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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.

A team of people keeps me healthy in ministry. Spiritual director, colleague group, friends inside and outside the church, therapist — each of these companions plays a part.

But it had been a while since I had a mentor.

In my 40s, having been ordained for several years, I became that person less experienced colleagues sought out for guidance on navigating the ordination process and leading a parish. I knew how “the system” worked. I had witnessed enough conflicts, made enough mistakes, midwifed enough new ministries to feel qualified in offering encouragement, coaching and timely cautions.

Then about a year ago, I found myself in my 50s, contemplating what I expect to be my final decade of active, full-time ministry. Newly vaccinated against COVID-19, aware that it was impossible to predict all the ways this pandemic would reshape the church, and seeing glimmers of hope in coalitions forming to seek justice and offer mutual aid, I knew I needed a different kind of companion. I needed someone to help me navigate the new landscape. Someone less invested in shoring up what had been and more open to imagining what could be than was the tendency for “experienced” people like me.

I needed a mentor. Specifically, a mentor younger than myself.

What is sometimes called “reverse mentoring” has been around the business world since the 1990s. First introduced so that younger workers could bring older executives up to speed on the internet, the practice is now valued for less technical reasons. Younger mentors are now sought out for their perspectives and insights, not just their technical expertise.

That was the case for me. I wasn’t looking to be coached on optimizing social media or setting up breakout rooms on Zoom. I wanted a conversation partner to help me imagine sustainable ways to pastor and encourage disciples of Jesus at a time when the relationships at the heart of the church, wounded by pandemic separations, were more precious than ever.

My mentor, Caleb, is a person I mentored about a decade ago, before he was ordained. We both like to wonder out loud; we are fond of asking, “Why?” “What if …?” and even, “Why not?”

In addition to being separated by a generation in age, we have enough differences in gender expression, ethnicity and class background that our perspectives vary in fruitful ways.

We live close enough that it’s easy to meet once a month for coffee, although we’ve used Zoom when inclement weather and COVID restrictions have required it. Usually, I have something in mind I want to discuss; often, I’ll start thinking about a topic a week or so before we meet.

Sometimes I ask about his ministry with young adults. Learning what they’re doing is instructive for me as the interim priest-in-charge of a medium-sized parish of mostly older adults. Like our 20-something friends, we’re also facing a new stage of life.

Caleb emphasizes practices, like teaching mindfulness and contemplative prayer, rather than institutionalized “programs” that may not be sustainable. And he consciously sets aside time for his ministry partners to ask open-ended questions about faith, the Christian tradition, and how Jesus and the communion of saints can be their daily companions.

My parishioners are just as hungry as his to reconnect with God and each other; if they weren’t pondering deep and challenging questions before the spring of 2020, they certainly are now. So my mentor reminds me to open up spaces to pray together and to offer our grief, hopes and questions to God and each other.

He also reminds me to make time for fellowship, simply to enjoy each other’s company. A remark Caleb made early in our relationship, “Consider the lilies,” has become a refrain for me. It’s a reminder not to let anxiety dominate my ministry but to rest and trust in God, who creates beauty and delights in it.

We know that our arrangement is still relatively unusual. As Caleb has said, “It is often our culture’s approach (especially in the church and government) to presume that the world belongs to those who have accumulated the most of something, whether degrees, dollars or years of experience” — and further, to presume that these same people have “all the best insights regarding how to be in that world.” In subverting these assumptions, we believe we’re being faithful.

Caleb has reminded me that “overturning unhelpful cultural norms in the pursuit of Christ’s community and wisdom” is actually a part of our faith. Having entered adulthood during the Great Recession, he learned early that the quest for material security can be pointless and that our relationships are often our greatest wealth. Jesus teaches the same thing, and we keep having to relearn the lesson.

Our conversations move me to question assumptions. When I tell him my parish is aging — as are many churches — my mentor reminds me that a congregation filled with people in their 50s and older can be dynamic and that local retirement communities are a mission field.

When I share my congregation’s desire to incorporate younger adults, he asks how far they’re willing to go to be in community with 20- and 30-somethings. Is anyone talking about helping younger siblings in Christ retire their student debt?

If we typically think of a mentor as someone who helps you learn a system, mine does the opposite. He helps me get comfortable with the reality that some systems are breaking down, see the potential in the newness, and get real about what kinds of changes I’m willing to propose and guide.

That our relationship isn’t focused on him has brought my mentor some unexpected benefits. “Exploring the questions and concerns of a person with a longer career than me,” he has said, “gives me a fuller picture of what it means for a person to be in that stage of life and vocation.”

Engaging in conversations where we’re both vulnerable is more valuable for him than receiving whatever pieces of advice I think to dole out. Our conversations bless us both, in ways we hoped for and in ways we couldn’t have imagined. That sounds like the Holy Spirit on the move; that sounds like church.

He helps me get comfortable with the reality that some systems are breaking down, see the potential in the newness, and get real about what kinds of changes I’m willing to propose and guide.

When my son was in first grade, he joined the chorus at his public magnet school for performing and visual arts. He was a reluctant singer, not a fan of being the center of attention, so I beamed and teared up when he and dozens of other children joyfully belted out “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” “(Something Inside) So Strong” and “It’s a New Day.”

