People in the pews: Who’s missing, who’s hiding, who’s comfortable on the couch?
It dawned on the Rev. Sarah Taylor Peck in fall 2019 that she’d shared a pastoral moment with every household in her Disciples of Christ congregation. As the senior minister at North Canton Community Christian Church for nearly six years, she had officiated at their weddings, taught their children and helped bury their loved ones.
Nearly 200 worshippers showed up weekly for the Sunday morning service, and she had forged deep, meaningful relationships with each one of them. Taylor Peck felt genuinely honored to be part of the community they’d built together.
Then the pandemic struck, closing the Ohio church’s doors and forcing their fellowship into the ether. The congregation reopened for good during Lent 2021, but not everyone has returned for in-person worship. Coming to church each Sunday takes discipline, Taylor Peck said, and like a muscle that goes unused, it atrophies over time.
“I’m still in a season of lament about the way the pandemic contracted congregations and congregational ministry,” she said shortly before Christmas. “It really broke the tether we had to our members.”
All is not lost for North Canton Community CC. While Sunday in-person attendance is down about 30% since before the pandemic, nearly two dozen new people joined the church in September, the largest single class of new members since Taylor Peck arrived in January 2014, the pastor said. She is profoundly grateful for their enthusiasm and this opportunity to rebuild the church’s community “bit by bit, moment by moment, sacrament by sacrament.”
But she also misses the families who have yet to return and isn’t entirely sure what, if anything, she can do to convince them to come back. One day, Taylor Peck dropped by the home of a longtime church member who hadn’t returned to in-person worship. Bearing flowers from the altar, she told the 82-year-old that she missed him, that his church needed him and that she hoped he’d come back. His response: he simply wasn’t getting dressed in the mornings anymore.
There are plenty of others just like him, Taylor Peck said. They didn’t leave in a huff; they simply altered their routines during the pandemic, and in-person church attendance isn’t the priority it once was.
“They didn’t get mad at our policies and stomp away. They’re just not coming,” Taylor Peck said. “I almost prefer a fight. There’s emotion and commitment in a fight. But this is just apathy. It’s less vigor for church.
“We can’t tempt them or bait them or inspire them to come. We have to wait patiently. So we begin again.”
How have the expectations that pastors and congregations have for each other changed over the last three years?
Nearly three years after COVID-19 upended life as we know it, faith leaders like Taylor Peck are pondering how best to mourn and honor what was lost while reengaging communities that have irrevocably changed. How do you recalibrate for absences associated with deaths that couldn’t be properly grieved? How do you account for those who vanished for political reasons? And how do you build meaningful connections with virtual worshippers who might never enter the building?
“The ministry of church isn’t just about Scripture and gospel. It’s reminding people how to do life together, how to show up together,” said Taylor Peck. “I would hate for that to be lost.”
North Canton practices communion weekly. What influence do your congregation’s worship practices have on expectations for in-person attendance?
Not just COVID concerns
At Holy Trinity United Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., the pews aren’t as crowded as they once were, said the Rev. George C. Gilbert Jr., who serves as the assistant to the pastor, his father. He attributes some of those absences to lingering fear over the coronavirus, a very real concern for older parishioners, including his 75-year-old father, the church’s founder, who spent two months battling the virus.
While statistics indicate that the chances of catching the virus and dying from it have decreased considerably since the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic, “fear versus faith is still a very tense conversation” within the church, and most of the congregation’s older members remain masked and socially distanced when they attend worship, Gilbert said. Those are the stalwarts who find a way to come together despite their concerns.
It’s the younger folks who remain missing on Sundays, Gilbert said, and he’s not convinced that COVID concerns are driving that absence. He sees crowds of young people, masked and unmasked, at grocery stores, the mall and birthday parties. Between the pandemic and ongoing political strife, he said, he worries that people are leaning more toward culture and less toward the Holy Spirit.
“None of those places is lacking attendance. They all seem to be at capacity,” he said. “But when it comes to church, we have to ask ourselves, is it about commitment or is it about the virus? The world is in competition with God.”
Indeed, a recent study by the American Enterprise Institute and NORC at the University of Chicago found a drop-off in church attendance among younger churchgoers, as well as those already less connected with a faith community and those who identify as liberal.
Holy Trinity has persuaded some young people to return by giving them tasks that appeal to their skill sets, Gilbert said. Younger members helped the church choose an online giving platform, something the congregation hadn’t offered pre-pandemic. They’re running the church’s social media channels and handling the tech needed for livestreaming services. And a group of them created a praise team that sings every Sunday, partly because they’re not as anxious as some of the seniors about catching a respiratory illness, Gilbert said.
