As ongoing measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 keep in-person gatherings from happening, United Methodists continue to find new ways to connect and minister online. If they weren’t already podcasting, many are starting to do so.
Podcasts have continued to rise in popularity for several years — with more than 900,000 podcasts currently estimated to be in production. Since episodes can be downloaded and listened to at any time, it’s truly “meeting people where they are.”
The Rev. Chris McAlilly, pastor at Oxford University United Methodist Church in Oxford, Mississippi, had just begun a podcast, “The Weight,” to discuss topics like the church’s ongoing discussions about homosexuality and the future direction of the denomination. Two episodes had been published and several more were waiting to post when the pandemic response reached a level of shutting down worship services and other gatherings.
“It became blatantly obvious that coronavirus was going to immediately impact everything and was going to be a difficult conversation for the church to navigate,” McAlilly said. “How can churches minister in difficult and uncharted environments?”
They were able to quickly produce an episode about mental health and COVID-19, featuring a former pastor who now is a clinical mental health counselor. The next episode, published March 26, is an interview with the Rev. Mike Slaughter, pastor emeritus at Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, Ohio, discussing how to lead pastorally in a time of crisis.
McAlilly said the coronavirus will remain the main topic for some time, with topics planned like resourcing parents who suddenly find themselves home-schooling.
Like McAlilly, the Rev. Todd Rossnagel, director of communications for the Louisiana Conference, had only recently begun the “Louisiana Now” podcast when circumstances dictated a shift in focus.
“I’ve always wanted to start one but lacked the resources and time,” Rossnagel said. “It’s a ‘germ-free’ way to tell a compelling story. I don’t have to go into the field or clip a mic on someone and put anyone at risk.”
He’s used the podcast to address ways the coronavirus is affecting ministry in Louisiana and to share stories of how pastors and churches are continuing to reach out. He said the podcast is also a great communication tool for Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey to get her voice out to the conference.
While Rossnagel hopes to get off the topic of COVID-19 at some point, he said for now his focus will be to share the continual witness and stories of United Methodist churches in the conference.
Jennifer Farmer, host of United Methodist Women’s “Faith Talks” podcast, wants to offer voices of hope and encouragement. Since starting last year, Farmer’s show has tackled issues important to women of faith, and now she’s working on a series of issues specific to the coronavirus.
“We want to talk about how to remain faithful in the face of fear and change,” Farmer said.
She said the May episode of “Faith Talks” will be tied to Mother’s Day and the importance of wellness and self-care.
“Women are typically thought of as the primary caregiver in the home and it’s easy for a mother to put her needs to the side because there’s always another pressing issue,” she said.
Any technology can seem intimidating for a new user, but both Rossnagel and McAlilly encourage others to just jump in.
“Don’t overanalyze it,” Rossnagel said. “It’s great to have a nice mic and mixer, but just take your phone out of your pocket and start recording.”
He also recommends using the record function in a Zoom call to capture interviews. A recent episode of “Louisiana Now” offers several other tips on technology.
Farmer agreed. “When something is new it’s overwhelming and hurdles will shut people down,” she said. “You need someone to help you through that hurdle.”
McAlilly said there will be plenty of people who can offer advice and help. His church is making its on-site studio available to any area pastor who needs it.
McAlilly shares Rossnagel’s view that fancy equipment isn’t necessary.
“If there’s a gift to this moment, it’s the amount of inexpensive tools available to quickly get up and running,” he said.
Though the coronavirus will pass, churches learning to embrace tools like online worship and podcasting may consider continuing those ministries.
McAlilly said that several years of trying to reach the student population at the University of Mississippi in Oxford emphasized the need for churches to think of themselves as “an externally focused communications organization.”
“What are the tools and vehicles of engagement and connection both within and beyond the body of Christ?” he asked.
Rossnagel pointed out that podcasts simply follow a tradition as old as the church itself: “We’ve always shared stories orally. Podcasts are just a new method for doing it.”
Butler is a multimedia editor for UM News. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free daily or weekly digests.