I was proud of me, too.

Every day, I drove past the mostly white neighborhood elementary to drop off my white son at a school with as many Black and brown children as white children. I privately sneered at other white parents I knew who opted for much less diverse private or charter schools while my white son was singing songs, coached by three extraordinary Black female teachers, that demanded liberation, decried oppression and celebrated the election of President Barack Obama.

This scene could have been plucked from the New York Times podcast “Nice White Parents,” which traces the outsize influence of white parents on one school building in Brooklyn, I.S. 293.

Like some of the white parents featured in the podcast, I thought during my son’s early elementary years that mixing a diverse group of students in one school was the goal. If I could just be a nice white parent who said the right things and endeavored to raise a nice white son who valued all people, I was doing enough for diversity and equality. I clearly remember gazing at those beautiful children onstage and thinking, in a self-satisfied way, “This is what the kingdom of God looks like.”

But is it?

Does God prize a tidy vision of unity over justice? A pretty picture of reconciliation over liberation for all of God’s people from oppressive systems? A community whose primary demand on me is showing up to take pictures from the front row over one that asks me to acknowledge my privilege and use my power to love all those children as much as my own?

As “Nice White Parents” host Chana Joffe-Walt reports, Brooklyn school administrators are trying to help white parents see something I also needed to see those years ago: “Their mere presence in the school does not make it integrated. They have to work at making this place fair.”

Sociologist Margaret A. Hagerman, who studies how white children learn about race and racism, sounds the same message when she notes that many white parents focus on how to talk about race and manage individual children’s behaviors without questioning structures that benefit them.

Talking isn’t bad; it’s just wildly insufficient to address the socially constructed system of racialized oppression that privileges whiteness. Instead, she writes in San Antonio Review, white parents committed to anti-racism must focus on aligning their actions with their values and “make different decisions that prioritize the common good.” And doing that, becoming more than not racist, requires a regular, honest and humble reckoning with our identity, our history, our relationships and our world.

The church has a path for such reorientation, alignment and decision making. It begins with baptism.

In “Desiring the Kingdom,” James K.A. Smith writes that baptism creates a new “social and political reality,” a “baptismal city” where privilege of all kinds is erased, family is reconstituted to include all of God’s children, and all evil, injustice and oppression is actively resisted: “Our baptism signals that we are new creatures, with new desires, a new passion for a very different kingdom; thus we renounce (and keep renouncing) our former desires.”

Baptism is the beginning of a lifelong process, Smith writes, to learn to love what God loves and actively and intentionally join in the collaborative project to build a community animated by justice, peace and dignity for all.

But for many churches, our approach to baptism is insufficient to inaugurate such a radical reordering of our hearts, minds and lives. What would it take for white Christians to participate in founding a baptismal city?

We could start by “troubling the waters,” renewing the ancient ritual of baptism, the Rev. Dr. Brad R. Braxton writes in the “T&T Clark Handbook of African American Theology.” Baptism must engage our present reality, he says, acknowledging our culture’s violence and sickness and economic inequity and oppression of Black bodies.

How different would our practice of baptism be if, as Braxton suggests, it focused more on Jesus’ gruesome death that we join as we sink under the water? How different would our practice of baptism be if we focused less on the “cleansing of our souls from sin” and more on the “marking of our bodies for struggle”? How different would our practice of baptism be if the liturgy affirmed that Black lives matter by naming such martyrs as the Birmingham Four and the nine murdered at Mother Emanuel?

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism, Braxton writes, has such a justice focus. In Matthew 3:13-17, Jesus agrees to be baptized by John “to fulfill all righteousness” (NRSV). That purpose is both personal and political, Braxton says, demonstrating Jesus’ participation in God’s mission to fight oppression.

Baptismal services that maintain a fidelity to Jesus’ baptism must, then, be much less polite and much more political, Braxton says: “Baptism is vacuous if it morphs into a genteel moment to acknowledge godparents, provide a gilt-edged baptism certificate with filigree font, and share an after-church baptism brunch for family and friends at an upscale restaurant.”

That sentence takes my breath away. As well it should.

In baptism, we die. In baptism, we are invited to renounce and resist the evils of the world, to love our neighbors as ourselves, to respect the dignity of every human being. In baptism, we give our bodies and all that we do to God’s struggle for justice and peace for all people.

Depending on our context, such action could look like reflection and education on racism, white supremacy, and implicit bias; donating money; marching; writing government officials; voting; challenging family and friends who make racist remarks; advocating for those whose voices are typically ignored; and constructing our daily lives to listen to and learn from people of color. Seeking and serving Christ in all people like this requires ongoing formation, repentance and returning to God.

That is what we promise we will do in our baptism. But is it what we practice? Or are we instead becoming and raising nice white Christians?

 

Words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians have been on my mind lately. Most days and evenings, my husband and I, along with our two working-from-home sons, move from Zoom to Zoom.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12).

The truth is, I lean into the screen and see only dimly. Yes, I love seeing dear faces, but I long for the days when we will meet in person as colleagues, church, family and friends. Then we will all be more fully known.

