As we approach a year of living with COVID, how do we pastors evaluate the effectiveness of remote church gatherings? How do we understand attendance numbers? This pastor wants to know how to keep parishioners participating.

Dear Matriarchs, 

This past week, I have been contemplating many things. One thing has been the question many have asked about how to get more people to participate in Live Zoom worship, chats, bible studies, etc. Maybe the thing is that people consciously or unconsciously feel too vulnerable to participate. Maybe they feel where they live is not clean enough or good enough to share with others. Maybe people can put on a good front going out of their living situation to worship in person but don’t want the entire church to come into their living space. Maybe worshiping in person is an escape from chaos…. so many possibilities!

Matriarchs, what do you see as the barriers to people coming to Zoom church gatherings, and how have you made it easier &/or more appealing?

Recognizing that there may be no easy answers — this is ministry after all! — our matriarchs offer these responses:

Julia Seymour 

This is a good question. Before I can give an answer, if I can give one at all, I have some questions to reflect back.

1) How is the Zoom participation compared to in-person participation? Is it higher, lower, or similar?

2) Who are the groups who do not at all participate in Zoom? Is it an age group, a family type demographic, or potentially a socio-economic group you didn’t realize existed?

3) Who wants “more participation”? The people who are currently participating, the governing body, you, other leaders?

4) What is the goal of increased participation?

5) Has the congregation been polled regarding what they want and what they would attend?

I appreciate your sensitivity in pondering why people do not take advantage of Zoom activities. I think you have some good insights- perhaps it feels too vulnerable or overwhelming. I think there may also be other things at play. Some people have to spend much of their work or school time online and don’t find it relaxing or helpful to do the same for church. Zoom inherently privileges people who already know each other. Bringing in someone new is like a completely new visitor with no connections attending the church coffee hour. It can be overwhelming- either in how out of place one feels or in how much attention one draws as the new person.

There is pressure on clergy and church leaders right now to feel like we’re “doing” and to be able to show results. While increased Zoom activity is “doing”, we have to pause and ask if it is “doing” what the community or congregation needs. I would take some time to ask yourself and others the questions above. If you really feel the need to “do” something that engages people and the Zoom format is what you want, maybe consider a “cameras off” evening prayer or Bible study. Remove the video pressure for yourself and others and see what happens.

Sharon Temple
I am a retired pastor, now a church member Zoom-church participant. If I was currently serving a congregation as their pastor, I hope I would use Julia’s excellent questions (above) to start a conversation with church leaders. I would offer them my observations about questions (1) and (2). I would tell them that their pastor is wondering about question (3) and ask if they share that same desire. Then I would work with them on questions (4) and (5) and present to them the gold of Julia’s other ideas. (Thank you, Julia!) 

If you do gather your leadership for this purpose, please ask each of them what is going on in their lives. If someone asked me, they would find out that on Sundays I often offer respite care to my chronically ill daughter and her partner. They have a preschool child plus 2 special needs kids who have been home all the time for almost a year, video-schooled by their parents, but without the special services they normally get. My increased support role with them is only one of the ways that COVID has upended my life. 

Key point: Think of all that has changed drastically in COVID-time — lives, schedules, mental health, physical health, all the needs. Have we sufficiently noticed and processed and prayed through it as the church? We are not who we were, and church-as-it-was-but-now-on-Zoom may have become its own barrier. 

I hope that Julia’s questions and ideas have inspired some of your own. You might envision doing a Lenten season-themed thing that connects to issues of COVID-era life. Together, you and your congregation might discover some new, life-giving, more relevant ways to be church and Zoom-meet in these dis-organized times. 

Heidi Rodrick-Schnaath
In thinking about this topic over the last week, there are two issues that I would want to clarify. The first relates to Zoom worship. Last Spring when I needed to figure out how to share worship, I felt very passionately about wanting it to be “live.” A lot of people shared this feeling which led to Zoom worship for many congregations. I started by using Facebook Live and after several weeks decided to move to prerecorded worship. There were a number of reasons for this including: fewer on air goofs, greater intimacy established with close up camera work as opposed to long shots of the sanctuary, increased variety with videos and photographs of members participating as worship leaders. Most importantly, a single “canned” post on Facebook and YouTube made accessing worship much simpler for those unfamiliar with the internet or apps like Zoom. We found that people who found Zoom overwhelming, were willing to join Facebook or go to YouTube to participate in worship. We use “premieres” and I actively chat with those who comment or check-in. It’s not perfect but it works.

The second issue for me has to do with Zoom itself. Like many folks, I have a location in my house where I’ve figured out the lighting and other “technical issues” while preserving my privacy. The rest of the study may be a wreck but the filming area is tidy. Despite the number of times that we have assured people they can get into Zoom by just clicking the link and following the instructions, some folks just don’t want to do it. Others have used Zoom but find it so distasteful they resist whatever might be happening. I have found that there are many adults who have horrible Zoom etiquette. They don’t mute themselves or they monopolize the conversation making it hard for others to join in. On the other hand, I LOVE Zoom Council meetings because they are much quicker and there’s less off topic chatter. 

Julia’s suggestion that you poll your congregation is a good one. At one point last year we sent out a poll related to worship. What we found was that some of our assumptions didn’t actually fit with reality. We were clear it wasn’t a vote but a means to gather information. We created a self-addressed, postage paid card so that people would readily participate. Over the passing months I have been thankful we could afford that expense as the poll has been helpful on more than one occasion. Every congregation is going to be different. Having some written insights into what people might really want can be invaluable.

Thank you for your question, dear pastor. Thanks be to God for your thought-filled ministry and your care for your church members. You are in our prayers as you trust your instincts and the Spirit’s leading to show you the way forward.

Dear readers, what about you? How have you evaluated the efficacy of your distanced ministries? Do you have strategies for keeping Zoom-church relevant to your congregation? Share your ideas in the comments below.

If you are struggling with church life or pastor life in the age of COVID, send your scenario to askthematriarch (at) gmail (dot) com

Rev. Sharon M. Temple is a United Church of Christ pastor living in Austin, TX. She is a contributor to the RevGals book There’s a Woman in the Pulpit and blogs erratically at Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

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