As the Delta variant complicates plans for a return to in-person worship, congregations continue to explore a variety of models for being in community.
Members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia, participate in a Flower Communion in the congregation's memorial garden in May 2021.
The highly contagious Delta variant dashed hopes that this fall would bring a full return to familiar traditions, but Unitarian Universalist congregations across the country are resilient and creative, centering inclusion and care as they foster community and plan for safe, high-quality worship.
In September, congregations were rapidly shifting plans in response to new advice from the Unitarian Universalist Association and public health advisors that even though vaccinations reduce the chances of severe disease, vaccination does not prevent a person from getting infected or transmitting the virus to others. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said, the guidance is changing because the virus is changing.
“While we don’t have a single, clear directive like we did when we recommended all congregations stop meeting in-person in the spring of 2020,” UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray wrote in an August 20 guidance update, “we recognize that our UUA recommendations have been helpful to our congregations navigating difficult decisions in a precarious and changing context.” (Please see UUA.org for current COVID guidance.)
“As another wave of the pandemic comes at us, we are different as a congregation,” said the Rev. Amanda Poppei, senior minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia. “I love the metaphor of life as a spiral. You come back to the same problem again, but you’re different when you encounter it.”
Poppei’s congregation began hosting outdoor events in spring 2021, including a handbell parade to ring in Pride Month in June and a Flower Communion in May, which they intentionally designed as a multiplatform event.
Poppei and her team wanted an experience that felt as though the whole congregation could be together, even though they weren’t ready for everybody to be onsite at once. Over the course of two hours on a Saturday, members visited the sanctuary’s memorial garden to exchange flowers and have a moment of contemplation at an outdoor altar. Following the event, member Mary Ann Bolton compiled photos and video clips that were set to music and shared at the online worship service the following Sunday.
Poppei’s goal is to give her congregation many different entry points into the community—some online, some outdoor, and, when safe, some indoor—where they can comfortably engage and connect with others.
The Rev. Joel Miller, interim minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana, embraces multiplatform worship as a permanent modality. When the pandemic began, he was serving as interim minister at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge in Louisiana. At the first virtual service in spring 2020, he saw about a dozen members attend worship for the first time in years. Some of them were past members who had moved away or elderly members of the congregation living in assisted living facilities.
“At that first service, I saw elder members attending . . . [who] cried, they were so happy to be [back] with their church,” Miller said. “That left a deep impression on me. After that, I vowed that every service I led would be [accessible on] Zoom.”
Like All Souls, the Unitarian Universalist Church, Rockford in Illinois returned to multiplatform worship services in June, but the church had been streaming its whole service online for about two years before the pandemic struck, making the pivot between modalities somewhat smoother. Even so, its practices have been evolving throughout the pandemic.
The Rev. Dr. Matthew Johnson and his team have put much thought into creating a high-quality experience for both in-person and online participants. For every service, they follow a detailed script with precise technical specifications, such as where each camera is focusing at a given moment, what’s being projected on screens at the front of the sanctuary, and what online participants are seeing. They zoom in on the preacher or musician at key moments, to ensure that online participants have a sense of closeness and intimacy, rather than feeling like they are at the back of the sanctuary, distant from others.
Johnson is careful to use language that encompasses all audiences, including those watching a recording later. “When I do the prayer, I can’t say, ‘Be here now,’ because some of them are neither here nor now,” Johnson said. “So I have to say, ‘Wherever you are, whenever you are, be at that place.’ That reminds the people in the room that there are people online and makes the online people feel more welcome.”
First Unitarian Church of Rochester in New York has been experimenting with outdoor station-style worship. Each portion of the liturgy—such as the story, the sermon, or music—is conducted at a separate station by a member of the worship staff. Stations are set up in a large outdoor area, and small groups rotate to each station at timed intervals.
The Rev. Shari Halliday-Quan said that although her congregation has enjoyed station-style worship, they will likely only use this model if community transmission rates become too high to allow for large-group outdoor worship, since station-style worship is more taxing for the worship staff.
At the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua in New Hampshire, the Rev. Allison Palm and her team created a comprehensive safety plan and clear metrics that guide the church’s decisions around programming and meeting protocols.
Using community transmission and vaccination data from Covid Act Now, the team mapped out three stages—orange, yellow, and green—and defined in detail the programming and building use that is acceptable at each stage.
As of September 2021, the church was in the orange stage, the most restrictive. Multiplatform worship can begin for them in the green stage, which requires that community transmission rates are coded as green on Covid Act Now for two weeks in a row, and 70 percent of adults statewide are vaccinated.
The church requires vaccinations for certain groups, including all staff, anybody who will be working with children or other vulnerable populations, and anybody leading activities in the sanctuary, such as worship, technology, or singing. When members return to the sanctuary for in-person services, the church may expand the vaccination requirement to greeters and other similar roles.
Palm echoed the sentiments of many congregations in her thinking about the upcoming year. “I try to hold myself back from the relentless push to be back and do things the way we used to do them,” she said. Instead, we can “take that energy and funnel it toward creatively thinking about how we can be together [in new ways] and feed spirits.”
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Kat McKim is a writer who also works in operations at a network of K-12 schools in New York City. She loves working behind the scenes to put all the pieces together and make everything flow smoothly—a passion that perhaps surprisingly applies to both operations and writing.