Digital Parish: Leading a church's vision in digital ministry

Rev Nicole Reilley shares her experience in being a lead pastor and leader in the church's digital ministry.

In many larger churches, online ministry is a delegated responsibility. So church leadership chooses and individual or team of individuals to lead an online ministry while senior leadership primarily focuses in different areas.

Not all of us have such an opportunity, though, do we? It may be the case that we don’t have someone to which we can delegate. OR, it might be that we are both the senior leader AND the person who is carrying the passion to see the church extend its ministry into a digital space. 

Rev. Nicole Reilley is going to provide us with ideas and stories from her own experience in being a senior pastor at a traditionally-based church and the chief cheerleader or ringleader for pastoring a digital parish.

The Episode

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Show Notes 

Catch up with Rev. Nicole Reilley and her coaching services on her website.

The book Expanding the Expedition through Digital Ministry is available through Market Square Books.


Ryan Dunn (00:00):

This is Pastoring in the Digital Parish, your resource for community and insights for ministry in the digital realm. I'm Ryan Dunn, the host of this podcast and fellow practitioner of digital ministry in many larger churches.

Online ministry is a delegated responsibility. So church leadership chooses individual or team of individuals to lead an online ministry while senior leadership primarily focuses in different areas. Not all of us have such an opportunity though. Do we? It may be the case that we don't have someone to which we can delegate, or it might be that we are both the senior leader and who is carrying the passion to see the church extend its ministry into digital space. That can be a lonely feeling, but our adjunct professor for this session assures u we are not alone. And Reverend Nicole Reilley is gonna provide us with ideas and stories from her own experience in being a senior pastor at a traditionally based church and the chief cheerleader or a ring leader for pastoring a digital parish.

Reverend Nicole Reilley has 30 years experience in full-time ordained ministry in the United Methodist church. In 2012, she planted a series of house churches and got involved in training lady and clergy. Nicole now brings with her a passion for due ways of doing and being church to her work as a clergy coach, specializing in social media and clergy wellness. She's been coaching since 2015 and recently wrote expanding the expedition through digital ministry, which of course caught our attention. Let's meet our adjunct professor, Nicole Reilley…

Ryan Dunn (01:50):

Let's talk mission, vision, and why of digital ministry, because I'm sure that everybody listening has in some way, shape or form heard a question that you address within your book. Isn't the digital hold a poor substitute for in-person gatherings. We've heard something like it. Can, can you help us respond maybe constructively to that kind of questioning?

Nicole Reilley (02:14):

Yeah, absolutely. You know, I don't, I don't think it is a poor substitute for it. I think that there is a great opportunity here for people to connect to the church and the digital place is one of those places that they can do that. I mean, I think about the number of people who are differently abled and getting to a building is a huge issue for them, or I think about the fact that 35% of all Americans who are working work on the weekends, so they can't come on a Sunday morning. I also think about college students, you know, I've had conversations with college students who have just said the church has been a lifeline for me. And if I had to go out and find another church that just wouldn't be something I could do. So it's been a place where they've been able to continue to connect.

Nicole Reilley (03:12):

And I also think about how there are so many people who moved in the last couple of years, maybe due to COVID maybe they needed a bigger house or they moved to be with parents to take care of them. And if you've ever shopped for a church home, you know, that it can be a really tough place to find where you belong. And for churches that are on the line, they have an opportunity to continue to reach their people who maybe if you move to a new community, you just stop attending. So I think it's an important way that we are the churches. I mean, there's a lot of diversity with churches, right? There are house churches that are really small midsize churches that may do some great programming. There's mega churches that offer all that they do. And I think that the digital church is just one more expression of the diversity of churches and what the holy spirit is doing to reach people and also to disciple people who are already part of the church.