The church has also expanded its outreach, recently approaching a local homeless shelter about starting a church for its residents.
“We know folks are afraid to come out. They’re just not ready to come back to church,” he said. “So we’re trying to go to them and make Jesus as accessible to folks as possible.”
Gilbert said the empty pews weigh on him and he wonders what God is asking of him, whether there’s something else he should be doing to engage his community.
“If folks don’t come back, it’s hard for us not to see ourselves as a failure. That’s the stress of being relevant,” Gilbert said. “But God doesn’t call us to be relevant. He just asks us to be faithful.”
What worries you about the shift in patterns of attendance? How can you distinguish your own grief from your analysis of the situation?
The Rev. Dr. Rolando Aguirre started as an associate pastor at Dallas’ Park Cities Baptist Church the first weekend in March 2020. His work, focused on teaching and Spanish language ministries, began just as the world was beginning to shut down. The ensuing months were marked by resetting, relaunching and, ultimately, reopening.
Aguirre said the majority of the people he expected to serve have not yet returned to church, and he suspects many have relocated. But new people are coming, and Park Cities is responding to possibilities that the pandemic surfaced. Lay leaders have engaged more actively in reaching out to members.
“The fellowship of deacons were more active in saying, ‘Let’s help call the people. Let’s encourage them to come back. Let’s visit them.’ So last year was a lot of the leadership base [responding] to engage with the congregants,” Aguirre said.
They are also addressing needs that emerged – offering monthly Spanish-language services at additional sites, and responding to a desire for more youth programming and a need for mental health support.
A congregational survey along with group and individuals interviews helped “to really recapture, recalibrate our vision,” he said.
Sampling online services
At Pelion United Methodist Church in South Carolina, Sunday attendance is down a bit from before the pandemic. The Rev. Ed Stallworth attributes some of the loss in his congregation to Christianity being politicized.
“That’s become a bigger disease than the pandemic,” said Stallworth, who became the pastor at Pelion UMC and nearby Sharon Crossroads United Methodist Church in July 2021. Prior to that, he’d served at a progressive church in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and his arrival in conservative Pelion, about 20 miles outside the state capital of Columbia, made more than a few worshippers nervous, he said.
One of the first questions he was asked was whether he’d “force” worshippers to wear masks. He responded that he couldn’t force anyone to do anything but that he and his family would mask up to keep everyone safe. And he’s openly encouraged members to get vaccinated.
Some ultimately left over political differences, Stallworth said. But he’s encouraged those who remain to embrace the church’s growing diversity and learn to worship alongside people who don’t necessarily share the same opinions.
“I said, ‘We may disagree, but just know that I’m going to love you through everything,’” Stallworth said. “And they took hold of that. I think that’s how we got through this pandemic and how we’re going to move forward together.”
Both churches developed a virtual worship option, said Stallworth. While serving his church in Spartanburg, Stallworth broadcast a 30-minute service on Facebook, using his cellphone and laptop, with accompaniment from the church’s organist. Some days, he misses the solitude of that effort, so he understands why some of Pelion’s members still prefer to worship from home.
Most of the worshippers now attending in person are new, having sampled the church’s services online before ever coming into the building, he said. And the majority of them were previously unchurched, he said. Many of the newer members are young people with children who were introduced to Pelion UMC through its outreach programs, like Trunk or Treat or its school backpack program.
“They just want to be part of a community that’s bigger than them. I think they just want a sense of, ‘We’re going to be OK,’” he said. “Contrary to what a lot of people are saying, I believe better days are ahead for the church. It might look different, … but particularly for progressive congregations, from these ashes something beautiful is going to emerge.”
How is the work of supporting the ministries of the church changing? What are the skills and experience needed to offer ministry today?
The Rev. Justin Coleman, the senior pastor at University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, also maintains a sense of optimism about the church’s future. Pre-pandemic, the church invested in a new sound system and video cameras, primarily to reach the homebound and the nearby academic community, many of whom left town during the summers but wanted to remain connected. That investment proved crucial during COVID-19 when the church moved entirely to virtual worship.
Members of the congregation who disagreed with that decision ultimately trickled away in favor of churches that either resisted shutting their doors or reopened sooner for in-person services, Coleman said. But the church has since welcomed a host of new members, many of them young families, who initially connected with the congregation online and now attend in person.
Plenty of University UMC’s members still prefer what Coleman calls “couch worship,” and he said they’ve “stopped being apologetic about it.” But he doesn’t view virtual participation as a negative.
