By the calendar I have followed in my head for the past 16 years, this coming Sunday – the week after Labor Day – should be Ingathering Sunday, the day when we return from the slower pace of our summer services and start our fall worship schedule. We should be resuming two weekly Sunday services, dedicating our teachers, restarting our Religious Education program, and in general just celebrating this community.
But as with so many things, the novel coronavirus has disrupted our plans. We won’t be gathering at 1 Edwin Place. Worship and religious education are online. And we’re all trying to get our heads around how the work we do as a congregation translates into a socially-distanced world.
It’s disorienting, but really we’ve been at this now for about six months and there’s no sign it’s going to end any time soon. And more importantly, the work we do as a liberal religious voice, as a gathered people seeking connection, inspiration, compassion, and justice is as essential as ever.
So, we’re staying the course. We won’t falter in our commitments, and as we adjust to all the technological and other challenges of this time we’ll be looking for how we can leverage what we are learning and experiencing to grow this congregation, this faith in a world still thirsty for what we have to give.
We’ll begin this Sunday with a different kind of Ingathering that will be a live Zoom service at 11am. We will, once again, be dedicating our teachers for a new year of religious education, and we’ll be using the time to explore who we are in this new age and what we need from each other.
Of course, we’re not alone in this situation. Church consultants have pointed out all kinds of ways that the pandemic has forced congregations of all denominations to think differently. I was intrigued this past week with a posting by Susan Beaumont, a consultant who has worked with us in the past. She wrote that there are several myths about congregations that COVID days have exploded.
Traditionally, she said, churches defined the communities they served by people in their geographical area. Well, when worship and other church programs are online, there are no geographical bounds. People can tune in from far away.
That’s certainly been our experience. There are a number of people formerly connected with UUCA who are tuning into worship and other events as well as many others with no formal connection to the congregation who are checking us out. Before COVID, we had an average Sunday attendance of around 300 or so with a membership of around 500. These days we send the link for Sunday services to a mailing list of around 1,425 people and roughly 450 open it each Sunday; others open later in the week.
But even then, Beaumont reports, worship attendance may not be the best measure of participation. Some people connect with a congregation’s social justice work or small group ministry more than worship and may check in Sunday only occasionally.
Also, even though we feel that the best connections happen in person, there are some deep and meaningful interactions that can happen online. For that to happen, though, it requires us to adjust how we plan our gatherings and discover and then build confidence in the technologies that work best for those settings.
So, yes, all these changes are a big lift for us all, but they also offer new opportunities that help keep us relevant and keep our ministries vital. Our staff at UUCA are in conversation about how we tweak what we do here to stay on task and help our people stay engaged. But we’d like your help, too. Keep us posted on what’s on your mind and we’ll get through this time together.
Rev. Mark Ward, Lead Minister