Finding ways to connect with members of a congregation who do not use the internet is a challenge for churches in the best of times. It has been even more daunting during the COVID-19 pandemic, as many churches have moved all aspects of worship and community online.
In March, when Memorial United Methodist Church (Fernandina Beach) faced the hard decision to close their campus and move all opportunities for worship and classes online. Finding new ways to reach their vulnerable, homebound seniors became a priority.
“Our goal was to seamlessly continue our classes and worship in a completely digital format,” Senior Pastor Rev. Dr. Mark Charles said.
“Worship was now offered over Facebook and YouTube, our classes and meetings over Zoom, and our communications were only over email and social media. This was a great solution for nearly our entire congregation. Yet, it still left many of our most vulnerable seniors, who are not necessarily tech savvy, without a way to engage.”
“It was obvious we needed to reach our members who were not online, and we needed to do it quickly,” said Memorial Communications Coordinator Carrie “Carrie Mac” McCannell-Scruggs said.
“Many of the seniors in the congregation have been part of my extended church family for almost 40 years. I didn’t want there to be a moment when they felt disconnected.”
Carrie Mac grew up at Memorial. After graduating from Florida State and growing her marketing career in Tampa, she moved with her family back to Fernandina Beach. Working at Memorial felt like the perfect opportunity to use her talents and experience to help the church that raised her.
“Over my six years working for Memorial, much of my responsibilities have focused on maintaining an effective online presence. Still, I’ve always felt a call to reach those who are not online,” she said. “I worried they would feel removed from church life because they did not use digital technology. The pandemic made finding a quick solution to this concern even more important. “
The week after the campus closed due to COVID-19, volunteers called all the members of the church family to check on them and make sure they knew about the new online opportunities. The names of those who did not have access to the internet or could not utilize the online options were given to Carrie Mac.
“The list was actually smaller than I expected, only around 22 people. Yet, these were some of our most active senior members,” she said. “That’s when the Mac Pack was born.”
Carrie Mac asked the sound and media technician at Memorial to make the seniors a set of audio CDs of the worship service. She created a worship guide for the service that could be used with the CD and a newsletter version of the church’s email correspondence.
These, along with a printed Lenten devotional and even Bible activity sheet made just for seniors, were included in the first packs. As a special treat, each pack also contained a colorful drawing and note from a child at the church.
The first Mac Packs were delivered to the doorstep of each recipient on Mondays. After the state of Florida declared stay-at-home orders, the packets were mailed. Immediately. Memorial received phone calls from recipients thanking the church for their efforts and asking for the packs to continue.
“With Mac Packs, we found a meaningful way to connect with our seniors. And, it was meaningful to Carrie Mac, too, which is why we called them ‘Mac Packs,’ “ Rev. Dr. Charles said.
“Of course, they are not actually named after me, “ Carrie Mac said. “They are named after my grandfather, James “Mac” McCannell.”
McCannell, a life-long United Methodist, was 99 when he died in late 2018. He had been homebound the last few years of his life. Carrie Mac said that every time she made a pack for a senior she thought of her grandfather Mac. He would have loved to have received a pack like this each week from his United Methodist Church in Arlington, Virginia.
“My grandfather found it hard to stay connected to his home church when he became too frail to attend. Although he stubbornly refused to get on the internet, he loved watching DVDs and reading,” she said.
“These packs would have been a perfect way for him to worship and engage from home. And now his namesake packs have become a wonderful way for the seniors at Memorial to worship and engage from home, too.”
The packs have evolved only slightly since the first week. There is now a DVD option, and each pack includes a stamped envelope for seniors to send their prayer requests to the church.
Members started writing notes of encouragement for each pack. And the number of packs sent each week has gone down as some seniors have learned how to access online worship themselves. Carrie Mac is encouraged by this.
“It was so nice to get a note saying how much they loved the Mac Packs, but that they no longer needed one sent each week,” she said.
“Then we would see that senior join our Facebook live worship on Sunday or engage in a Zoom class! It was exciting to watch them bravely move out of their comfort zones and confidently join the online community.”
Rev. Dr. Charles is unsure when Memorial will be able to safely welcome seniors and vulnerable members back to campus, but he said the pastors and staff are encouraged about the new lessons they have learned during the pandemic.
“COVID-19 forced us to think outside the box. In these past few months, we have discovered new ways to engage and communicate with our congregation,” he said.
“The Mac Pack initiative has made a difference and we will continue making them available to our seniors even after we are able to re-open our campus.”