By Brett Hetherington*
Creating connection points for congregations to forge authentic ties with one another has been a monumental task the past two years as churches struggle finding ways to engage with people on Sunday mornings when some are in the sanctuary and others are viewing the service online.
Like clergy across the East Ohio Conference, Pastor Pamela Sayre of Huron United Methodist Church (Firelands District) had to get creative to minister in a new way when COVID-19 began impacting every facet of our lives.
“We have never been closed throughout this pandemic,” she stated “our doors have always been open, at least to the office. But when the shutdown mandates happened, we only missed one Sunday morning worship service because we were not prepared for it.”
To ensure that the doors stayed open, and ministry continued, Sayre – or Pastor P, as her congregants call her – got creative. She saw great need for a congregation that has many retirees and near-retirees to stay engaged and together, no matter what.
This is where Facebook and a cell phone became two of the biggest tools in her collection.
“In the beginning I just jumped on my phone and read something from the Bible or read a prayer or something,” Sayre shared. “And then it became a regular schedule to get online at 4:30 p.m. daily for 12 minutes or so with some Scripture.” The devotional videos are livestreamed directly to the church Facebook page and allow for viewers to comment and engage with Sayre and each other, both during the initial broadcast and long after.
After initially operating without much of a plan in place, Sayre moved on to utilizing more structured resources such as This Day: A Wesleyan Way of Prayer for her daily devotionals. “I like how it is kind of set up like a lectionary, with a verse or two, a reading, some scriptures and prayers,” Sayre shared before offering that this new element of her role is not nearly as time-consuming as one might expect. “There is not a lot of extra work for me, but it did force me to sit and spend time with God as I prepared to help others go and do the same.”
Sayre leads the online devotionals herself and does not ask others in her congregation or on her staff to step in. “I have tried very hard during COVID to not add anything to our wonderful staff. They have already had a lot of extra stuff added anyway,” she said.
Online daily devotionals have allowed the church to maintain a true sense of community throughout these uncertain times. “I found that this gives folks opportunity to get together, pray together, comment together,” said Sayre. “It is important for people to see me and to see their church building during the pandemic. There were times I would just grab my phone and go in the sanctuary so people could see their church again, where they had not been able to go for weeks.”
Sayre has even hosted devotionals from the side of the road in her car while traveling, always informing her congregation ahead of time if there would be a time or venue change. And some people have even worked these devotions into their own family times.
“Some folks are live, some watch later. One couple said, ‘Oh yeah we have breakfast, every morning, with Pastor P!’ This couple watches my devotionals together at breakfast the next morning!”
Sayre and several leaders within the church have also been committed to writing regular notes to church members and attenders as another connection point during this prolonged absence. And the church has been intentional about engaging those who are not on Facebook by emailing bulletins and copies of the sermons, and those who are not online at all by mailing hard copies of sermons and bulletins. “It is not perfect, but it is better than it was,” she said.
There are not any extensive bells or whistles for the daily devotionals, and Sayre has not seen any need to add any. “Just prop up my handy dandy phone on my desk and away we go on a livestream. Keep it as simple and authentic as you can.”
In all of this God continues to bless these brief moments of each day by using them to connect the people of Huron UMC despite being apart physically. “The devotionals that strike me the most are the ones where someone tells me ‘I really needed that today’ because that is a God thing, it is not me, it is totally God. I am just following whatever we have lined up for the day. Whatever pops up on certain days is definitely a God thing.”
Sayre believes there is value in each day she goes live on Facebook and shares and encourages others to find the value in creating space for their own congregations to connect as well.
“I don’t worry about how many people jump on and pay attention. If we have one person who signs on and listens on any given day, great. If we have 30 people watching great. The folks who are regulars, who are members, who are just out there looking for hope, this is there for them.”
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.