Meanwhile, I am resigning myself to Zooming for the long haul.

If we must Zoom, how do we do it well and graciously? As someone who loves to think about in-person hospitality, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions lately about what good online hospitality looks like.

While I’m still in beginner’s mind, I’ve noticed that good online hospitality is not magic. Nor is there one single formula for success. And while doing our technical best for any online gathering is an important sign of respect for our audiences — an important part of hospitality — technology is not the heart of hospitality. You don’t need a computer science degree or fancy equipment to provide it well.

Instead, online hospitality is the dedicated effort to create the same ethos as in-person hospitality — but in a new land. For Christian hospitality to work — in person or online — it needs to be grounded in setting a place for God, paying attention, honoring participants and expecting transformation.

First, warmly welcoming participants to a Zoom gathering reflects that the love of God is present. Three tiny ants crawled out of the crevices of my son’s laptop the other day. Where ants can go, my guess is the Holy Spirit can go as well! God is with us, even in virtual settings.

Though not the same as the gathered-in-the-same-room body of Christ, the gathered-over-Zoom body can still experience an embodied welcome through the host’s facial expressions, laughter and gestures. You don’t want participants to mistake your expressionless face for a frozen screen.

As a virtual host, be clear about what will occur in the meeting, how participants can access what they need, and who will help them with technical glitches. This information, set out at the start, helps participants feel safe and cared for, and less anxious about their technical skills.

Consider offering social time 15 minutes before your meeting starts. The energy and warmth generated by this experience of informal chatter and fellowship will set the mood for the meeting that follows.

I watched a worship service last week where different segments were set in the homes of various pastors on the church’s staff. Each had carefully set the stage behind him or her — a vase of flowers next to a cross, a special cloth laid carefully on a small table, a set of candles beside a bowl of water. These details conveyed hospitality; they expressed a personal welcome that said, “You are in my home, and this too is sacred space!”

Second, good hospitality is about paying attention. How are others experiencing the format? One participant in a church formation group stopped coming because she saw only couples in each Zoom box and it reminded her painfully that she was the only “singles” face in a box. She had to see her singleness the entire time. How might you change her experience?

Pay attention to power dynamics and ways to flatten that curve. For those whom society has often silenced, how might it feel to know that the host can mute you? The chat function helps mitigate this by giving everyone an always-open avenue of expression. The host can also invite everyone to speak and make sure that no one voice is dominating. Even if you’re good at this in person, facilitating over Zoom takes practice.

Likewise, after you’ve placed participants in a breakout room, don’t automatically cut them off after the designated time. Instead, as host, visit each room and remind participants of the time limits or send a group message. This is more hospitable and more like what a host would do if participants were in a room together physically.

Pay attention to the ways in which tangible elements can unify us and bridge the gap of physical absence. One of my colleagues sent a piece of cloth in the mail to each participant so that everyone’s laptop would be resting on the same fabric. Similarly, you might have everyone light a candle for worship or as a symbol of a unified space. Each person could share a personal object and describe why it is meaningful. Even a bark from a neighborly dog in the background can root us to reality and be grounding and humanizing in a virtual world.

Third, good online hospitality honors participants. For longer Zoom events, consider sending a gift box ahead of time, with nice paper for note taking, a coffee mug, a bag of trail mix or some other small gift. The boxes need not be expensive; rather, they are a signal that you honor the participants and recognize that life and gatherings are more difficult for everyone these days. A pastor friend of mine drives through her town and places bags of pre-Zoom activities on the front porches of her congregation’s youth.

A sense of timing is also important for honoring bodies in virtual gatherings. We can’t simply roll over onto Zoom what we would normally do in a room. Zooming all day is exhausting. Zooming for half the day is exhausting. Keep whatever you do as short as possible and add stretch breaks, polls, screen-sharing times, music, play breaks, small groups or silence. Teach people to do the wave!

Set up trust with your audience. Those with social anxieties have a double burden to bear in these times. Honor all participants though your kindness and patience, especially those who may need to step away from being looked at for the entire meeting. Be kind as internet connections go out, cats jump onto shoulders, and children decide they need mom or dad NOW.

Finally, good online hospitality affirms that whenever and wherever God is welcomed in, God provides transformation. God’s work is still being accomplished even with so many of us confined at home.

For example, I’ve discovered that online meetings in a quarantine provide the blessing of multiplied hospitality — the hospitality of the host and that of all the households into which we are welcomed. As host, you may receive joy and blessing through all the other hosts who welcome you into their homes for the hour. Let them describe the history of the quilt on the chair, that plaque on the wall or the garden shed into which they are scrunched, seeking quiet space!

Online meetings are here to stay. Post-pandemic, we’ll continue to have options to work at home, because it’s cost-effective. We’ll continue to have online church committee meetings, because attendance is up. We’ll continue to meet as friends on Zoom, because some are unable to drive, travel or be away from home. So we might as well get it right.

Meeting virtually can be more than “see[ing] in a mirror, dimly,” if we offer good online hospitality and understand it as sacred space.