Ryan Dunn (04:25):

You mentioned there a subtle difference in how we think about digital ministry in that it is a way of being just beyond what we kind of do in person that there's a difference between a digital ministry and a church kind of being online, so to speak. So a lot of us might assume, well, we stream our worship service, so we have digital ministry, right? Yes. Can you can you flesh that out? Like how you might differentiate digital worship in digital ministry? Yeah,

Nicole Reilley (04:54):

Sure. I think it's really great that a lot of our churches that may not have had were online were able to put that together so quickly during COVID right. So you had churches that weren't online at all. They stepped up into it. It was totally outside of their comfort zone. And as they then look at what next steps are, they may feel it's a little outside of, of their skillset or their financial abilities. But I think of it this way. I think that, you know, digital worship is one thing, but digital ministry is a much bigger thing. It's kind of like in just a, a local church that you would go to in person, if all they offered was Sunday morning worship at 10:00 AM, am, and then the rest of the week there was, you know, no discipleship, no Bible study, no fellowship, no youth group, no children's ministry.

Nicole Reilley (05:51):

We would not say that that is a church that has much of a presence in the community. And I think it's very similar to what we're talking about with the difference with just digital worship versus digital ministry. We want to be able to offer more than only worship even though worship is I think really important. And for a lot of our congregations <affirmative> it was a big hill to get over, to do that. So I think it's good to acknowledge that the work people have done, but then it's, what's our next step. And I think those next steps can be really simple. They don't need to be huge programs or lots of time and energy. We're really looking to just connect with and then understand who those people are and then take those next steps with them. And it can be as simple as acknowledging that people are worshiping online on Sunday. Right. So, okay. When you start on Sunday morning and you welcome people in the room, welcoming people online, even that kind of very simple thing connects people, responding to people who make comment about a worship service, responding to people who comment on social media helping people get connected in other ways. These are, I think what's essential and moves us from an online worship service to online ministry.

Ryan Dunn (07:21):

Okay. What might be a step beyond that then be beyond something that is just connected to the, the worship event?

Nicole Reilley (07:29):

Yeah. So for us, we've done a variety of things and some of them have been just very simple kinds of things we've done meet and greet the pastors with people who are brand new. We've done an opportunity for folks to join a seasonal small group. We even do. I do a meditation class once a month, and we have invited people who are only online to come and be part of that as well, cuz it's an online offering. So we're looking for ways that we can connect and what we can offer people that will help them take some of their next steps.

Ryan Dunn (08:15):

Tell me about that online meditation, because it's so much of what, when you think about when it comes to contemplative practice, is that there's a sense of of embodiment to that mm-hmm <affirmative> and it's often that the word is often wrapped up in the language that we use around contemplation. So mm-hmm <affirmative> how, how are you leading through a meditative experience in the digital space?

Nicole Reilley (08:35):

Yeah, so I'm a, a certified mindfulness, meditation and teacher. And I have been someone who has had a contemplative practice for 40 years. And so for me a lot of folks, I I've experienced so many people looking for that contemplative opportunity but driving somewhere, going somewhere isn't quite possible for them. So we offer this, we've done some introductions to mindfulness classes just online and then we do a drop in meditation once a month. So people are able to come. And, and I, I think in some ways when you're in a room with everyone doing meditation, there can be a lot more distractions than if you are on your own, in your own space, which you can control in a variety of ways. And that can let you take that opportunity to become more internal.

Ryan Dunn (09:33):

What platform are you using for that meditation space?

Nicole Reilley (09:37):

We just use zoom.

Ryan Dunn (09:38):


Nicole Reilley (09:39):


Ryan Dunn (09:41):

And people are pretty comfortable with that.

Nicole Reilley (09:43):

Yeah. It's taken a while. You know, I've done online discipleship groups since 2006 and we used to use like Google hang outs and they were awful. Everyone had a lot of trouble getting online and people would be angry. People have learned how to operate and so people are doing zoom quite well.

Ryan Dunn (10:10):

And is there it's a responsive time for that or is it okay.

Nicole Reilley (10:15):

Yeah, I usually do a little bit of teaching and then we usually do two meditations. And then after each meditation we check in we say how we're doing, we talk about our practice and we do a time of resourcing each other. So yeah.

