By Brett Hetherington*
With COVID-19 cases continuing to spike and outdoor events no longer an option due to the weather, local church leadership throughout the East Ohio Conference is having to again rethink how it ministers to the community.
“Adapt is kind of the wrong word, you’re ‘discovering,’” offered the Rev. Chip Freed. “There is no baseline for what we are in and how to do church and be the church in this kind of context. It’s kind of like Lewis and Clark work – there’s no map! You’re kind of drawing it as you go.”
Freed is the lead pastor of Garfield Memorial Church (North Coast District), which has locations in Pepper Pike and South Euclid. In March when the state instituted shelter-in-place orders, he and his team went to work adjusting to the new normal.
“We had an online pastor (Rev. Curt Bissell). We were the only church in the Conference with one, so the worship online piece was easy,” said Freed before adding that it was important that the online connection not be one-way. “We have people checking into our online platforms, but who was checking in on them? We have an online pastor who was there to say ‘Hi, I’m the online pastor here. Do you have any questions I can answer or things you want prayed about?’ Just to have that touch there, not just someone looking at a screen and watching someone else talk.”
Kimberly Chapmon-Wynee is thankful for the opportunity to worship online.
“I have two teenagers and a husband who works out of state, and having our service online makes it able for us to be in church together even if he is in California, which has happened this year,” she said. “With my daughters we have more conversations about the message. We’re not leaving the building, trying to talk to a hundred people before we walk out the door. We are sitting in our family room and can talk about the message together.”
Cheri Shumaker led the Radical Hospitality team at the Garfield Memorial Church South Euclid location. She appreciates the online opportunities to worship but struggled at first without the face-to-face connection she really enjoys.
“I have been pretty engaged since we went to more of an online presence. I was very active before, so it’s been a bit of an adjustment! My husband and I participate in worship on Boxcast, but I can’t stand just watching. I needed to interact with others, so I also have Facebook Live open on my phone so I can chat with people and comment on the worship and the sermon,” she said. “It’s not the same but at least it’s something!”
In response to shelter-in-place recommendations issued by state and local authorities, Freed and the leadership team designed new online ministry opportunities that put the focus on sheltering in presence. Monday Musings devotions, Worship Wednesdays, and Faith on Fridays Facebook Live broadcasts offered participants hope and helped them combat the isolation that so many have been feeling since the start of the pandemic.
Worship Wednesdays was a particular comfort for Shumaker.
“Usually I was one of the first to log on for Worship Wednesday because I couldn’t wait to worship and sing along with the worship pastors. Having that mid-week time of worship was refreshing and helped abate any worries about the virus spread,” she said.
As the church continued to discover and adjust, redrawing the map of how to do ministry, Freed and his team were already transitioning these new ministries into their next iteration.
“The principle of what we founded is all there, we just had to ask ourselves how do we take it up a notch as we are realizing that this isn’t just going to suddenly go away and it’s ‘back to church as normal.’ That reality is gone. Not even in two years or five years. It’s different,” Freed said.
He and his wife Terri are hosting a podcast that is replacing Faith on Fridays. Called Freed for Love the podcast joins the national dialogue on race.
“Garfield is nationally known for its diversity as a congregation and with over three decades of interracial marriage to draw from we can offer something” shared Freed. “We walked in these shoes for this year, what can we speak into in the ministry of racial reconciliation?”
Worship on Wednesdays will feature the worship team going into the production studio and creating something even more next-level, while Monday Musings has already morphed into 24 Billion Stories which is built around the idea that the eight billion people in the world each have three stories to share.
Each of these ministries offers opportunities for engagement, the question becomes how to measure that engagement.
“All of the old metrics of measuring engagement are out the window,” said Freed. “But our worship numbers are engaging more numbers than we did on Easter Sundays. I also think giving is a tell-tale sign and if your giving is falling off you are not doing too well, and the Lord has blessed us there as well this year.”
East Ohio Conference Director of Congregational Vitality the Rev. Kelly Brown is in agreement that we are still struggling to discern how to determine what engagement looks like for churches in 2020.