Prior to the pandemic, some members would come to church once or twice a month but wouldn’t necessarily go online to watch a service. After the pandemic normalized remote worship, many of those folks became regular online worshippers who also tuned into Coleman’s podcasts.
“For them, they’ve increased the amount of time they’re connecting with worship or a worship-related activity,” Coleman said. “The question we’ve begun to ask now is, ‘Should we not just treat this like a proper digital campus?’ These people are worshipping at home. How do we interact with them to help them feel connected and share opportunities to serve?”
The church has considered designating a staff member as a “digital usher” during the livestreamed service and establishing a small group that meets online. Coleman acknowledged that clergy are “chock-full of nostalgia and sentimentality,” which can make it challenging to embrace the kind of radical change churches are facing post-pandemic. But churches need to stay nimble, he said, noting that the Pentecost moment is about cultural adaptability.
“That’s God saying this gospel is going to move into the culture in many ways, and what’s implicit is this is going to look different as it moves into all those places,” he said. “I would love to have multiple services filled with people who want to be there in person. On the other hand, people are connecting with us in new ways. How can we capitalize on this and reach more people in more places with the gospel because of this opportunity with technology?”
What is the ratio of in-person to virtual attendance in your congregation? What questions about the vitality of the virtual congregation are being raised for you?
New front doors and back pews
The Rev. Dr. D. Dixon Kinser, the rector at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, calls the congregation’s livestreamed worship service — created in response to the pandemic — “the new front door of our church,” noting that most of its new members first participated online.
Before the pandemic, Kinser worried that online worship would be too “performative,” but he’s since come to appreciate the accessibility livestreaming offers. He said worshippers have enjoyed being able to attend services even when they’re out of town, and one member was recently able to participate in a service while hospitalized.
Though in-person attendance is down, giving has increased, he said, and some donors have maintained their membership despite moving to other states. The primary concern he has for remote worshippers is his ability to provide pastoral care for them, something he said suffered during the pandemic.
“You realize how much pastoral care happens at the church door or in passing,” Kinser said. “When you’re not seeing anybody, then not seeing anybody doesn’t tell you anything.”
St. Paul’s has online worshippers from as far away as Florida and Michigan; if they needed a hospital visit or a funeral service conducted, he’d be hard-pressed to serve them. He said denominational networks may become essential for that moving forward, such as when an Episcopal priest in New York asked him recently to deliver communion to a parishioner who had gotten sick while traveling and ended up in a Winston-Salem hospital.
How is your congregation providing care for those attending virtually?
The Rev. Dr. Katie Hays, the lead evangelist at Galileo Church in Fort Worth, Texas, said she has some of those same concerns. Does the church’s budget need a line item so a pastor can fly out of town to conduct a funeral for a member who worshipped online? Should the church prepare ready-made care packages to send to faraway members who are sick or grieving? And what about baptisms?
Hays said she doesn’t yet have answers to those questions but firmly believes that remote worship is the church’s new frontier. She also admits that she was the last holdout at Galileo when it came to offering online worship. She’d seen so many churches do it badly and felt that people already had more than enough screen time, ultimately agreeing to the concept in 2019 largely because she wanted the far-flung LGBTQ community to have ready access to an affirming congregation.
What Galileo quickly discovered was that the platform also appealed to neurodiverse worshippers who might not feel comfortable in crowds, as well as to those with mobility impairments. During the pandemic, the church hired a second pastor devoted to helping virtual worshippers develop a robust online community. Hays refers to the church’s Inside Out online worship experience as the “back pew” of Galileo, the place where those hesitant to come inside can get a taste of the church’s ethos before ever crossing its threshold.
Who can participate in your congregation at a deeper level because of virtual opportunities?
“I feel like I’m 500 years old, like I’m the priest who opposed the printing press. But this new technology came along, destabilizing power from the center,” Hays said.
And even those who are comfortable with in-person worship have appreciated having the option of participating online, she said. A mother with several children recently told Hays she used to have two choices on Sundays: get everyone fed, dressed and over to the church on time for the evening service, or don’t. She now has multiple options: they can come in person or watch together on the couch with a homemade altar for communion, or she can tune in on her own while preparing her family’s Sunday dinner.
As much as she resisted the change, Hays said, her church’s goal has always been to scoop up spiritual refugees who don’t necessarily do traditional church. The changes at Galileo, accelerated in part by the pandemic, have forced her to confront her technological limitations, along with her notions of what worship is supposed to look like. Now, after welcoming in-person worshippers, she looks directly at the camera and thanks her online congregation for inviting her into their homes, something she calls “a tremendous act of trust.”
