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A church changed by COVID

The cost of connecting in new ways

By Sue Washburn | Presbyterians Today

Illustration of a man holding a giant umbrella, shielding his church. Covid molecules are bombarding the umbrella.It’s been two years since COVID-19 entered our lives. During that time, our world has changed — and with it the church — as ideas of what church is have been reshaped by livestreaming worship and Zoom meetings and Bible studies. With COVID and its variants still factoring into everyday decisions and plans, congregations are just now beginning to understand the long-term impact the virus will have on not only a church’s mission, but also on its infrastructure. What kind of technology and staffing will be needed as churches move forward? Should pastors, many of whom figured out how to get online with a phone, be expected to continue with those responsibilities indefinitely? Or does the church staff need to change for a post-COVID world?

The Rev. Christy Ramsey, stated clerk and general presbyter of the Presbytery of Nevada, has been an advocate of media in ministry for decades. He says each church did what it could to keep people connected to God and to each other in the throes of the crisis, but now comes the more complicated question: What next? What are realistic expectations in terms of sustainability as the added responsibility of technology brings with it additional costs and job responsibilities?

“Some churches had lots of money and staff and could get online with all of the bells and whistles,” he said. Other congregations repurposed the equipment they already had. He vividly remembers the day he went to one small church. “The internet didn’t work because it hadn’t been used for a year and a half, but once that was running, they got an old TV and put it up on chairs so that the tiny congregation could sing to YouTube videos,” said Ramsey.

Another church in the presbytery mailed out the weekly sermon via the Postal Service and asked people to read it on Sunday at exactly 10 a.m. to create a unified time of worship. The big questions, though, Ramsey points out, aren’t necessarily about technology. They are about connection and what tools will be needed for that connection — and, at what cost.

Change is here to stay

While many churches were creative with outreach during the pandemic, the challenge now is to incorporate the changes into common practice. Do congregations have enough volunteer support to continue livestreaming? Is there financial support for equipment upgrades? Will churches change the staffing requirements as music directors need to research which hymns or anthems the livestreaming license covers? And then there’s the big question: Does the pastor need to be technologically savvy in addition to being theologically trained?

The Rev. Dr. Joseph Scrivner, pastor of Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, first went online from his home when the pandemic started.

“I’ve jokingly said, ‘I’m the chair of the audio visual committee,’” said Scrivner. The one-person committee started when he picked up an iPad at home.

While Scrivner took responsibility for recording his sermons, the church officers stepped up their engagement with pastoral care. “Their resiliency has been a blessing, and the members modeled mutual pastoral care for one another,” he said.

The Rev. Jessica Crane-Munoz, pastor of Sunrise Presbyterian Church in Great Falls, Montana, took a new call during COVID, inheriting a volunteer who sets up the livestreaming weekly.

At her former church, she prayed weekly that a volunteer from the church would show up and learn how to push the buttons. The congregation now has a regular volunteer to get the church online every Sunday. However, she worried about the day when the volunteer was sick or not available since no one else knew the necessary steps for livestreaming.

All hands on deck

Both getting and staying online require an “all hands on deck” approach. Not all pastors have the skills of Scrivner and Crane-Munoz, and some congregations rely solely on volunteers to get them online. Many congregations are still not able to get online because of the steep learning curve and the lack of internet or reliable cell service.

As solo pastors, Scrivner and Crane-Munoz were both good with technology and able to lead the move to online. For both, there’s been give-and-take between the expectations of the pastors and volunteers. But in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Elkins Park Presbyterian Church decided to go a different path even before COVID.

Elkins Park Presbyterian Church hired a media contractor to help with its digital ministry, even though the pastor is tech-savvy. Courtesy of Elkins Park Presbyterian Church

As part of its strategy to become a vital congregation, the church decided it needed to be present in the digital community and committed to hiring a media contractor.

Before the pandemic, Elkins Park paid an offsite media contractor to manage its church website and social media accounts and to make slideshows and videos of church events to share online. Pre-COVID, the media contractor did not attend worship. However, since COVID, the job has changed to onsite, adhering to the necessary precautions to keep everyone safe.

“We feel it’s important to use technology to do that. I don’t see how a church can survive today without a strong media presence,” said Karen Sheehan, an elder at Elkins Park.

Neither does she think that technical responsibilities should fall to a pastor.

“Every church should look into hiring someone who has media skills to take the burden off the pastor,” Sheehan said, “even if the pastor has the skills.”

Danielle Mink, the technical and communications director at Unity Community Church in Pittsburgh, started as a part-time hire in 2002 when she was in eighth grade. Today she is full-time with benefits. “The challenge now is creating meaningful connection for the people who are only online,” Mink said.

“Churches that have hired someone to do media discover that they can always find more for that person to do,” said the Rev. Derek Campbell of Unity.

When it comes to tech job descriptions, there is no one-size-fits-all for churches. Media and tech jobs can range from five hours a week to full-time with benefits. Responsibilities for media personnel can include website maintenance, social media posting, video production and livestreaming as well as creating slides for worship, maintaining equipment and licenses, and scheduling volunteers. Compensation generally begins at $10 an hour for the smallest congregations. But whatever the details might be, one must be in all tech job descriptions: A church’s digital media message must complement its mission and should not feel like a corporate media post. Second Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, is reworking its associate pastor job description to include media proficiency so that the media are infused with spirituality.

“We want to be sure the technology creates a worshipful experience,” said the Rev. Dr. Mary Louise McCullough. Fusing technology and faith to create a powerful online worship experience requires both technical and theological knowledge.

Online worship benefits

The benefit of online worship is it allows members to participate in what Ramsey calls “the church of their heart.” For some, the church of their heart is the congregation they attended during their youth, before they moved away or became homebound in old age. “Online worship has also been a great way to reach our shut-in members,” said Scrivner. But he says young people like online worship because it allows them to find a congregation that shares their values. “Our understanding of what it means to be a member is changing,” he said.

What isn’t changing is the realization that “there is no going back to just in-person worship,” said McCullough. While volunteers and staff scrambled to get the church online, the current task is to discern what is sustainable and remain flexible in planning for whatever God has next.

Sue Washburn is an interim pastor near Pittsburgh.

Hiring Thoughts for the Future

One of the impacts of COVID has been the “great resignation,” as those in professions from ministry to teaching reevaluate their calling in life. Vacated church positions present an opportunity for staffing structures to be reimagined. Salary line items could be reallocated to make room for a part-time tech guru.

Many churches are looking carefully at budgets and seeing where money can be found to accommodate the new skills and responsibilities needed for ministry today. So, whether it’s a new pastor, administrator or musician who needs to be hired, think creatively and identify the skills needed to move the mission of the church forward. Here are some things to think about when hiring.

Church administrators. Timely, responsive communication with parishioners requires more than paper and a copier. Video channels, texting and social media are common ways of connecting with people. Administrative assistants should be proficient in these communication tools, too.

Musicians. Livestreaming music means keeping licenses up to date, checking copyrights and accurately reporting what music gets played over the internet.

Pastors. While it’s debatable how much technology expertise should be in a pastor’s job description, the flexibility to provide leadership and pastoral care by phone, text or in person is imperative for a multigenerational church. The size and resources of a church will determine whether volunteers or staff maintain the online presence.

—Sue Washburn and Donna Frischknecht Jackson


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