Interviews with Six Clergy on offering Worship and Ministry Online during COVID-19

Ministry Personnel and communities of faith in Chinook Winds Region have done amazing work in adapting their ministries during COVID-19.

To learn further how Chinook Winds Region can support communities of faith, we talked to six ministry personnel from both urban and rural contexts on how they’ve adapted offering worship and ministries.

Check out the Conversations with:
• Trevor Potter, McKillop United Church, Lethbridge
• Lois Punton, Barons-Picture Butte, Cardston, Coaldale and First-Lethbridge
• Alwin Maben, Coronation and Veteran
• Helen Reed, Oyen, Cereal, Acadia Valley and Alsask
• Darren Liepold, Innisfail
• Nancy Nourse, Northminster, Calgary

Trevor Potter – McKillop United Church, Lethbridge

While McKillop has offered live stream worship on FB and YouTube for several years, the COVID-19 pandemic has entirely changed their approach to ministry.

 Trevor and the McKillop tech team made a decision to make the live stream worship into a more intimate format by moving out of the sanctuary into the church’s lounge. Worship itself has evolved into a more conversational style, for example, eliminating formal calls to worships to opening centering prayer. In order to engage online participants, they ensure volunteer moderators are responding to and encouraging comments on Facebook and YouTube. Always popular is a new children’s story each Sunday that comes from Trevor and his partner’ Rebecca’s love of children’s literature.

McKillop has noticed an increase in online participation for worship and meditation sessions offered live and available on FB and YouTube as well as study groups offered on Zoom. McKillop’s Facebook followers have grown 133%, and our YouTube subscription has grown 245%. Recently Trevor offered a Zoom study called “Behind the Words: The Prayer that Jesus taught.” He said about 40 per cent of participants weren’t from McKillop with one person joining from Manitoba and another from Alaska. People learned about the study through Facebook or were invited by a friend or relative.

“We keep wanting people to come to our building but what if the opportunity isn’t about coming to our building, what if our mission is something different.”

Trevor suggests pondering the mission churches are being offered during the COVID-19 Pandemic.  “We keep wanting people to come to our building but what if the opportunity isn’t about coming to our building, what if our mission is something different,” he said. “People can stay at home; they feel safe and they can still come (to our church). What we also offer is good quality, progressive theology. We can just offer what we’re here to offer.”

All of McKillop regular groups such as quilting meditation, choir and a book study have gone to gathering on Zoom. The knitting meditation group uses a Facebook Group.

Lois Punton – Prairie Spirit Pastoral Charge (Barons-Picture Butte, Cardston, First-Lethbridge, Coaldale)

“The learning curve has not been a curve but straight up Mount Everest learning,” says Lois Punton. Glenda Wert and Lois are in team ministry with Prairie Spirit and since COVID19, Lois is the tech person.

“It took us two weeks to get started,” says Lois who investigated ways to offer worship where congregants could connect with either a computer or phone. “Initially we went with the Go To Meeting (platform),” said Lois. After further exploring options, they switched to Zoom which improved sound and their ability to use music in worship.

Every week all the parts to the worship service except the reflections are emailed out to the four congregations where someone prints the material. Then people can pick them up from a location outside the respective church building.

“Probably around 75 per cent of our normal Sunday population are joining us online or by the phone,” says Lois. In one congregation where ministry personnel usually only would be present two Sundays a month, attendance has actually increased. “Because that congregation is connecting electronically, about 80 to 90 per cent are connecting, they are not exhausting their (volunteer worship) leadership and they get a service every Sunday.”

Going forward, even when we don’t have to do this, we will be looking at offering virtual worship.”

“Going forward, even when we don’t have to do this, we will be looking at offering virtual worship beyond this,” said Lois. “Another blessing is that the only time that we worship together as a pastoral charge is Picnic Sunday and attendance depends on whoever goes to wherever the picnic is. Now, we’re worshipping together every Sunday.”

Although worship starts at 10 am, Lois opens up the zoom meeting at 8:30 am which gives people who need support to get connected. “A few come on early because they know they can visit but just like attending church in person,” Lois said, “people come through the ‘door’ at ten to ten.’ I get a kick out of that — we are creatures of habit.”

Lois would like to learn more about the intricacies of the different platforms and what one can do with each. Most recently she worked out how to stream music through the computer. Previously, she was holding up a microphone to a speaker. She’d like to be doing either YouTube or Facebook Live or how do they record the service and upload it to YouTube and to use video in Zoom.

Alwin Maben – Coronation and Veteran United Churches

Alwin Maben, Coronation Pastoral Charge, records various parts of the Sunday service — including recording the church bell to start worship — creates a PowerPoint presentation that he converts to video. Then he edits the various pieces together and posts the worship service on Facebook and YouTube.

“The worship service is reaching quite a lot of people and then people are sharing it,” says Alwin.

“That’s amazing — before it was only to the congregation and others didn’t know what was happening. But now I see a lot of people are viewing it.”

“It’s a blessing to learn what you wouldn’t normally do. But one thing is for sure, it takes a lot of patience.”

While all the above sounds simple and methodical enough, preparing online worship has been one learning experience after another.  After several attempts on his own, Alwin’s daughter and son-in-law in India helped him learn how to use iMovie to edit the service. Then after several weeks of being able to upload his videos, he suddenly wasn’t able to upload his services.  He eventually resolved the issues, a combination of slow internet speed and not enough memory on his laptop.

“What is frustrating is when you want to get help, you don’t know how to explain the issue in technical terms,” said Alwin.