“It works with your sense of who’s the host and who’s the guest,” she said. “I think so much about how we have to trust people to make their own decisions about how, when and where they’ll participate. It calls on us in the professional clergy to release control of that, and I pray each day to have the grace to trust people.”
She noted that they have a saying at Galileo: You are a grown-ass adult imbued with the spirit of the living Christ.
“Either we believe that or we don’t,” Hays said. “This is really calling our bluff.”
Questions to consider
- How have the expectations that pastors and congregations have for each other changed over the last three years?
- North Canton practices communion weekly. What influence do your congregation’s worship practices have on expectations for in-person attendance?
- What worries you about the shift in patterns of attendance? How can you distinguish your own grief from your analysis of the situation?
- How is the work of supporting the ministries of the church changing? What are the skills and experience needed to offer ministry today?
- What is the ratio of in-person to virtual attendance in your congregation? What questions about the vitality of the virtual congregation are being raised for you?
- How is your congregation providing care for those attending virtually?
- Who can participate in your congregation at a deeper level because of virtual opportunities?
A pastor from a small Methodist congregation in Indiana has to borrow a smartphone from one of her elders. She watches a quick tutorial on Facebook livestreaming, then films a makeshift service from her living room.
And there’s the pastor of a rural Presbyterian church who discovered that the church did not own a tripod — moments before recording his first online service. He fastened his iPhone to a ladder with duct tape.
These are just some of the stories coming out of the Tech in Churches During COVID-19 research project, a two-year study on how churches and their leaders have adopted — and adapted to using — digital technology in ministry.
Funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. and working with the Center for Congregations, a team from Texas A&M University is investigating 2,700 congregations that received grants to purchase technology resources during the pandemic to enable them to move their services online.
Before 2020, many churches had never considered the importance of having Wi-Fi connections in their church buildings, let alone internet-enabled cameras or livestream setups. In fact, most American pastors likely never even considered holding worship services online.
Yet the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuing lockdowns and social-distancing regulations quickly showed congregations that having access to up-to-date digital media technology was not simply a novel ministry opportunity but a necessity.
The forced migration of worship services online in March 2020 brought with it many stories of churches being caught off guard by these new technological requirements.
Nearly two-thirds of pastors in this study felt that of all the new things they were asked to take on during the pandemic, it was technology work and decision making they felt the most unprepared for.
Through conversations with 500 church leaders, we heard responses like, “This wasn’t the job I signed up for as a pastor”; “I have no training in ‘putting on the tech hat’”; and, “I am a novice at tech — but the only one willing to try and get the church online.”
Leaders’ widespread lack of technology skills, knowledge and experience was further complicated by the digital divide, which many churches encountered for the first time. The digital divide describes the gap between individuals and groups that do and do not have access to technology, especially the internet.
The experience of the pandemic revealed for churches the challenge of what it means to be among the digital have-nots. Smaller and rural congregations in particular discovered that being in a community with limited internet access was not just a disadvantage but often a major barrier to acclimating to or addressing changes in gathering.
Yet the struggle was often more than churches simply not having key technologies on hand or the funds to purchase them. Many congregations battled self-imposed limitations on technology and roadblocks they created for themselves.
This we describe as digital reluctance, an unwillingness among leaders and/or members to embrace technology due to fear or lack of familiarity.
This was expressed by senior members of congregations as well as by church leaders, and this digital reluctance often prevented them from innovating worship and adapting to public gathering limitations.
For example, one leader, who described his congregation as “very anti-tech” and said that he personally “never had an interest in going online,” felt that these factors created significant obstacles for his church during the pandemic. In his view, the congregation’s initial reluctance to consider or even experiment with technology-driven service solutions created unnecessary tensions during already uncertain and tense times.
In other cases, congregational resistance toward technology often corresponded with a church’s general unwillingness to change its liturgical practice or re-envision the church. As one pastor said, “For some, getting on board with online worship was seen as giving up on the core of their faith.”
Digital reluctance also created friction in some churches between the generations. Younger and more digitally fluent members, excited about the possibility of re-imagining the church through digital platforms, often found themselves in conflict with older members or those less familiar with digital media.
Some leaders said the generational digital divide, and the tensions created around it, contributed to the slower return of some younger members once face-to-face services resumed.
“Some of those folks haven’t returned. … Our seniors were taught that you were here every Sunday, so they’re ready to be back. But that’s not the case with our younger people and those who were willing to try to go online from the start,” one pastor told researchers. “Time will tell what impact online tensions created.”
As a grand experiment and learning opportunity, the digital transition many churches underwent during the pandemic provides us with several valuable lessons.
