Editor's Note: This story was originally published in the Dothan Eagle's 2020 Progress edition in October.
Many preachers and spiritual leaders found themselves in the unique yet unenviable position earlier this year of preaching to empty buildings or leading congregations away from their usual sanctuaries.
Cantor Neil Schwartz of Dothan’s Temple Emanu-El guided several services from his office. Pastor John Dowdey of the Christian nondenominational Church at the Crossing led his church from his home and also led them out of Dothan — to The Crossing at Big Creek.
What made many churches’ adjustments possible during the early stages of the novel coronavirus pandemic are technological advancements like Zoom, Facebook Live and other livestreaming services. These services, which carry their own challenges and adjustments, have allowed some spiritual leaders to see some long-term positives from the COVID-19 era — and not just those registered on a medical test.
“Even though we were all suffering from this dislocation, we were all rejuvenated by these reconnections and new connections,” Schwartz said of a growing online congregation. “We have definitely made lemonade out of the proverbial lemons.”
Growth on many levels
For some congregations, it took significant changes to first establish a livestream presence and then expand broadcasts in an effort to reach a sense of normalcy.
Thanks to guidance from some national Jewish organizations, Temple Emanu-El chose Zoom as the platform for worship. Schwartz received training through those organizations and began conducting services from his office.
Over time, a tech-savvy family in Temple Emanu-El’s congregation helped expand the internet signal from the synagogue’s educational wing to the sanctuary through an internet mesh — allowing Schwartz to relocate services to the sanctuary. There he could use the synagogue’s Torah — the Jewish holy scroll — instead of the weekly scriptures that he printed from his computer.
The move signaled a move to a “hybrid” service for Temple Emanu-El — one where people were allowed back in the sanctuary but also maintained an online presence from a growing new audience.
“By the end of July, we had 30 people online on a Friday service, and we weren’t getting that in person before,” he said. “We had former members and family members of congregants that were watching from all across the nation. One had moved away for the military, but she is contemplating coming back once her service ends because she’s rekindled relationships here.”
Some churches, especially larger ones, already had online services to accentuate the on-campus offerings and didn’t need to make quite as many adjustments.
“We didn’t anticipate anything like the COVID-19 pandemic, but we had been pushing to upgrade our online presence for five years,” said Hays McKay, senior pastor of Dothan’s Covenant United Methodist Church. “We had already been making technological investments. We felt this would be the new way to reach more for Christ.”
Adjustments along the way
Still the move to a larger web presence required some tweaks for those already online.
For Covenant, online platforms provided Sunday school groups some flexibility in determining how they would meet, especially during two periods of building closures.
“We offered Zoom for all of our groups. Some groups loved it. Some groups took a break,” McKay said.
In an effort to develop and maintain strong interpersonal relationships, Dowdey designated more elders — tasked with periodically communicating with church members and regular attendees.
“(Elderships) allowed us to have more built-in opportunities for person-to-person contact,” he said.
Covenant leadership also recognized a need to provide deeper connections between the church and its growing online community. The church recently signed up for a program called GlooConnect that will train leaders on how to establish more meaningful relationships with the expanding online community, McKay said.
“We’re learning how to engage, learning how to get information so that we can have a fuller, deeper relationship with (online parishioners),” he said. “We’re just tapping the surface there.”
An online presence even helped CATC manage the reopening of its downtown Dothan campus. In order to ensure CATC abided by social distancing guidelines, church leaders implemented an online reservation system for each of its services.
With capacity reduced from 300 to about 100 at its downtown building, reservations filled within three hours on many weeks, Dowdey said.
Ministry in the future
As much benefit as some houses of worship have seen from an expanded online role, Dowdey believes that the internet cannot replace the fellowship found in meeting together. In fact, CATC convened at The Crossing at Big Creek’s amphitheater during June to allow attendees to worship together in the church setting for the first time in two months.
“We’re better together, in community,” Dowdey said. “We see a digital presence as supplementing what we already had. We’ve been given another platform (with online), but we can’t put all the eggs in that basket.”
Temple Emanu-El has fully embraced its foray into the online realm, even partnering with other synagogues around the region to conduct Saturday services that culminate the Jewish Sabbath. That element is here to stay, Schwartz said.
“We have made a commitment to those people across the nation who have joined us,” he said.
McKay echoes Schwartz’s sentiment.
“Online is here to stay. We are firmly convinced that reaching people will be an online endeavor as well as interpersonal,” he said. “An average of 75% of every community has (a) Facebook (account). We’re not going to walk away from online (services). We just can’t afford to.”