“Without being able to gather in-person consistently it is impossible to see if how people are counting is providing the needed information. The word engagement is key. Counting the people who engage and interact during an online event is the best way to count how many people are participating for the whole event. This interaction could be a comment made or filling out a virtual form of some kind,” he said.
“Figuring all this out is difficult. I think the most important thing for churches to focus on is continuing to provide opportunities for people to experience God’s grace in such a way that they grow in their faith and take the next step in their discipleship journey,” Brown continued. “The larger question for me is how do we measure the difference we are making in the lives of people and communities instead of simply counting attendance. The work of ministry has become a day to day adjustment which takes a lot of energy and creative thinking.”
Garfield UMC has embraced this call to utilize creative thinking, continually exploring new ways to engage with people and keep them connected with the church. Earlier this year church members were encouraged to take one of the 600 yard-signs purchased by the church and place it in a neighbor’s yard.
“People loved it, people were coming to their home, planting a yard sign, praying over their home, helping them to feel connected,” said Freed of the signs that said “praying for our city” and included the church’s name.
The church also offers a weekly after-party for Sunday morning services that dives deeper into that day’s message. Staff pastors host private Zoom rooms with 10-15 people. Discussion takes place around questions the sermon might have raised, and asks people “what did you feel God saying to you today?” and “how can we pray for you?” The staff of the church and partner congregation House of Prayer took 1,200 names and divided them up amongst themselves and each staff member was responsible for calling 12 people from that list and check in on them, to talk with them, and to pray for and with them.
With all of these changes happening in the world I had to ask if people were finding it easier or more difficult to invite others to join them for virtual church gatherings. Shumaker believes it is no more difficult to invite people into the fellowship.
“We don’t have to be limited by location. I usually share the link to the Sunday worship broadcast to my Facebook page. I think the more of us that do that, more people are likely to at least check it out once. And once they hear our worship band and experience the teaching, I don’t know why they wouldn’t come in person, once we are really able to!” she shared.
Chapmon-Wynee believes it is actually easier to invite people to join her on Sunday mornings. “People don’t find it as intimidating to go to church online. They can get a feel for who Garfield is without having to leave their home. We are a family of color from California and we were able to get a feel for who Garfield was before stepping in the building.”
She has even found herself surprised a few times this year by friends who shared that they had been attending services at Garfield online – friends who had previously not come in person.
Church member Joel Pietrantozzi suggested that when the pandemic hit it would have been easy to stay the course and to not try new things.
“The argument could have been made that there was nothing broken so there was no need to change anything. At the time of these changes, Garfield was maintaining a strong worship attendance and our offerings were close to, or at, our projected annual budget. We had every reason to ‘stand pat’ and bask in our blessings,” he said. “I am still in awe of how something that could have been positioned as unnecessary, became essential to the viability of the church in our ability to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with congregants and individuals around the country.”
In the midst of Advent, we all continue to discover new ways to reach out to others. The way we engage in ministry may look different, but the goal is the same – making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
“This is one of those moments to reclaim that Wesleyan spirit of the Great Awakening and finding new ways to preach the Gospel,” Freed said. “People thought Wesley was a weirdo for preaching in his robe in the fields. Charles was strange for putting Christian words to bar tunes. I think we are back to that sort of time. Embrace it, don’t run from it. Don’t pine over years gone by.”
While pointing out that each pastor ministers in their own context, Freed stated that their experience is nonetheless a shared one.
“I know what pastors are dealing with. We are all in the laboratories together. On my best days it’s fun, on my worst days it’s depressing, but we are all together in these kind-of Lewis and Clark days.”
The Conference Communications team would like to share other stories that highlight ways that each of us is answering the call of Bishop Tracy S. Malone to reach out to our communities in creative ways. Please e-mail your ministry story to EOC Director of Communications Rick Wolcott at firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Brett Hetherington is the Communications specialist for the East Ohio Conference of The United Methodist Church.