First of all, our research found that pastors who had a positive and open mindset toward changing worship practices and/or engaging technology had a less stressful experience adapting to the challenges of the pandemic. This shows that attitude can greatly influence one’s outlook in times of forced change.
Second, congregations and their leaders who were willing to experiment with technology and learn from mistakes made in the process found that moving to online services opened up the possibility to reconsider the very nature of church.
Congregations are asking questions, for example, about whether church is primarily defined by its Sunday worship service, its community outreach, its technology use or something else. This is a challenging and tiring task, but pastors who felt empowered to be creative in their problem solving seemed to demonstrate greater resilience when handling pandemic stressors.
Third, pastors who used difficulties with technology to facilitate conversations about the nature of the Christian community helped create space for new perspectives to be shared.
This helped refocus the discourse from what was lacking in online worship to one centered on exploring new opportunities for community building, such as reinventing how small groups meet, how leaders perform pastoral care and how hybrid Sunday school can redefine religious education.
While the digital divide continues to be a challenging reality for many churches, the pandemic revealed important traits church leaders need to prepare for future cultural disruptions and technological shifts. Duct tape and an online tutorial won’t solve all church tech problems, but they do demonstrate creativity and a willingness to try — which can go a long way in moving churches forward.
In the midst of the swirling COVID-19 crisis, I have found a few moments, when I lift my head from the pressing pastoral realities of congregational life and from my own sense of vulnerability and worry, to think about the longer term.
Fewer and fewer of us now believe that after this crisis, life will just go back to the way it was. It is becoming clearer that life on the “other side” will be indelibly and irrevocably changed.
But what will that life look like? When I give myself permission and space to ask this question, I am realizing four things.
First, before I can imagine a new future, I need to grieve — and, as a priest, lead others in grieving — what has been lost. There are some who would urge us to postpone our grief in order to get through the crisis. Yet healthy, restorative grief cannot be delayed.I cannot wait until the crisis is over. My congregation cannot wait until we all gather back together.
We must lament all the things we have lost and are losing now — travel, weddings, celebrations, holidays and holy days, jobs, businesses, dreams, friends and family members, confidence in our elected leaders — all of it.
We are missing being together at births and deaths, holding hands and each other. And while we can delay memorial services, there is no postponing grief. Part of my calling is to help people walk through the grief in all its complexity. To do this, I must first give myself room to grieve. I cannot guide others through something that I am not able or willing to experience myself. Now is the time for each of us to feel the guilt, shame, rage, fear, frustration, denial. All of it.
Second, given that the future will be different in ways that are not yet knowable, I need to develop multiple visions of the future, and congregations (and other organizations) need to do the same. Andy Crouch has written provocatively about this time, asking how our response should be different if the COVID-19 crisis turns out to be a “blizzard,” a “winter” or the beginning of a “little ice age.” Lifting my head from the day-to-day, I increasingly realize that congregational and other organizational responses to this moment must include plans for all three possibilities.
While the crisis is looking less like a blizzard — a quickly passing storm — what if it in fact is? Those clamoring to “reopen” the country are wagering just that. So what if, in a month or three, we are able to resume congregational and community life much like they were before? What will we have learned in this time that will shape our going forward?
Or what if this is instead a winter — a protracted season of ongoing crisis — with oscillations between more- and less-restrictive distancing measures as the rate of new cases and deaths rises and falls? What if this introduces a new kind of unpredictability in our life together until there are better treatments or there is a vaccine, possibly as long as 18 to 24 months from now? How do we plan for distance and then reunion and then distance again — and at what point does distance become estrangement?
And what if this has the even deeper impact of an ice age — a new epoch — remaking our institutions, reforming entire industries, reshaping what we mean by community? What if the much-lamented anticipated closure of 40% of congregations in the United States in the next 30 years happens instead in the next 30 months? What then?
What if a majority of businesses that have been shuttered during this period never reopen despite federal loans? What if this is a time that cleaves history into a before and after in this country and around the world?
Whether storm, season or epoch, this crisis has already forced us to reimagine what we think of as congregational worship, giving and stewardship, staffing structure and mission. We are rethinking community engagement, service and outreach, pastoral care and preaching. The crisis will have us reimagining all of these regularly as we learn and change in response to it. The number of times we will have to learn, unlearn, imagine and reimagine is unknown, but the pattern seems likely to persist.
The most likely future, of course, is that the COVID-19 crisis will be some combination of storm, season and epoch, depending on who we are, where we live, what resources are available to us, and how the virus touches us personally. For this reason, the third thing I am learning is that when this is “over” for one person, or even for segments of society or entire geographies, it will not be over for others.