His pastoral charge had one meeting via Zoom but otherwise the board preferred an in-person meeting social distancing.

While the learning is challenging, Alwin is intentional to seek the blessings. “It’s a blessing to learn what you wouldn’t normally do.  But one thing is for sure, it takes a lot of patience.”

Helen Reed – Pioneer Pastoral Charge (Oyen, Cereal, Acadia Valley and Alsask, AB)

Helen Reed at Work

Helen Reed offers worship live on Sunday morning via Zoom. The service is recorded and then Helen uploads it to the Big Country United Churches website.  “I’m not only the worship leader, I’m the tech person. Whatever I do, it has to be simple,” says Helen.

With moving online, Pioneer Pastoral Charge has more people attending worship on Sunday and looking at the website than ever before. “And we have all four churches worship together which is a new thing.” Helen cheers on congregants who are choosing to learn technology, so they connect to their churches for worship for the weekly teatime. Although she does not own an iPad, she’s learned how to use them by helping congregants get connected to Zoom!

“I’m not only the worship leader, I’m the tech person. Whatever I do, it has to be simple.”

Helen chose to do a live service because it gives rhythm to her week. She produces a PowerPoint for the worship service and has been able to upload video into the PowerPoint of herself playing a hymn on the piano. But projecting music is a problem she’s working on mastering as well as understanding copyright and live streaming. She’d like to be able to live-stream the service directly to the website.

One Sunday as the service was winding down, Helen’s screen went black and she was disconnected. It turned out her laptop had become unplugged and ran out of power. However, Zoom appointed someone else in the conversation as co-host and those in attendance carried on. As several participants told her afterwards, “Don’t worry about it. We had a great time.”

While ministry personnel have had a great learning curve to offer worship during the Pandemic, Helen says, “we also have to give ourselves grace.  We’ll figure it out.”

Darren Liepold – Innisfail

Brian Nicholson and Darren Liepold
Brian Nicholson, Springbank United Church, and Darren Liepold, Innisfail United Church.

Darren Liepold is minister at Innisfail United Church and his partner, Brian Nicholson, is minister at Springbank United Church. While the churches are geographically at a distance, online worship means the two congregations worship together and have been joined by worshippers from as far away as Ontario and Australia.

Their online worship has evolved. Originally the worship was tapped and then uploaded to YouTube. Now worship is live every Sunday morning with the worship leaders, a musician and tech volunteers socially distancing in the Innisfail sanctuary.

Darren says that there has been intention to do what they can do and not get distracted by other congregations who seem to be doing a lot more online.  He said, “We just decided we are going to do what we can right now.”

Darren’s grateful for having a technology volunteer team. Gradually through the weeks, he and the team have expanded from offering worship in one spot via a borrowed camera to involving different people in the service and including recorded video and live music. “We would like to have someone else doing the reading from home and including that in the video. We are just building up our kit box.” Innisfail recently purchased a camera and sound system and accessed video editing software. 

“We have been very intentional about phone calls out to congregants.”

“We have been very intentional about phone calls out to congregants,” said Darren. “I think we are better connected than we were before.  I’ve been writing a weekly blog or three or four. I’ve also done a few YouTube clips.” Those are distributed via email and the Innisfail Church’s FB Page.

Zoom is being used for church meetings and more recently for a Zoom coffee time. Reaching people without technology has been a challenge, he said. Printed worship materials are available at the church and people do walk to the church to pick them up. 

In terms of further learning, Darren said it might be worthwhile to have sessions for those involved with technology to share ideas.

Nancy Nourse – Northminster, Calgary

Northminster United Church chose a three-fold approach to offering worship: Every Sunday morning, worship is live on Facebook. For those not on Facebook, a similar themed program was uploaded to YouTube. For those not accessing the internet, printed materials are mailed out once a month. A printed six-week summer series was mailed out at the end of June.

With the technical support of spouse, Brad Lavenne, Nancy leads worship from her home. The WIFI connection was not strong in the Northminster sanctuary and, Nancy says, “we also liked the intimacy of ‘from our home to yours’.” The church is being upgraded to Telus Optik which will allow for live streaming from the church down the road.

“We’re reaching a much broader audience than we were in our sanctuary.”

“We’re reaching a much broader audience than we were in our sanctuary,”

“We’re reaching a much broader audience than we were in our sanctuary,” said Nancy. Because of the success of online worship, the congregation already said it wants to continue offering online worship, even when they are back in the sanctuary. They have invested in equipment and software to support online ministry including an iPad, an electronic tripod, a lapel microphone to improve sound quality, a used iPhone 8 for an additional camera and an app called Switcher which allows them to drop videos and pictures into Facebook live streaming.

Zoom is used for weekly kids and youth programs, studies, meetings and coffee gatherings. As the pandemic continues, Northminster has seen people previously reluctant to use technology, signing into Zoom gatherings or to FB to be able to connect with others.

In developing worship, there is intentionality that congregational participants are involved in the actual content, says Nancy. It means people can see and hear from the people they know in the congregation. Consequently, they have produced video content that includes not only church members reading Sunday’s scripture but youth group members offering commentary on a given subject or prayers of the people or, for Pentecost Sunday, six church members saying the Lord’s prayer in another language.

As summer looms, Nancy and Brad are also building a team of tech volunteers — three other households that are learning the technology. “We will provide the content with the support of lay worship leaders, but our tech volunteers can lead worship live on the Sunday mornings using the content loaded into the church’s iPad.”