Churches Foster Connection during time of Pandemic Isolation

By Rick Wolcott*

“We are glad you are here with us during these interesting times in our nation. We are glad that we can worship together in Spirit and in truth.”

With those words, the Rev. Dr. Tom Joyce began Sunday’s worship service, which was livestreamed from the empty sanctuary of Fields UMC (North Coast District).

Bishop Tracy S. Malone had urged East Ohio Conference churches to cancel public worship services beginning March 15, and continuing through March 27, and to “seek creative and non-traditional ways to practice and sustain our faith and witness through virtual worship, Bible studies, and outreach that does not put people in harm’s way.”

Joyce said, “People still need to be fed the word of God, so I think it’s important to keep the church doors open, if not by electronic means.”

Church leadership is shifting around existing ministries at Fields to accommodate both the current reality and the need to minister to the community.

“We will continue to do the free meal on Tuesday nights but we’re going to do it all by carryout,” Joyce shared. “People won’t have to come into the building. They won’t have to sit next to each other, but they’re going to get fed.”

Fields UMC will hold one service instead of two for the next few weeks. Joyce and the Common Union contemporary band are the only ones in the sanctuary during the 11:00 a.m. worship service that is livestreamed to the world on the church website and six other places on the internet.

“We’re trying to make the experience as enjoyable and as meaningful as if people were here physically,” shared Michael Kelley, director of technology at Fields UMC.

“Today we don’t have the energy or the spirit that the congregation can bring, so that’s a little tough, but I think it’s important to note that we’re still getting the message out and that’s a great thing,” said Chuck Collins, co-leader of the contemporary worship team at Fields.

Eight miles down the road at the United Methodist Church of Berea (North Coast District), the Rev. Nathan Howe shared his message via Facebook for the first time.

“I think it’s important for us, especially now when we’re having to maintain distance from one another to really emphasize the importance of our connections not only with one another but with God as well and continuing our growth as disciples. I think it’s an especially important time to provide means and ways that people can connect with one another and with the congregation as a whole, the community of faith that is a part of their lives,” Howe said.

“It felt weird to preach to an empty sanctuary but it’s good to still be here and realize that no matter how far apart we are from one another the Spirit of God unites us and we’re still part of the same body of Christ,” he continued.

“Today’s message was on the woman at the well, which is very fitting as we are starting to think about what it is like to live in loneliness. So, it was a good message of hope to figure out how we can be connected in different ways,” said the Rev. Carrie Antczak, pastor of Christian Formation and Outreach at UMC Berea. “This is all new to us, we haven’t done a lot of social media or a lot of online learning. So, this is giving us the opportunity, really, to see how we can connect with people in remote ways.”

Across the East Ohio Conference on Sunday, pastors, congregations and faith communities made intentional efforts to be in community in a new way.

The 11 churches of the Koinonia Team Ministry (Southern Hills District) met via conference call.

“It worked really well,” said the Rev. Clayton Coffey. “We used to set up the call and then used Text in Church to let the congregations know the phone number and the access code to join the call.”

From the living room of his parsonage, Coffey was able to connect with other clergy on the team to lead the call that featured prayers, a message, a devotion, and an online offering to support the ministries that impact so many lives.

Brian Gallatin, communication specialist for Brighton UMC and Rochester UMC (Firelands District) said congregation members were able to view Sunday’s message on the churches’ YouTube page.

“We are two very small churches with limited capabilities and with mostly older congregation members. But we were able to record a message in the morning and get it uploaded and we also recorded next week’s sermon that will be uploaded for viewing at the appropriate worship times.”

Willoughby UMC (Western Reserve District) also recorded a message Sunday morning and posted it for congregation members to view.

“This was our first time doing it, but we scrambled and were able to put together a service and post it to Facebook,” said the Rev. Christopher Liberati.

The Rev. Steve Stultz Costello shared a similar story from the Tuscarawas District.

Faith UMC in North Canton is offering a ‘worship by wire’ experience, a prerecorded worship that includes suggestions for how to create a sense of community and worship as well as downloadable resources,” he said.

Malone is appreciative of the effort that East Ohio churches are making to be creative in reaching others.

“I am thankful for the faithfulness of our churches. This is a blessed unexpected way for churches to increase their capacity to reach more and diverse people,” she shared.

In addition to streaming worship at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, Greensburg UMC (Canal District) is offering an “interactive family dinner time through Facebook Live on Wednesdays at 6:00 p.m.,” the Rev. Katie Osier shared.

While members of Greensburg spend dinner time with families, members of Grandview UMC (Canal District) in Cuyahoga Falls will assist in providing food.

“We’ve partnered with the YMCA and the PTO for the church and the Y to be drop off sites for donations and for the church building to be a packing site on Monday evenings,” said the Rev. David Hull-Frye. “On Tuesdays we will work with volunteers from the community to deliver food.”

At South Vernon UMC (Three Rivers District), lay leader Loretta Rearick shared that “we are attempting to distribute to our people a bulletin of worship for them to do together with whomever is in their home. Church is not just about gathering together, but worshiping God. ‘Where two or more are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst.’”

“The ministries of Jesus Christ are continuing throughout this time and, in fact, they’re growing,” Joyce shared on Sunday during his message from Fields UMC. “There are more ministries that are going to happen because of what is going on, people are struggling a little bit.”

Malone is asking each person in the East Ohio Conference to ease peoples’ struggles by faithfully giving of themselves and their resources.

“I encourage all members of our local churches to continue to support your church through virtual worship, prayers and your financial giving that supports ministry and mission that is still continuing during this time of pandemic. Please be intentional in staying connected with your church members and neighbors,” Malone said.

Visit the Conference website to learn about non-traditional worship ideas, view the ever-growing list of online worship services being broadcast across East Ohio, and read the most up-to-date information from government health organizations and The United Methodist Church.

Please e-mail with stories of how your congregation or faith community is answering the bishop’s call to be creative in reaching out to your community.

*Rick Wolcott is director of Communications for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.