Even as some people can hardly wait to return to their congregations, others will fear gatherings like church for a long time. A recent Harris Poll asked people when they might feel comfortable again in large gatherings (the closest thing in the poll to going to church). The average answer was two to three months after the curve was flattened.
Even after we are allowed back together in person, we need to anticipate continuing worship online for another eight to 12 weeks, probably longer, perhaps forever, specifically to serve people whose valid concerns and real anxieties keep them away — those for whom the crisis isn’t over.
Likewise, we need to anticipate that phrases like “flu season” or “shut-in” or “homebound,” perceived as mostly neutral in the past, could now be emotionally triggering. We will have to accommodate those who have lost the innocent belief that gathering in groups of more than five or 10 or sharing a meal together are inherently good and safe things.
We have entered a time of global trauma-response ministry, and we will need to be attentive to the different ways that people move through trauma — some quickly, some slowly, some not at all.
Fourth, I am realizing that it’s important for us to hold on to the agility and adaptability we have found in recent weeks. This crisis has invited us to a level of necessary innovation and experimentation that many congregations and organizations haven’t known in our lives together for a long time.
Clergy, musicians and church staff members have taken real risks to adapt worship to Zoom or Facebook Live, even adapting services for the holiest days of the church year to online platforms. Pastors and priests have offered virtual visits to church members and visitors.
Lay leaders have hosted virtual coffees and virtual meals to sustain congregational community. Members who had only ever given by check have now given online, by text and through apps. People of faith have sewn masks, gifted food (and food delivery services), delivered virtual palm fronds for Palm Sunday.
The real risk is that we will lose these improvisational muscles. Our next normal will require the creative capacity of every person to figure out how we live, lead and serve in the time that comes after the crisis.
When I lift my head from the day-to-day, I find something waiting for me that feels less like panic and more like hope. The poet Wendell Berry puts it this way:
“No, no, there is no going back. Less and less you are that possibility you were. … Now more than ever you can be generous toward each day that comes. … Every day you have less reason not to give yourself away.”
With all the uncertainty, that feels about right.
In an apartment in Greensboro, North Carolina, fresh fuchsia crepe myrtle flowers brightened the front left corner of a table serving as a makeshift altar. The Rev. Audra Abt, dressed in a clerical collar and a rainbow stole, lifted her hands as she presided over the Spanish-language “Misa,” or Mass.
Most of the nine people crammed into the living room were immigrants from Central America, including host José David Garay, who came from Honduras in 2013. Some sat on sofas next to the photos of his three children, while he and his son sat on the temporarily repurposed dining chairs.
Earlier, Abt had led a discussion about the meaning of the baptismal vows, translating as she went for those who didn’t speak Spanish.
“Buscarás y servirás a Cristo en todas las personas, amando a tu prójimo como a ti mismo?” Abt asked the group. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?”
The next morning, Abt stood in the pulpit of Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, preaching a Sunday sermon on the good Samaritan to the 20-member congregation, where she serves as part-time vicar.
“Your neighbor is anyone who has need or suffering that lays a claim on your love and care,” she preached. “But your neighbor is also the person that shows up when you’re suffering, even if they cussed you out last week.”
Two days later, Abt greeted visitors to the church’s weekly health access ministry in the rearranged sanctuary, where community members come to meet with a nurse and share a meal. The chairs now surrounded plastic tables instead of the pulpit, and adults chatted while kids chased each other around the room.
The 40-year-old priest’s ministry has multiple strands — presiding at the Misa for a Latinx house church, mostly because she enjoys it; serving a small, multiracial congregation as a part-time vicar; and organizing a community health access ministry in the church building for the congregation’s neighbors.
The common thread is engagement with the community, an approach that has benefited both the church and those who live near it.
Spanish-speaking immigrants have found community in a new country, and members of the city’s Episcopal churches have helped out during housing crises and immigration scares.
The small congregation at Holy Spirit has gotten a needed boost of life and energy with the arrival of the new priest, her partner and the new connections to its community.
For Abt, the practice of listening is vital to making these connections.
How could you adopt a posture of listening in your church? In your neighborhood?
“Listening is saving me,” she said. “It can break open the church. When the church doesn’t have to be the one to provide salvation or provide answers or fix people, when we need our neighbors and community as much as we think that they might need us, God can do some amazing things.”
Piecing together a career
Abt moved from Ohio to Greensboro in 2010, when her partner, Jen Feather, took a teaching position at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Raised in the Roman Catholic Church, Abt admired the priests, who did the sacramental work of the Mass but were also deeply involved in the congregation’s life. She began asking about the priesthood in the third grade, but quickly learned that women can’t be Catholic priests.
