The continuing spread of COVID-19 is challenging pastors to consider how to do outreach when reaching out in person is difficult.
This past weekend, churches across the U.S. held virtual worship services online – many for the first time. Now, pastors, staff and volunteers are turning to continuing other aspects of ministry from a distance.
The Rev. Wendy Hudson, pastor of Two Rivers Church, a 2-year-old United Methodist startup in Charleston, South Carolina, said her staff has spent the past week working to make all aspects of the church’s ministry fully digital.
“Most of our members are younger than 40, so they were ready to switch everything to online,” Hudson said.
She has worship and programming planned for the next eight weeks. In addition, all small groups, pastoral care and community partnerships will continue through platforms like Facebook or Zoom conferencing software.
The church keeps in touch with community members with limited internet access via text and phone calls.
“Though we may be physically distant, we are connected to one another through God’s power, the gifts of technology and our care for each other that surpasses any limitations,” Hudson said.
Embracing technology for ministry may be new territory for many churches, but for the Rev. Matthew Johnson, the coronavirus outbreak is “the eventuality I didn’t know I was preparing for.”
Johnson, associate pastor at Barrington United Methodist Church in Barrington, Illinois, has long seen “the wonderful gift” of technology make new spaces for community. His church does e-devotions several times a week, has moved committee meetings to conference calls and is adding several online Vespers services each week. He’s using Google Meet to set up “open office” hours to connect with congregants and conduct Bible studies.
“People are now digital nomads and finding a church home is challenging, so technology offers ways of being more personal and adaptable,” Johnson said. “Us being isolated right now lends itself to that.”
At St. Paul & St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Manhattan, the approach was a little more “old school.”
The Rev. Lea Matthews, associate pastor, said the staff drew upon the earliest Christian communities that communicated through letters.
“I thought if we cluster people and carried conversations out through the week over email, it could give us a sense of connection and we could be able to check in with people,” she said.
Matthews recruited 12 people to facilitate small, intentionally intergenerational Connect & Care groups. Each week, she sends the group leaders an email with a conversation starter, liturgy and a prayer. The group’s conversation continues throughout the week, and then it meets via Zoom after Sunday worship to discuss the service and offer up prayers and concerns.
Matthews said she’s noticed that members of the online groups often open up and share more in their online setting than they would share in prayer concerns in front of the congregation.
Federal Way United Methodist Church in Federal Way, Washington, is also embracing the community group model.
Federal Way’s lead pastor, the Rev. DJ del Rosario, wrote on his blog that community care groups will be the church’s “point of communication, place of emotional and spiritual support” and will welcome new people to find community in healthy ways.
He’s asking those groups to brainstorm on tangible, healthy ways to continue caring for neighbors. Suggestions include partnering with schools to help feed children who rely on school meals, or finding creative ways to support local businesses and hourly wage workers affected by mandates to avoid crowds and public spaces.
“Social distancing and caring for our neighbor can coexist in the same space,” Del Rosario wrote.
Churches are still engaging in some hands-on ministry as safety permits, especially regarding care for neighbors.
The Rev. Hannah Ka, pastor of the Korean Community within Hope United Methodist Church in San Diego, said her church continues to assemble food deliveries for the elderly and other community members in need, as well as other now-scarce necessities like toilet paper. She is soliciting members to donate surplus groceries and young people to help distribute them.
St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is likewise continuing to arrange teams to distribute food boxes, pick up supplies and prescriptions, provide rides to medical appointments and walk pets.
“To the degree that we are able to lean in and help people in a time of need, we’re trying to be open to that,” said the Rev. Tommy Ward, senior pastor at St. Mark’s. “I think this is one of those instances when we can be the church and one in Christ.”
The social isolation brought on by preventative measures to fight the spread of the virus can be hardest on the elderly, who often struggle already with loneliness. Ward said children at St. Mark’s are creating cheerful greeting cards to send to those who may be home alone.
