conversation, said Borsage, multi-campus director for The Chapel Ministries in Brunswick, Georgia.
Another participant suggested providing DVDs or CDs of worship services for people without internet. Others said they rely on freeconferencecall.com or freeconferencecalling.com to reach people: “I set a time and they call in to hear a prayer or sermon.”
4. Help your church love their neighbors from afar.How do you do community outreach when you can’t be in the same space with people? The Rev. Anna Lee said her church has figured out some ways.
“We’re trying to be creative to give people some way to not just to stay connected, but to serve. Because I think any kind of serving posture will help us stay grounded and full of gratitude,” said Lee, executive pastor at Cokesbury United Methodist Church.
Cokesbury used Amazon Wish List to invite church members to supply underwear, socks, and towels for the homeless at Knox Area Rescue Mission, which is experiencing “double-digit increases in first-time guests.” Church members also provided activity books for isolated patients at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital through an Usborne Books wish list.
Cokesbury members have also been asked to provide handwritten notes of encouragement for clients who pick up food at Manna House food pantry and for older adults served by Wesley House Community Center.
Another webinar participant also suggested servant leadership through the simple act of picking up a pen: “There is something to be said about old-fashioned note writing. I appreciate receiving handwritten notes and continue to do so myself.”
Borsage said her church uses an online “needs board” where requests can be posted (“Single mom needs groceries”) and congregants can respond (“I’m willing to provide two bags of groceries every week”).
5. Cast the vision for the way 'Future UMC' is going to be.Many of the new digital ways of doing church (which most leaders were forced to create in a hurry) are here to stay, according to the webinar conversation.
However, some participants worried their congregants will not accept the changes, or else they’re waiting for the pandemic to disappear so they can go back to the old ways.
“Our district superintendents and conference-level leaders need to impress upon our members that churches will be expected to continue with our online presence and other technological work, or it won't happen,” one webinar joiner said.
Borsage said it’s important for church leaders to “share the stories” of how creative ways of doing church are making a difference.
“Begin casting the vision for that,” she said. Explain the successes and surprise findings that have emerged since the pandemic began.
“If we begin to talk to people about the new things that are happening, they’ll begin to realize, ‘This is really impacting our church and our reach in a way we never could have done without this new digital platform,’” said Borsage.
6. Accept the fatigue factor for what it is.Church leaders remarked that their work is harder today, with fewer volunteers available and some carrying out the roles of pastor and stay-at-home parent/ teacher, all at the same time.
“Generally, most of us do not have staff to help assemble or produce a worship service. Therefore, we are all feeling very busy and finding our goals for the week have changed,” one commentator said.
Pastors are also realizing how much energy they used to glean from the congregation and how exhausting it is to preach to an empty sanctuary, said the Rev. Mike Sluder, director of connectional ministries. “You’ve got to put more energy into it when you’re the only one supplying the energy.”
Participants shared an idea from Bishop Laurie Haller, resident bishop of the Iowa Conference, who required her church teams to “find three days back-to-back between now and Pentecost Sunday, May 31, to experience rest, renewal, and sabbath.” To help, the Iowa Conference Cabinet recorded a worship service that could be used during that time.
One webinar participant wondered out loud if Holston Conference superintendents could record a periodic message or sermon to be shared throughout their respective districts: “That opportunity would give some of us a little break from managing every aspect of ministry each week.”
For information about future webinars and breakout groups, contact the Rev. Susan Groseclose at email@example.com. A YouTube recording of the April 27 webinar has also been provided by Communications Staff Donna Hankins (see below).
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Holston Conference includes 864 United Methodist congregations in East Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and North Georgia.
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.