“If I were a boy, they would have helped me discern a call to the priesthood, but for a girl, it was like, ‘Don’t ask those questions,’” she said.
Then at 25, she was invited to an Episcopal church for the first time and began to consider the priesthood again, eventually earning an M.Div. at Bexley Hall Episcopal Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.
She finished her degree after arriving in Greensboro, then began piecing together a career as a priest.
“I’ve never had just one job since I’ve been ordained, nor have I had a full-time position,” she said.
During her time in the city, she has worked at multiple churches and as an area missioner. Currently, she serves half time at Holy Spirit and half time as a mission developer for the diocese, working with three churches in North Greensboro to help them think about their future.
Are there language or other skills you could pursue that would help connect you to your neighbors?
One of the skills she brings to the job is proficiency in languages. Abt learned Portuguese living in Brazil and has spent the past 15 years learning Spanish “backward,” through Portuguese and “lots and lots of patient friends,” she said.
Among those patient friends is José David Garay.
A friendship flourishes
Garay, the host of the Spanish-speaking Misa, arrived in the U.S. with his family in May 2013, eventually settling in Greensboro. He hadn’t wanted to leave El Progreso, the city in northwestern Honduras where he lived; he was a social sciences teacher and enjoyed the life he led. But he left the country when he saw the increase of corruption and drug trafficking.
Garay and his family attended an Episcopal church in Honduras, so when they arrived in Greensboro, he set out to find another one.
He found St. Andrew’s — the most accessible Episcopal church by bus from his new apartment — where Abt was working at the time.
Arriving in the middle of the week, he knocked on the door and met a confused secretary who could not speak Spanish. The secretary invited him in to talk to Abt, and the two quickly became friends — a young priest with a passion for migrant communities and an immigrant looking for a faith community.
Garay and Abt registered his children for school and shopped for the family’s first winter coats. He taught her Spanish songs, and they eventually started a Spanish service at the church.
The friendship between Audra Abt and José David Garay was vital to their work of connecting communities. Are there friendships that might bear this kind of fruit in your work?
But after a few months, the services started meeting in homes instead of the church. Garay told Abt that families would gather in people’s homes week by week and then meet at the church occasionally. The house gatherings provided more opportunity for direct conversation and deeper relationships, he said.
“Audra’s enthusiasm helped,” he said. “I appreciate being able to support Audra’s mission. There’s personal fulfillment there.”
Even though he now attends a Spanish-speaking Baptist service, Garay continues to host the Spanish Misa at his apartment. On a recent Saturday, Fatima Flores, an immigrant from El Salvador, rocked 11-month-old Jair — who sported red baby Air Jordans and a red snapback hat — as Abt opened up a discussion of the meaning of the baptismal vows in anticipation of the baby’s Sept. 1 baptism.
Abt asked what it meant to love your neighbor, your “prójimo,” as the vow said.
Flores struggled aloud with the term. In her home country of El Salvador, she said, “prójimo” didn’t always have a positive connotation. It could refer to the victim of a murder, for example — as when a man was stabbed in front of her in a bakery.
Abt nodded, providing space for the parishioners to process the vows through their own experiences.
The Misa is a place where recent immigrants have found a faith community, something especially important in the current anti-immigrant climate.
As of 2017, an estimated 325,000 undocumented immigrants live in North Carolina, some 40% of the state’s immigrant population and 3% of its population total. Another Episcopal church in Greensboro has made national headlines for housing Juana Tobar Ortega in sanctuary for the past two years to avoid deportation.
The Rev. David Fraccaro, executive director of Greensboro’s FaithAction International House, said he appreciated Abt’s call to welcome the stranger. She is a former board member of the immigrant advocacy organization and has referred people and served as chaplain there.
“She recognizes that the Holy Spirit is moving in new and deep relationships between existing citizens and newcomers — that there is spiritual gold to be found there,” Fraccaro said.
In Abt’s community, undocumented people face economic insecurity, having to change jobs frequently because employers treat them poorly or won’t keep them long, in view of their lack of papers. Other challenges arise when someone is deported. Abt remembers a mother who was arrested and deported, leaving two children without a parent. Immigration officials neglected to relocate them, but Abt and the community mobilized quickly to find them a new home.
For Garay, support from Abt and Greensboro’s Episcopalians has been critical.
Of meeting Abt in 2013, he said: “God put her there.”
‘Playful and neighborly’
At the Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit, about 20 people gather any given Sunday in a church that once was a house. The wood-floor kitchen holds snacks and tea as the parishioners trickle into the sanctuary, a converted garage that has been expanded and carpeted. Founded 36 years ago, the church has stayed small.
