This blog post written by the Rev. Dr. Rebecca B. Coerper is a result of Leaders for Hybrid Futures, a community of learning and practice created by Rev. Tim Schenck and Learning Forte’s CEO, Rev. Stacy Williams-Duncan, to reflect on and experiment with hybrid ministry. This innovative program is a partnership with LEAD, TX, and Learning Forte’s Digital Ministry Initiative and is funded by a leadership grant from Trinity Church, Wall Street.
So much of the conversation about virtual ministry during the pandemic has focused on worship. But in the meantime, some other things have been happening…activities that have blossomed over the last two years in surprising ways which may beg the question about where and how we invest resources.
One example in my parish is a Centering Prayer group that has met two mornings a week for a number of years prior to the pandemic. Membership was 8-10 with average attendance of 3-5. But in 2020, this group moved to Zoom and over the last two years has grown to a total membership of 20, half of which are members of other churches or no church at all, two participants who live out of state, and several continuing to attend when they travel.
Another example is a new adult formation group that began during the pandemic. It meets weekly on Zoom to study and discuss the readings for the coming Sunday. This group continues to grow. Even now that many things are happening in person, this group meets only on Zoom. Over time it has grown to include people from other churches, those who live outside the area, and those who go south during the winter. The discussion is incredibly rich, and participants are very loyal to the conversation week after week.
A third example is a brief weekday prayer service during Lent at 5:30 in the evening on Zoom. In 2021 this innovation was a means for people to gather when in-person was not possible. The format is a brief liturgy of prayers and readings that varies each day of the week and is led by a wide variety of volunteers. These leaders offer a reflection each day, sometimes a reading from some other devotional resource, and sometimes something they have written. It was all we could do in 2021 when there was nothing in-person. But this year – with much happening in person – this offering has remained popular, with a dozen or more gathering daily including those who have migrated south for the winter.
Yet another example is wedding preparation sessions that migrated to Zoom in 2020. In the last two years, I have prepared more couples for marriage than in the preceding 9 years of my ministry. Virtual sessions have become the norm not only when in-person sessions were not possible but now for destination weddings and for those couples who have moved out of the area but want to be married in the parish where they grew up.
Finally, Zoom meetings are more practical in bad weather, when some have to travel a distance or at night, and when people are recovering from illness. This has proven true for staff and committee meetings begging the question if we ever want to return to in-person meetings as the norm.
Interestingly enough, 2 years into the pandemic, as much as sustaining worship was a primary focus initially, now providing live-streamed and virtual worship has become a stress point for many churches. In smaller parishes, the responsibility for technology often falls to the clergy. Before worship they are setting up and problem-solving technology (and there are always problems). These tasks are in direct conflict with the need to cultivate an inner quiet in order to lead worship and prepare to preach. This raises some interesting questions about hybrid worship: Have we bitten off more than we can chew? Is the focus on technology sustainable over the long haul?
And yet…providing avenues for virtual worship has proven to be invaluable in allowing people to participate, to re-locate, and to hibernate.
So what about the little churches, the places where clergy are doing it all? A new conversation bubbled up recently among what Episcopal churches call “clericus” (parishes located near one another geographically). Is there a way for smaller churches to collaborate, providing live-streamed worship in a network, that does not place the burden for technology on the clergy or on each parish alone?
The Rev. Dr. Rebecca B. Coerper is the Rector of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Skaneateles, New York and is blessed to be supported by an extraordinarily capable and creative tech team.