Ryan Dunn (10:34):

Well in our Methodist tradition discipleship is, is built in with presence, right. It's kind of implied, we practice discipleship by coming alongside one another. And, and you've brought up the idea of kind of digital discipleship of church being engaging with people online throughout the week. So can you tell us about some, some steps or, well, you write about a pathway to engagement for digital ministry. Can you tell us like what that looks like in digital ministry?

Nicole Reilley (11:07):

Yeah. So when I think of a pathway for engagement, I think I follow one that comes from a writer named Nick Blevins. I, I think it's really simple to follow what he puts forward and it starts with awareness. This is just that as people start their journey, they become aware that there's something out there that may be cuz a friend posts about it on social media or if they run across your service on YouTube or you do it sponsored post, something like this. So awareness is first, then we're looking at attention and attention is that next step. You know, you you've gotten their attention. They're not just aware you exist. They know a little bit about you. And so when we're in that attention phase with someone who's new in our digital ministry space, we're trying to look at how we can resource them.

Nicole Reilley (12:00):

And so we'll invite them to fill out a connect card online, which is a way for them to let us know who they are what would be helpful to them. And we like to then also use texted in church that we invite them to text new to the number so we can connect them as well. We invite them to connect with us on social media or any of the online small groups that we're doing. And so once they have a sense of who we are when we're working to really do that next phase, which is the connection phase. And one of the things we do here is an in person, one called discovery called discovery, V U M C Valencia United Methodist church. And so we've done it online as well, where we just invite people to show up and have Q and a time with the pastors, hear a little bit about who we are we have of this thing.

Nicole Reilley (12:54):

We call seven things we know to be true, which is kind of our value statement. And we're an inclusive community. So we'll talk about, you know, what it means, who we are. So no one is surprised about, you know, kind of where we sit on issues. And then once that they've had that connection, then we are looking to involve them at a higher level. And that is, you know, get them involved in a small group, just kind of what we would do if they were here in the building. We do have our small groups online and we've had good participation even during the pandemic with people who didn't have available to them, either at their church or they were, you know, I had this one friend who dragged her son along to her small group on zoom. So it was a new experience for him.

Nicole Reilley (13:45):

And I think that, you know, that involvement getting connected and not just involvement with online stuff, but we would do food drives during pandemic and now after too. And so inviting people who are with us on the digital presence to go to their own food pantry and to be involved there. And then I think the last piece of it is what's called investment and that's, you know, that's the people who are, who are giving and serving in some way. And so it's kind of like a funnel, right? Awareness, attention, connection, involvement, investment, and it really lines up to, I think what we experience in the church as well. But it is a lot of work, right? And it is a tracking of people and, and looking at where they're at and what's their next step and how do we engage the a minute.

Nicole Reilley (14:37):

But I think it it's extremely important work to do because for many people, this will be the only way they connect with us is online. So we want to help them take those next steps. I think when we look at the investment piece, we think, you know, that's, that's a, a stage of engagement. A lot of people don't get to and I think that's true, but I also think one of the things we've worked on is in small groups, can we get somebody to do the opening prayer or the closing prayer or lead the discussion piece? So give them an opportunity to lead a little bit, but in the context of a small group, they're already getting familiar with

Ryan Dunn (15:16):

Mm-Hmm <affirmative>. So is that fair to say that you're very intentional in terms of what you're posting online in it being an invitation to take another step towards the community? Okay.

Nicole Reilley (15:26):

Yeah. And we're also, we, so we, we have an old school Google doc that we just track everybody in and we sit down every week as a staff and we kind of say, you know, do we need to send emails to these people to invite 'em to this? Do we need to connect these people to our children's ministry? You know, how do we, how do we do this? And so it's, it is I think labor intensive. And I know, you know, one of the things that happens is people say, this is a lot of work for who, you know, are we really making a difference? Mm-Hmm <affirmative> and I get that. I do get that. I get that frustration. Yeah.

Ryan Dunn (16:06):

Okay. So how do you how do you deal with that frustration?

