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Hybrid worship stretches churches continually

During a PNC online meeting on hybrid worship, Leah Atkinson Bilinski of Fauntleroy UCC in Seattle described how her church has “done” worship since COVID, both in terms of the technical pieces and the processes for deciding what to do and how to do it.

Fauntleroy UCC choir wears masks and sings along with video of pre-recorded songs prepared by the choir director.   Photo courtesy of Fauntleroy UCC in Seattle


In the spring of 2020, Fauntleroy formed a Regathering Task Force as the church began to plan about worshiping together, but in the fall of 2020, they realized it would be a long time.

“We did 16 months of Zoom webinars and live streaming,” said Leah.

“We usually we have our struggles in the area of tech as many churches do, but we had a tech volunteer committed to keep helping week after week,” she said.

The tech volunteer has helped produce the service.

“When we focused on how to regather, we asked what is important for the congregation and what new steps would be needed to be live into it together,” she said.

A Regathering Task Force was chosen based on recommendations of the council, church life, parish life and other committees.

The staff of Fauntleroy researched who was engaging with the church, who was opening emails and how they would reconnect with people.

“We knew there was a lot of online growth through families, like the parents of members in several states who began attending regularly. We also found that many home-bound individuals were able to reengage with the church,” she said.  “No one should age out of the church or no longer be able to come because of moving into a extended care center.  If someone wished to be the congregation, they should be able to come.

We were seeking to foster community in families and maintain community in the congregation, living our welcome statement that ‘no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.’ Looking further, we realized several members had limitations of sight, and that online worship could help them to fully participate. Observations like this informed our thinking toward how to better live our welcome,” Leah said.

Along with the tech volunteer, they found process people and looked at funds.

“We were fortunate. Before we ever had a plan, a member gave $20,000 toward whatever it would take to regather,” she said. “Later, after we had a plan, another person gave $5000, unsolicited.”

“With a team of volunteers, we crafted a plan for regathering. We decided to use the office beside mine that once had been a crying room and have it be the tech room, overlooking the sanctuary,” she said.

They then looked at what equipment they needed and took time to select it.

The task force evaluated their 45-year-old sound system with old hearing loops and analogue hearing aids, but associated costs pushed addressing these things to a second phase yet to come in the future. In the meantime, members have sought to optimize the present sound system as best they can.

They decided to set up three cameras in the sanctuary and determined they did not need to be top of the line.

“The Regathering Task Force took its plan to the Finance Ministry and the Church Council for approval,” she said.

Over three months, the tech volunteer installed the cameras and a rear projection screen.

“We did carbon dioxide tests to help us see what was happening to the air, because we have no windows in the sanctuary we can open for ventilation,” she said. “There isn’t a direct correlation, of course, between rising CO2 levels and air movement of virus particles, but it gave us a portrait of how long exhaled air hangs around in general.”

The Regathering Task Force made decisions about what safety measures to take, what the ushers needed to do, how to be welcoming to children who were not vaccinated.

“We decided not to limit attendance to only those who were vaccinated, but we knew that part of being welcoming was to offer a strong sense of safety,” she said.

To include children, who were not vaccinated, they decided to offer Sunday school outside for an hour with all ages together.

“It felt like we were setting up 10 lines of dominos all in different directions and all related,” Leah said.

Starting in person in June, they realized it would be a long time before they would sing in church. So small ensembles of vaccinated, distancing people do the singing, not the congregation.

The music director had previously worked in video editing and helped the church develop a music library with more than 100 songs. The church has five copyright licenses.

Instead of singing hymns, videos of hymns were played and ensembles sing along with the videos.

A question of how to add warmth and engagement opened for everyone to discuss.

Jim CastroLang of First Congregational in Colville said even though it’s a small congregation, when the delta variant spread more began coming again on Zoom than in person.

“Instead of me giving a sermon, we have the congregation share in discussion. Instead of one person reading a call to worship, different people read sections, giving people voice in the worship so they are not just watching,” he said.

Gloria Koepping of Spirit of Peace in Sammamish said that after church they now have 15-minute breakout rooms for connecting as in a fellowship time. Then they come back together to discuss the sermon.

“We scramble people in groups, so they are not talking to the same people every week as they might do at an in-person fellowship hour,” she said.

Patty Ebner of First Congregational in Bellevue said they still pre-record a virtual service even though they started in-person worship in the summer.

Instead of doing communion in person, they invite people forward for a blessing or private prayer, but use no food.

To create a sense of relationship, they moved from a soloist to two singers who establish eye contact as a way to establish meaning and relationship.

Janet Ott of First Congregational in Bellingham said they are no longer doing hybrid, but decided to go back to doing worship all on Facebook because of the high rates of COVID in Whatcom County. 

“When we did hybrid worship, people attending in person would pass the peace at the microphone. Now we have lay participation for the liturgist and time with children. Instead of in-person conversations, we use chat. We chat with the pastors on the service and sermon.

“We plan to institute a discussion group on specific topics after worship on zoom once a month,” she added.

Betty Fisher and Betsy Vaninetti of Everett UCC said they have a small, in-person worship at Everett and then at noon do Zoom with Liberation UCC.

For communion, they ordered sealed cups with grape juice and wafers.

“I’m new to Washington,” said Betsy, “so I connect here and with my church in Denver. The worship there is quite different.  It’s a high quality produced service like a TV show.  It’s less warm. Online Everett and Liberation feel like a house church.”

Heather Suursoo, administrator, said they have been in person since spring. They don’t sing in worship, just have instruments. There is no coffee hour, so people do not linger, and there is a sign-up sheet for contact tracing.

Shannon Peterson at Alki UCC in Seattle said they have done Zoom from the beginning and are still on Zoom, but the sanctuary is part of the experience with the pastor and a musician there.

For communion, people use whatever they have—water, juice, coffee, granola bars or eggs. The pastor asks each to share what they are using for communion. Those attending on Zoom share on chat what they are using for communion.

Mike Denton expressed appreciation for the sharing and commented on how different congregations have tried different things in their contexts.

“We have been figuring out how to get through this moment and we will continue to keep figuring out what to do,” he said.

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Copyright © Fall 2021 - Pacific Northwest Conference United Church of Christ News


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