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Pastors were not prepared for the digital demands of the pandemic. What does that teach us about the next crisis?

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.

Much of who the Rev. Dr. Dominique A. Robinson is today can be traced back to two women — her grandmothers.

Her father’s mother was Pentecostal and the founding pastor of Deliverance House of Prayer in Irvington, New Jersey. Her mother’s mother was a Baptist laywoman. On Sunday mornings she attended the Baptist church and in the evenings the Pentecostal church, where her paternal grandmother was the preacher.

They exposed Robinson, 35, to traditional faith practices early in her childhood — practices that Robinson honors to this day. But their influence extended beyond that.

“Because my father’s mother was my pastor, I heard her preaching often,” she said. “Because of that, I imagined God as a black woman as a child. That still shapes who I am today as a minster.

“I did not grow up with a traditional lens of who God is, but many of the practices — like fasting and praying — are still with me today.”

Robinson was named inaugural dean of Julius S. Scott Sr. Chapel at Wiley College in Marshall, Texas, in August 2019. It was a new role for her and for the college, which many people recognize from the 2007 film “The Great Debaters,” starring Denzel Washington.

She is ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church, a decision she made when she was 18 because she thought the AME Zion church was a good mix of her Pentecostal and Baptist roots.

She has a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University, an M.Div. and a Th.M. from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, and a D.Min. from Columbia Theological Seminary. She is currently a Ph.D. student at Christian Theological Seminary.

Robinson identifies as a womanist millennial preacher. She’s now adjusting to her role as faith leader for the 1,400-member student body of a Southern, United Methodist, historically black college rooted in history and tradition.

Reared in Newark, New Jersey, Robinson was practicing ministry in Atlanta, Georgia, before accepting the appointment at Wiley. 

“There were a lot of firsts for me moving here — I had never worked at an HBCU, never lived among the people I served, etc. The experience made me feel like I was living in a real-life fishbowl,” she said.

“I only know how to survive by going back to my prayer closet. You can walk through the chapel today and see oily fingerprints on the walls from where I have walked about laying hands on the building while in prayer — all expressions of faith practice I gleaned from my grandmother.”

She spoke to writer Mashaun D. Simon about her ministry preaching to millennials. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: What is your official title at Wiley? Why was it important to develop this role at this time in this capacity?

Dominique A. Robinson: Yes, it is the first time that Wiley College has had an official “dean of chapel.” In years past, the chapel lead at Wiley was someone from the United Methodist Church serving a local UMC congregation in tandem with the role of chaplain at Wiley.

The administration desired to hire a trained theological educator who would be able to expand the work of previous chaplains in the areas of spirituality, maintaining chapel and religious programming, while functioning fully as a religion department faculty member and establishing a center for religious life.

Faith development is a core value of the school. In the midst of the pluralism and loss of faith nationwide, I believe designating an office, role, and funds and programming to religious life serves as a means of support for the overall well-being of our students, faculty and staff.

We are living in a day and society where it seems as though faith really isn’t a priority anymore. It is my task to give students tools to put into their personal toolkits so they can determine what is best for them.

I want to move them from religion to relationship with whatever deity they identify with. While we live in a pluralistic world, there is a moral emptiness, and so I think faith development helps students become morally aware.

F&L: Many people know about Wiley because of the film “The Great Debaters.” What made you interested in this role, considering the institution’s history? What does it mean to be the first in this role, a black woman and millennial yourself?

DR: Yes, yes! I literally always introduce Wiley College and myself by saying “the home of the Great Debaters.”

This role was of great interest to me because I have always felt called to minister holistically to marginalized individuals. That is all I saw my [paternal] grandmother, Della V. Smith, working with. For a season, serving marginalized individuals meant serving young black persons — millennials — because they looked like my brother or my sister, or they could have been my brother or sister.

At Wiley, I feel like I can function in all of who God has called me to be as a religious scholar, theological educator, preacher, writer, activist and advocate. This is the perfect place and time for my vocation and the future of Wiley to converge.

F&L: How does your ecumenical faith background and training fit within Wiley?

DR: There are four cultures present at Wiley: United Methodism, or Wesleyan; African Americanism; black church culture; and higher education culture.

It was founded by the United Methodist Church — faith tradition is one of the tenets of Wiley. It’s an HBCU in the South — African American culture and black church culture is prevalent. And being that it is an institution of higher learning, there is the higher education culture and all that comes with that — the politics, policies and procedures, practices, etc.

In my training as an itinerant elder in the AME Zion Church, I embody black church culture and the beliefs and practices that the culture possesses. In addition, my ministerial training makes me versed in Wesleyan practices and verbiage, while understanding and relating to African American culture, language and colloquialisms.

Having earned degrees from Georgetown University, Candler School of Theology and Columbia Theological Seminary has equipped me in developing Methodist-based, liturgically cohesive, culturally relevant and biblically founded worship services that are also captivating and engaging.

F&L: Chapel is required of Wiley students, correct? What does it mean to have chapel be integral to the lives of the students?

DR: Chapel is held every Tuesday at 11 a.m. and required for all freshmen, sophomores and juniors. Attendance is also required of seniors who are members of the liturgical dance teams and a cappella choir.

And I have an expectation of all students who are members of the campus ministry — Young Disciples for Christ (YDC) — to attend chapel weekly. Also, all student organization leaders are expected to attend chapel weekly.

For those students where chapel is required, they receive a grade for their attendance and participation. They have weekly assignments that they’re expected to complete each week. Some of the assignments include questions about things that may have occurred during chapel or the purpose of communion. The assignments vary.

My goal with the assignments is to help them think through their faith. All too often, they function through inherited traditions without any real investigation of why they believe what they believe or why they are doing what they are doing.

What is also important to note is that it is rare for an institution to require attendance and participation in chapel. But [Wiley’s] requirement is not just for the students. No faculty person can handle business during the chapel hour.

Chapel is significant for us at Wiley for two reasons. First, we have a covenant relationship with the United Methodist Church.

Second, we hold firm to the belief that worship is a healing station for all of those who gather. The goal of having chapel become integral to the lives of the students is to display our commitment to developing and offering holistic support systems and programming.

Though Wiley is a Christian education institution, we are working diligently to offer safe and brave spaces for our non-Christian students, faculty, staff and partners. We do not want to allow one’s faith to be used as a weapon against anyone.

F&L: Tell me about your project called iHomiletic. How does it line up with your work at Wiley?

DR: iHomiletic is a methodology of using social media linguistics and technology for reconnecting millennials to the church by way of preaching and teaching. It is the result of my D.Min. research, which focused on black church-going millennials and how their identity as millennials impacts their reception of sermons in black churches.

Long-term, I intend to publish a book as well as a workbook and app and incorporate the research into my liturgical planning for chapel and pedagogy for courses here at Wiley.

One idea is to have a live Twitter feed on the screen during chapel so that students can engage the sermon in real time — a modern take on call and response, via either Twitter or TikTok.

The idea is to meet them where they are, engage them via the tools in which they are currently communicating. In the classroom, I would like to see iHomiletic become a preaching elective.

F&L: How do you see your work at Wiley fitting into your larger vocation?

DR: My work at Wiley is just the tip of the iceberg for my larger vocation’s narrative. I do see myself serving in church leadership and higher education at the highest levels one day — keeping one foot in the academy and one foot in the church.

In the same way that I am equipping our students for their future, I see this experience at Wiley doing the same for me. I am serving on presidential committees and task forces. I am learning higher education policies and procedures. I am practicing my craft of preaching and teaching. I have been given freedom to invest in and strengthen my scholarship. I am more than clear that God called me to Wiley.