Nicole Reilley (16:09):

Well, I think of it in the same way that I hope a lot of our youth directors think, right? Mm-Hmm <affirmative> when you're a youth director in a church, you are sowing a lot of seeds. You don't know what's gonna bring fruitfulness. You don't know. If all that energy you put into that one student is gonna make a difference down the road and a youth directors never see what it is that their ministry has done. But I think for me, and I, I think for our staff here, we know that we're making a difference because we hear just enough stories, you know, on Easter, there were some people who came, who had only worshiped with us online and they thought, you know, we'll, we'll come on a Sunday. And you know, just to hear, you know, how helpful this was, what a difference it made for them, how they're in a small group, how they're meeting people and now, you know, they're taking that step to be in person. That's not gonna happen for a lot of people, but there are some, and so sometimes you do get to hear these little stories and they just kind of keep you going, which I think is ministry in general.

Ryan Dunn (17:24):

So are in your invitations to next steps. Are you always kind of pushing for people to kind of show up in person or is there a digital equivalent to that?

Nicole Reilley (17:37):

Mostly there's so like our, at our church, we focus on three things, worship small groups and service. And so those things can happen both in person and online. So we're inviting people to worship. We're inviting people to be in a small group and we're inviting people to be in service, which can be, you know, like I already mentioned, like if we're doing food drives that they can be part of that wherever they are. So I, I think out what we focus on here translates fine to a digital experience as well as us, you know, a, a house church experience. I mean, I think that this kind of framework works in a lot of different settings.

Ryan Dunn (18:25):

I wanna get to talking about the relationship between this digital ministry and house church, since you do have a, a history of planting house churches, but I wanna back up to to the Google doc <laugh> that you were talking about that you and your staff are assembling. Yeah. Where are you getting the names to put on that Google document?

Nicole Reilley (18:42):

Yeah, well some of it is, well, I think one of the things that surprised me the most was we got new from people who were giving online.

Ryan Dunn (18:52):


Nicole Reilley (18:54):

So there are some people who would fill out a connect card. There are some people who would comment, there are some people who would connect with our children's ministry and we'd learn about them that way. And then there were people who were giving online and <affirmative>, and we were connecting with them that way. And so it, I don't think it's a ton of people, but I would say it's, you know, half a dozen, every week mm-hmm <affirmative> that were connecting with in some way, who were either newer or were working to move them through the steps. But we had people who came and were part, part of the church kind of joined the church because during the pandemic it was not only the pandemic, it was also things about racial injustice. And so during that time we lost families and we also gained families because we took a stance on black lives matter. And I think that we, we met some of those families because they came over because we were making those statements and then they were reaching out to us and giving us feedback that they were looking for a church that was taking an anti-racist stand. They were looking for something like this. So, yeah.

Ryan Dunn (20:15):

So for those folks who gave online, you were able to collect their, their name, some information. What, what was the, what was your response to that? Like what was the next step for you all to reach out to them?

Nicole Reilley (20:26):

Yeah, so there was, I, I think of one family in particular who, who gave and I emailed them and just introduced myself and let them know that, you know, if they had any prayer requests, I'd love to, you know, know what's on their heart that we could pray for. And they responded back and told us a little bit about themselves. And then like a week later I invited them to, you know, I said online worship, I think this week is gonna be talking about this. I hope you'll be able to join us online. They responded back. Yes, we're, we're gonna be joining you online. And, you know, we're very interested to learn more about the church. And so then I said, you wanna do a zoom call? And they said, sure. So we did a zoom call, you know, so we spent half an hour meeting people who, you know, were brand new to us.

Nicole Reilley (21:21):

So, you know, it's a lot of it's about people, right? We're, we're, we're working to connect with people. We're working to help people in their spiritual life and to take that next step. And so, you know, there's not a one size fits all. It really is quite customized. And it really is. I mean, I think that's why we sit down every week and we look at the list and we think, you know, what can we do? What's helpful. And I found it surprising that, you know, people were quite excited to have a zoom call with the pastors. You know, people were like, oh, you would take time for this. And so I, it's been a great way to make connections with people, even during the pandemic. And now beyond that,

Ryan Dunn (22:06):

You know, the, the digital little space has given us quite a bit of room for customization. And sometimes that can feel a bit draining because we feel like we have to kind of be all over the place for everybody. Right. Are, are there ways that you're able to, as I guess as a senior pastor able to parse out some of that work?