Brooke Road United Methodist Church in Rockford, Illinois, is bringing back the old-fashioned idea of pen pals, asking members to pick a name or two from the directory and correspond by mail. The Rev. Violet Johnicker, Brooke Road’s pastor, will send out worship resource packets via email and postal mail, including Scripture passages, sermons, prayers and coloring pages and activities for children.
With schools closing indefinitely, there is great need to minister to homebound children and help parents keep them occupied.
Two Rivers Church has created children’s videos for its Facebook page. Hudson said there are videos specific to the virus, such as how to talk to children about it and tips on prevention, as well as Bible story lessons for three different age groups.
Ward said church members have been asked to make videos of themselves reading a children’s book that will be shared via social media.
“It will be good for children to see a familiar face other than the ones with whom they’re quarantined at home, someone reading them stories about their faith and celebrating the connection of the church and family,” he said.
The Rev. Jeremy Steele, teaching pastor at Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile, Alabama, wrote an article on Discipleship Ministries’ Youth Worker Collective website with tips on youth ministry during the outbreak.
Steele suggests a text list to send reassuring thoughts and devotions to students stuck at home. He also recommended creating a YouTube playlist with a recorded message or devotional and links to a few favorite worship songs to start a virtual youth worship service.
One ongoing ministry is for churches to serve as a source of information about the pandemic.
United Methodist churches in the Chisipiti Circuit in Zimbabwe hosted a presentation by a public health specialist in emergency preparedness and who has advised the World Health Organization. The doctor covered topics like signs and symptoms, transmission and prevention and fighting stigma. The circuit also set up a WhatsApp group to provide updates of new information and dispel false information.
“Currently, the church members’ behavior has changed. There is no more handshaking and when coughing, they cover the mouth,” said Dr. Nyaradzo Mutezo, health committee chairperson for the Chisipiti Circuit.
While personal outreach is still possible under current social distancing guidelines, it is vital for volunteers to adhere to boundaries for everyone’s wellbeing. Auburn United Methodist Church in Opelika, Alabama, drew up a list of “Do No Harm” promises and practices for outreach volunteers, including observing proper hand-washing and wearing gloves, along with using the minimal number of volunteers.
Joe Davis, Auburn’s mission and outreach coordinator, wrote that in natural disasters, “only some are affected and those who are not affected go to help those who are.” But he added that in the case of COVID-19, “simply showing up to volunteer, especially in large groups, can be harmful to ourselves and those with whom we’re serving.”
United Methodists are praying the coronavirus will pass soon, but some think it could have a lasting impact on ministry — in a good way.
During regular worship time at St. Mark’s last Sunday, Ward and the two other clergy on staff made themselves available for phone calls, be it for prayer or just to connect. Ward said he probably prayed with more people over the phone that day than he had prayed with individually in the past month.
“I think that the three of us found it so meaningful, and I think the people who called found it so meaningful, that might be something that we would continue to do after the threat of the virus has subsided,” he said.
Lea Matthews agrees. “We didn’t even have that much intimate connection before the virus and its health crisis came to us. It’s something that we can learn about and bring into hopefully life on the other side of this crisis,” she said.
Hudson said she views this as a “time to expand ministry and not to just hunker down,” adding the new style of ministry may connect people more than ever before.
Bishop Patrick Streiff, leader of the Central and South Europe Episcopal Area, acknowledged fear of the coronavirus, but also points out that the church can provide witness.
In a letter posted the on the web, Streiff said he is praying “that the promise of 2 Timothy becomes true in our lives and ecclesial witness: ‘God did not give us a spirit of fear, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.’
“We are no more in a situation where everything goes in its usual, well controlled way,” Streiff said in the letter. “But as Christians we are gifted with God’s spirit, who wants powerfully to promote our deeds of love and our self-disciplined words and acts.”
Patterson is a reporter and Butler is multimedia editor for UM News, both based in Nashville, Tenessee. Kudzai Chingwe, communications coordinator for the Zimbabwe East Annual Conference, contributed to this report.