“I’m assuming that when a priest starts a church, there’s probably a number that they’re reaching for. But for whatever reason, we’ve never gotten to that number,” said longtime parishioner Gail Stroud.
Unlike some vicars before her, Abt has not focused on size, but instead on engaging the community around the church.
“I see my role as a clergyperson … as not just cultivating the internal community of this congregation but to be really present in the neighborhood and in businesses and to encourage the members of the congregation to just be present and know people,” Abt said. “To experiment with different ways of being playful and neighborly to see where those relationships might lead us.”
One of those experiments is the health center, which meets every Tuesday evening at the church.
Abt first started working with Holy Spirit as the area missioner before she became vicar in 2017. The congregation was wrestling with whether to keep doing the same programs or to try something new, even risky. To help them discern what to do, Abt went out with the parishioners and knocked on doors, asking people to share prayers, dreams and concerns.
How could you ask people in your community what they need?
They heard a lot of health concerns: people needed surgeries they couldn’t afford; people had relatives who were depressed and isolated and they didn’t know how to talk to them about it; others had pain that had not been diagnosed; still others were struggling with alcohol. Many of the people they met did not have insurance, and some did not have immigration documents, another barrier to receiving quality medical care.
Partnering with Cone Health’s congregational nurse program, the church began offering an on-site community nurse to help diagnose illnesses, connect people to financial assistance and have conversations about mental health, work and stress. The health access ministry opened in spring 2019.
Then they began wondering what people might do while waiting for health care — so they decided to start a free dinner.
Some church members were initially unsure whether they could really pull off a free health center and free meal as a 20-member church, Abt said.
“They asked, ‘Can we really do this on our own?’ And the answer is no, we can’t do it on our own. … I was confident God was already sending us the friends we needed.”
Other churches in the area bring food, caterers give leftovers, and a community program called Share the Harvest provides fresh vegetables.
Abt cobbled together free resources and hoped people would come and enjoy them. They did.
Forty-five people have been showing up weekly for the health center and dinner — double the Sunday service, and the maximum capacity of the sanctuary.
When asked about the explosion of numbers over the course of a few months, Abt said: “That is both the Holy Spirit at work and the result of several years of relationship building.”
“On Tuesday, this place is full — full with people you didn’t even know were our neighbors,” said Margaret Akingbade, a parishioner who helped plant the church 36 years ago. She is an immigrant herself, from Nigeria.
The health center draws many African immigrants and African Americans from the surrounding neighborhoods. Abt and church members are conscious about offering a space for community, not just a space to provide services, and the result is that those who come experience a sense of dignity that they rarely do in other spaces, where they’re treated as cases or clients.
What decisions could you make to humanize those in need?
For example, the church decided to use ceramic plates and metal silverware and have those who come serve themselves. They saw impact that they did not expect.
After a few weeks, as people started to feel comfortable, they began inviting their friends. Neighbors began bringing their own food to share and started a diaper pantry.
Many people arrive on buses, taking sometimes an hour to get to the church, but everyone makes sure that each person has a ride home.
“I feel like I’m being invited into a community, and I feel like I’m meeting Christ,” Abt said.
And seeing this vibrant community form as an offshoot of Holy Spirit has reinvigorated the Sunday congregation as well.
“It’s the most neighbors that I’ve seen in this church in almost 36 years,” Akingbade said.
The church has long lingered with a small membership. The pressure to grow has often caused anxiety, but this gathering of neighbors on Tuesdays has caused a glimmer of hope, not of increased membership or a more secure financial future, but that “church can be fun and enjoyable, and not scary and always praying that God won’t close us down,” Abt said.
Membership numbers have not grown, but the congregation’s sense of purpose has been renewed. They are learning to be better neighbors.
Questions to consider
Questions to consider
- The Rev. Audra Abt stresses listening as one key to her ministry. How could you adopt a posture of listening in your church? In your neighborhood?
- Abt sought to learn more Spanish as she cared for Spanish speakers in her community. Are there language or other skills you could pursue that would help connect you to your neighbors?
- The friendship between Abt and José David Garay was vital to their work of connecting communities. Are there friendships that might bear this kind of fruit in your work?
- Abt and congregants asked their neighbors what they needed and heard many health concerns, leading them to start a free health access ministry. How could you ask members of your community what they need?
- Abt and congregants made conscious decisions to offer ceramic dinnerware and buffet-style service at the church’s free meals to help neighbors feel more comfortable. What decisions could you make to humanize those in need?