Nicole Reilley (22:27):

Yeah. I, I think it's a team effort. This is a church that very much works as a team. And we had a social media manager for a while and then after COVID she got a full-time job. So I picked that up because I really enjoy social media for me, it's evangelism and communication. But I think we're, I, I like the space because you, you hear from people email wise and it's, it's easy to respond. I don't find it to be a huge thing, but we do it all together here. And, and the following up. So we even did a membership class online. We had a goal to have 50 new members as we reached our 50th anniversary, which was last July 15th. And so we did the membership class all online and, and prerecorded, you know, the finance person and prerecorded the hospitality person.

Nicole Reilley (23:33):

And we prerecorded the spiritual gifts person. So all of those things could come together. So we could offer this online during the pandemic. And it was a real team effort because all those people had done that work beforehand. So I think that's how we see it. And there's just, there's lots of opportunity to involve people. And then certainly like with with our new member stuff, we then had follow up after that. So there were people who followed up up on spiritual gifts of people who followed up on getting involved and, you know, things like that. So it really was a team effort.

Ryan Dunn (24:13):

I, I gotta know. Did you hit 50?

Nicole Reilley (24:15):

Yes. 52

Ryan Dunn (24:17):

<Laugh> yeah. Congrat <laugh> that's 52. Yeah. Well, in, in shifting a little bit from the institutional church to the house church movement, you spent a number of years planting house churches. How does the, the current state of digital ministry compare to working in the house church space?

Nicole Reilley (24:37):

I think it just gives us more tools to use, right? So house churches for me before really digital ministry was a thing, you know, was in our backyard and having a meal together and having discussion together based on kind of somebody was assigned to listen to the sermon at the anchor church. And they would present kind of their thoughts about that and, and stuff. I think today we might in a church use more digital ministry. So we might worship together with an online experience at a church and then have a meal together and discuss. So I think it would give you some opportunities to use resources. So you're not always having to put it all together yourself. It could be a, a nice bridge, I think for churches. And I think there are some churches that as we started coming back and their work was concern around a lot of people in a room, they gathered just with their small group watched worship together and were, you know, even though they were, we consider them a small, but they were basically operating as a house church during the pandemic.

Ryan Dunn (25:53):

Yeah. Mm-Hmm <affirmative> how do you, how do you delineate between what is a house church and what is a small group?

Nicole Reilley (26:00):

Yeah, so a house church is, does all the things that a regular church would do, including the sacraments. So, so if you're not having a baptism at a house church, then it's probably just a small group. Of course we would say that about communion too, but right now a lot of people were celebrating communion at home. Mm-Hmm <affirmative> because the pastor's on the screen, so it, it gets a little squishy <laugh>

Ryan Dunn (26:31):

Well, it, in like at Valencia, what are some of the apps and platforms that you're using to reach people in the digital space?

Nicole Reilley (26:38):

Yeah, I would say that the one I've been talking about and working on for a while, and I'm still learning how to make it work is Facebook groups. So we've used Facebook, their page for the church, of course, for forever, but we recognized that a lot of people would, would want something a little more personal and needed more privacy in order to share what was going on in their lives or what their needs might be. And so we started a Facebook group and I was hoping it would become more of like our online campus piece. It really hasn't mm-hmm <affirmative> and so I'm continuing to kinda look at that and see what's the best way to do that. We do have quite a few people in the church who are in the Facebook group. And so that's been helpful.

Nicole Reilley (27:38):

I mean, we've used it to resource people. We've used it to provide food and gift cards for people during COVID. We've used it to post a class or a discussion that was more internal for the church. And so I, I like the platform, I'm just not sure, you know, how best to utilize it. And I don't know how much that will change as we're on screens, a little less mm-hmm <affirmative>, you know, if maybe people will be, if, you know, if you're working in person and your church is online, would you be more open to being in the Facebook group for a Bible study or to connect to new people? I don't know, but we are finding much or posting and communication in that space than on our Facebook page or Instagram page.

