This blog post written by the Rev. Noah Oliver Herren 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.
One of my favorite examples of hybrid church happened in a most unexpected space, our Wednesday bible study group. As you might imagine, this mid-week, mid-morning gathering pulls in a pretty specific demographic within the church: retired folks looking for some social interaction centered around faith-based topics.
When I started at St. Luke in February 2020, two weeks before the pandemic struck in full force, this bible study group was meeting in the fellowship hall of the church on Wednesday mornings. There were no more than 5-6 people. Someone would bring baked goods, another someone would make coffee, and we would read the lectionary gospel together and discuss for an hour or so.
When it became clear that it was not safe or wise for us to continue to gather in-person, we had to decide whether to find a way to meet online or discontinue the group. Although it was a steep learning curve, we familiarized ourselves with Zoom and began to gather online. We had new folks join our group who had been unable to travel to church on Wednesday morning, but it was easy enough to hop on Zoom with a cup of tea or coffee.
As we moved through the seasons of nature and the liturgical seasons, I began to notice that our group carried a lot of wisdom about gardening and tending to nature. I learned a lot from them and was able to incorporate some of this shared wisdom into the weekly sermon. We were also able to join our bible study group with another ELCA congregation up the road for a couple of book studies during the Advent and Lenten seasons.
During the two years that bible study was meeting online, we had some major building issues arise. Roofs needed to be replaced, multiple water leaks and flooring damage occurred, just the general concerns of an aging church building. With all the money required for repairs and decreased income during the pandemic, however, we were short on being able to hire professional landscapers to keep up our property. We’re located on a major thoroughfare in an affluent neighborhood in Atlanta, so a pleasing aesthetic feels important to many of our members.
In February 2022, following the surge of Omicron, we were finally beginning to imagine being back in-person for Lent and Easter services. Our Wednesday bible study had decided to continue meeting on Zoom for the convenience of the group. To my great pleasure, the group then suggested that every few weeks, we meet at the church at 10am to “tend the garden.” We have now had about four “Tend the Garden” sessions, and the grounds of the church look amazing. We’ve cared for crepe myrtles, pruned and watched the rose bushes bloom, trimmed forsythia and gardenia, spread pine straw, mowed and weed-whacked and cleaned up trash tossed on the grounds from the road.
It has been beautiful to see the body of Christ care for this land that we’ve been stewarded with: land first inhabited by the indigenous Muscogee (Creek), land where Civil War battles were fought, land that was secured for a new church plant back in the 1960s, and now land that provides support and spiritual care for the diverse bodies we welcome into our midst. May God continue to bless hybrid ministries in all their iterations.
Rev. Noah Herren was ordained and installed at St. Luke Atlanta Lutheran Church on February 28, 2020. He grew up in a small town outside of Birmingham, AL and earned a degree in Financial Planning from the University of Alabama. After working for banks and financial institutions for a decade, Noah felt the call to ministry while participating in a new church start-up in Birmingham. Noah attributes his passion for ministry and spirituality to his own journey of reconciling multiple theologies and his experience as a transgender man raised in the deep South. He graduated from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in August 2017, and has taken courses at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (Columbia, SC) and Lutheran School of Theology (Chicago, IL). Following seminary, Noah completed a one-year chaplain residency at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. Since then has worked in a variety of marginal contexts serving as a teacher in a theology certificate program, guitar player at a bar church, and chaplain at a women’s prison and community service center. Before coming to St. Luke, he had the opportunity to experience life in the Midwest as Vicar at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Chicago, IL. In his downtime you will find him reading, cooking, enjoying nature, watching movies, making playlists, playing guitar, writing, and spending time with his two teenage sons.