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Standing in the pulpit: 10 tips for online worship leaders

The Rev. Donna Pritchard preaches online from First United Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon. Screengrab by Crystal Caviness, UM Communications.
The Rev. Donna Pritchard preaches online from First United Methodist Church, Portland, Oregon. Screengrab by Crystal Caviness, UM Communications.

Standing in pulpits, preaching to their congregations week in and week out is nothing new for most United Methodist ministers. Suddenly, however, the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic has removed all familiarity. Physical distancing protocols are being strictly encouraged. Those pastors continuing to bring the gospel and messages of hope to their congregations now find themselves staring into laptop or smartphone cameras, sharing God’s Word to….well, the air… as the word “Live” glares back at them.

As new rules emerge about what day-to-day ministry looks like, check out these 10 tips for making the most of bringing worship to a virtual congregation.

1. Embrace the awkwardness.

It will take some time to get over the discomfort, says the Rev. Barbara Dunlap, associate pastor of discipleship and outreach at First United Methodist Church in Hurst, Texas. Dunlap is part of a ministry team that has livestreamed worship for several years.

“It’s going to feel unnatural until it feels natural,” she says.

Use your imagination to push through the discomfort, says the Rev. Donna Pritchard, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon.

“Pretend you have a congregation full of people and preach as if you’re preaching to them,” she suggests. “You know your people and you know what they need to hear.”

2. See you at the same place, same time.

As much as possible, keep elements of the service the same, including location and time.

Livestreaming from the sanctuary, with focal points such as candles and crosses in place is best, says Pritchard, adding that her congregation is “taking great comfort in seeing worship from our space.”

In areas where stay at home orders prevent travel to church locations, Pritchard suggests creating a sacred space in the pastor’s home and livestreaming worship from this spot each week.

3. Keep worship order the same.

Some pastors may be tempted to omit parts of the service that are interactive. Dunlap, however, recommends keeping the order of worship as much the same as possible. Again, this familiarity may comfort parishioners.

“We encourage (those worshiping with us) to stand when we stand and to sing with us,” she said.

That said, this could also be a good time to try some new worship elements, says the Rev. Stephanie Dodge, lead pastor at Glendale United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tennessee. “You could perhaps add a prayer or switch up the order, because no one expects things to be exactly the same,” she says. However, she only encourages making nuanced changes and discourages major overhauls to how worship looks during this time.

4. Everybody get ready.

Sending out a weekly email with the worship order, scripture readings and/or bulletin included helps the congregation prepare for the service. Posting on Facebook and the church’s website is another way to spread the word. 

“In our email, we invite people to get their candle ready,” says Dodge. “Then, we include the candle lighting in the service. Even though we aren’t together (physically), the light brings us together through Christ.”

5. How can we pray for you?

Staying apprised of the congregation’s prayer requests is a key element to staying connected during this time of social distancing. Church leaders can solicit prayer requests through churchwide emails and via social media. Members can be encouraged to share prayer concerns during the live worship through chat and comment functions. Leaders also should offer ways for worshippers to share prayer concerns confidentially, such as emailing the church office or pastor or sharing via more private social channels, such as Facebook Messenger or Instagram direct messaging.

6. Don’t forget the prelude.

In the same way that most churches open services with a few minutes of music as people get to their seats and settle into worship, a prelude serves a similar function for online worship, Dodge says. For those churches livestreaming over Facebook Live, Facebook will send notices to the church’s online audience that the church page has gone live. These notifications give your online congregation a chance to gather.

7. How do you look? How do you sound?

Be aware of camera angles and sound, Dodge recommends. Her worship team is always looking for ways to bring optimal sound and the best camera shots to the online audience. If you have screens in your sanctuary, make sure the text is large enough to be seen through the livestream, she said.

There are many details of livestreaming best practices and technologies. For specifics, check out these learning sessions from United Methodist Communications.

8. Let us bring our tithes and offerings.

Church leaders are concerned with how changes to church services will impact giving. As part of keeping the service as normal as possible, it’s OK to talk about the offering.

“Give people clear direction on how to give to the church,” says Dodge. “Have an intentional offertory time and let your congregation know about how to do online giving or where to mail a check.”

Adding this information to the church website or in the livestream comments also is helpful.

9. Chatter, chatter, chatter.

One way to help the congregation feel connected during online worship is to ask them to comment in the chat function of the livestream. Invite audience members to say “hello” when they join the service. Encourage them to greet one another. To help with the two-way interaction, ask someone on the leadership team to watch the chat box and respond accordingly.

“Having someone moderating and responding to those comments, someone who is reaching back out to them, helps the congregation feel connected,” Dodge says.

10. Just pick up the phone.

Not everyone owns a computer, has internet or is on social media. For these folks, designate a team to make phone calls to stay in regular contact. To help these members engage with online services, consider using a conference call line or the audio function of a livestreaming service, such as Zoom.

Even at a time when how we’re doing church is changing, Pritchard says this should not be as unfamiliar as it may seem.

“Remember that you preach live every Sunday anyway,” says Pritchard. “If you make a mistake, so what? This shows your humanity. In many ways, this isn’t different. It’s just that the folks aren’t in the front pews.”

Crystal Caviness is a senior content development specialist on the member communications team at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee, USA.

United Methodist Communications is an agency of The United Methodist Church

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