Ryan Dunn (28:31):

Yeah. Mm-hmm <affirmative> yeah. Well, and that is, Facebook has really made a deliberate effort to drive people into the, a space, like a group, because, you know, yeah. For better or for worse, it's what gets people to stay on their platform a little bit longer. That's exactly what they do that because of course they're interacting with one another. So we can kind of co-op that as ministers yes. That want from Facebook, for us to share time with people as well. Yeah. Which really is Absolut such a huge boon to digital ministry where we now have this accessibility to people mm-hmm <affirmative>. Yeah. So it sounds like that the, that Facebook group is, is one of the things that, that you're dreaming into. You you've noted that in a self diagnosis that you are a, something of a serial dreamer, are there other digital ministry outlooks or aspects or ideas that you're playing around with that you're excited about?

Nicole Reilley (29:26):

Well, I'm gonna be starting a podcast. Yeah. That's different than the church's podcast, which is a sermon, right. So I'm gonna be doing a podcast that's more geared toward clergy and more geared toward clergy wellness and helping clergy in the midst of this challenging time in ministry, which I think it's always been challenging, but now it's especially challenging. Helping them think about themselves and their own wellness and helping them focus on how to do this really hard job without losing themselves in the middle of it. So I've been working on that. That's been kind of my, my new little side project is how I'm gonna be putting that together. So I, you know, took a little podcasting class and found the music I can use. And so I'm figuring that out. Cool.

Ryan Dunn (30:20):

I, well, for folks who might wanna throw some questions your way, what's a good place to get ahold of you.

Nicole Reilley (30:25):

You can find me on social media. So you'll find me on Facebook and Instagram at rev, Nicole. So R E V N I C O L E. And I also have a website on Nicole and they can find out more about me there and more about the book.

Ryan Dunn (30:46):

Cool. All right. We'll definitely link up to both your social media accounts and the website, cuz you've got a, a unique spelling of Reilley for the last name. So it's,

Nicole Reilley (30:55):

We'll all

Ryan Dunn (30:56):

The letters out as they were

Speaker 4 (30:57):


Ryan Dunn (31:00):

Well, thank you so much for share are in your experience in this time with us.

Nicole Reilley (31:04):

Thanks, Ryan. I appreciate it.

Ryan Dunn (31:07):

So glad to have had this opportunity to connect with another digital ministry practitioner. Again, Nicole Reilly's book is expanding the expedition through digital ministry. It's part of a book series called the greatest expedition, which deals with the pre present day journey of evangelism. If this was your kind of session, then I recommend checking out our episode titled the why of digital ministry with Wil Ranney where we dove into laying ideological groundwork for digital ministry. And another good one is faith formation in digital kind with Dr. Emily Peck-McClain. It's good for following up on discipleship practices in digital spaces. Again, my name is Ryan Dunn. I'd like to thank, the online destination for leaders throughout the United Methodist church. They make this podcast possible. And of course they host our website where you can find all the links to Nicole Reilley and more. I'll speak with you again in a new episode next week, our last one of season three, in the meantime, peace to you.






On this episode

Rev. Nicole Reilley, author of Expanding the Expedition through Digital Ministry

Rev. Nicole Reilley has 30 years experience in full-time ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church (UMC). In 2012 she planted a series of house churches training laity and clergy. Nicole brings with her a passion for new ways of doing and being church to her work as a clergy coach, specializing in social media and clergy wellness. She’s been coaching since 2015 and recently wrote “Expanding the Expedition through Digital Ministry”.

Ryan Dunn, co-host and producer of the Compass Podcast

Our proctor/host is the Rev. Ryan Dunn, a Minister of Online Engagement for United Methodist Communications. Ryan manages the digital brand presence of Rethink Church, co-hosts and produces the Compass Podcast, manages his personal brand, and obsesses with finding ways to offer new expression of grace.

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