By Kirk Petersen
“I might be the best-suited Presbyterian minister in the country to take this position,” joked the Rev. Jo Nygard Owens, who had just started a new job as pastor for digital ministry at Washington National Cathedral (WNC).
She’s probably right about that. Presbyterians don’t have cathedrals, but Owens is married to an Episcopal priest who does lead a cathedral. The Very Rev. Bernard J. Owens is dean of Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, and after 15 years of marriage, “I speak Episcopalian as a second language,” Jo Owens said.
She also has worked in church communications for more than a decade. She’s the founder of Vibrant Church Communications, which provides graphic-arts resources, and she cut her digital teeth in 2011 by creating a Facebook page for the Episcopal church where she served as communications coordinator.
When Lent arrived that year, Owens found a way to proclaim the season through a medium where attention spans can be short. As an alternative to season-long Lenten disciplines, she developed “micro-practices” for five minutes or so on Facebook. “They could just pause and engage with that practice, be connected to God, engage the season,” she said.
“The response was fantastic,” she said, “and that was the first time that I saw how something like a digital ministry could really happen.”
She learned about the new job being created at WNC (on her Facebook feed, natch), and thought, “this is my dream job.” The only problem was, the 59-acre WNC campus is more than 300 miles from Cleveland, where her husband already had a sweet gig. When she asked if they would hire someone from Cleveland, “they said go ahead and apply. We’ll see how it goes, this is digital ministry after all.”
She’ll continue to be based in Cleveland, traveling regularly to Washington to preach and worship. She also plans to travel the country “to host regional gatherings of the Cathedral’s far-flung flock,” as the cathedral said in its announcement. The online Sunday services get about 5,000 real-time viewers weekly — a level of attention that exploded, of course, during the pandemic.
Her first priority is going to be to get the cathedral up and running on Mighty Networks, a community-building platform. “We’re looking to create a digital space where people can gather to have a safe place, sort of like Facebook groups, but not on Facebook.” Owens said. “It’s a landing site, you can do teaching, you can go live, you can host courses, you can have conversations, there are so many ways it can be used.” No trolls allowed.
The cathedral had considerable digital infrastructure even before the pandemic began. When it became clear in 2020 that congregations would not be able to gather at Easter, WNC livestreamed a worship service viewed in real time by more than 55,000 people. The service included what briefly came to be known, inaccurately, as a “Zoom choir.” More than 600 singers and musicians from around the world recorded their individual parts of “The Strife is O’er,” and a team organized by the churchwide Office of Communications worked feverishly to combine all the performances into a seamless rendition. (A few weeks later, TLC interviewed the production team for the hymn.)
TLC asked about the implications of being a Presbyterian cleric at an Episcopal church. “I wish that our two denominations were in full communion, so that I could preside at the table. But I understand completely, why not,” she said, because the two churches have very different understandings of the Eucharist. Presbyterians consider the elements to be “representational,” while the Episcopal Church asserts the “real presence” of Christ in the bread and wine.
She will, however, be able to preside at the other major sacrament of the Episcopal Church, baptism. “Our understanding of baptism aligns much more fully,” she said, adding that there are ongoing talks between the two denominations. In 2008-2009, the two churches established guidelines for “limited orderly exchange of ministers,” and the churches may consider closer ties at the 2024 gatherings of their respective governing bodies.