By Kristine Blaess
During the pandemic many congregations have lost 20 to 30 percent of their members. On January 27, a panel of three Episcopal clergy explored how some congregations have upended this narrative of loss. The webinar Reversing the COVID Slump was sponsored by TryTank Experimental Laboratory in partnership with the Department of Lifelong Learning at Virginia Theological Seminary.
The Rev. Tim Baer, vicar of Grace Church in Yukon, Oklahoma, the Rev. Dr. Kit Carlson, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Michigan, and the Rev. Everett Lees, vicar of Christ Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, shared what they have done to motivate growth in their congregations. The Rev. Lorenzo Lebrija of TryTank moderated the discussion. They discussed connecting with members, using technology to augment in-person ministry, and what they are learning about thriving.
Baer, whose congregation started a capital campaign two weeks before the March 2020 shutdown, discussed how his leadership changed early in the pandemic. “One of the things I did was to refine my mindset about my role,” he said. “As leaders, one of our chief jobs is to monitor the morale of our congregation.” Grace Church connected with parishioners through delivery of seasonal worship aids, outdoor events, and a phone tree.
The phone tree “has worked really well,” Baer said. “It has engaged a lot of people in the care of our congregation and has ensured that every household in our congregation is getting a voicemail or a text or talking with a live person.” Before the pandemic, Grace Church had approximately 150 people in worship on a Sunday. By the end of 2021, Baer said, Grace Church was “back to 95 percent of where they had been.”
Carson echoed the value of connecting. “I feel like I have eight different congregations,” she said. All Saints gathers in many ways, including drive-in church, an Episcopal 101 class on Zoom, online worship and formation, and an outdoor cocoa truck. Carson highlighted a surprise: “One family who joined through drive-in church came inside the building for the first time ever last week.” At All Saints, which did not return to in-person until last summer, about 90 of the 180 people who attended Sunday worship before the pandemic have returned in person and another 40 attend online worship or Sunday school.
“We learned that people really want to be together,” Lees said. “They want to connect.” Because many students were not in school, in-person connection became important for Christ Church’s families. The church resumed Godly Play and outdoor youth events before resuming other parts of its in-person ministry. Lees said Christ Church had about 230 people in worship on a Sunday before COVID and is in that vicinity again.
Each of these three churches has been experimenting with online and hybrid programming. Carson said one of the most effective parts of All Saints’ online worship has been the personal connections in online chat. Online children’s formation remains the primary source of connection for All Saints’ families.
Lees encouraged parishes to consider providing on-demand videos. “There are good materials out there so you don’t have to create your own,” he said. The Episcopal Diocese of Washington has free resources, as does the Church Online platform provided free by Life.Church.
“We’ve put our newcomers class on social media,” Baer said. “People are looking around more and doing more research before they step inside.”
What they have learned that helps their congregations thrive? All three priests highlighted the importance of remaining connected and nimble.
“I would focus on phone calls and checking in with people regularly,” Baer said. “Ministry is high-touch, even more so than before. That is not necessarily a barrier — smaller congregations in Oklahoma have often stayed together better than mid-size congregations.
Carson agreed: “Being in touch has made the biggest difference.”
“Most of what we’ve done seems to be trial and error,” Lees said. “We’ve tried something to see if it works, and if it doesn’t we’ve tried something else.”
The Rev. Dr. Kristine Blaess is rector of St. Paul’s, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and a member of the Living Church Foundation.