Congregations adapt to COVID-19 by going online

Congregations adapt to COVID-19 by going online

Offering worship services and other opportunities to connect online is “a forced exercise in emergence,” says the Rev. Karen Johnston, and “an opportunity to find people who need us.”

Elaine McArdle
Screen shot of livestreamed worship shows worship leaders from two Washington State congregations

The Rev. Zackrie Vinczen, minister of Cedars UU Church in Bainbridge Island, Washington; the Rev. Jessica Star Rockers, minister of Kitsap UU Fellowship in Bremerton, Washington; and pianist Brian Kenny lead an online worship service for their two congregations on March 15, 2020. They were joined by members of Tahoma UU Congregation in Tacoma. (Courtesy Kitsap UU Fellowship)

Kitsap UU Fellowship


As public health officials urge people to stay at home and avoid even small gatherings to quell the fast-moving COVID-19 pandemic, Unitarian Universalist congregations across the United States adapted rapidly this past week by substituting virtual worship services—via YouTube, Facebook Live, or other video streaming applications—for traditional in-person gatherings. At the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and health authorities around the country, UU congregations will continue to meet virtually until the worst of the pandemic subsides, at least until May 15 and perhaps much longer.

All Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) meetings, including the April meeting of the UUA Board of Trustees, have been moved online or postponed at least through May 15, Carey McDonald, UUA executive vice president, announced on March 17.

According to McDonald, UUA leaders are proceeding with planning for General Assembly 2020 as an in-person meeting, scheduled for June 24–28 in Providence, Rhode Island, and registrations to date have been strong. They are monitoring guidance from public health officials and will be prepared to modify the event to expand online participation if that guidance changes.

While congregations in the hard-hit Seattle area moved to virtual worship a week earlier, most congregations in other parts of the country didn’t turn to virtual worship until Sunday, March 15, when it became clear that the number of COVID-19 cases was exploding nationally and state and local governments urged social distancing—people refraining from close contact—to stop the spread of the disease.

The UUA is curating a resource page for congregations and others adapting to the pandemic.

Before things heated up last week, the Rev. Hilary Landau Krivchenia and her staff at Countryside Church UU in Palatine, Illinois, planned to take safety precautions, such as having people wear gloves as they passed out the order of service or refreshments at coffee hour. By Friday, March 13, as the severity of the pandemic became more apparent, they, like many other religious leaders across the nation, decided to halt all in-person gatherings for the foreseeable future and hold services online using the Zoom videoconferencing app. Krivchenia notified the congregation via email and Facebook to tune in for the service, which included people reading from their own homes and using music already in the public domain.

To foster social connection as people are sequestered in their homes, Krivchenia says she is adding a midweek service “to keep people from feeling isolated, which is very important.” The congregation’s religious educators will be creating educational opportunities during the week, and Krivchenia will also be posting “a lot” on Facebook and her blog, she says. Members will be reaching out frequently to each other through neighborhood clusters to see if people have the food and supplies they need, she adds.

“What I see in my congregation and suspect is true in other UU congregations is that, rather than let ourselves become isolated because of this, it’s motivating us to become more connected,” says Krivchenia, whose congregation has about 300 adult members. While the congregation has had a Facebook page and electronic newsletter for some time, “There’s so much more we can do to keep in touch and make congregational life more accessible for a lot more people.”

Things also moved rapidly at the Unitarian Society in East Brunswick, New Jersey, where the Rev. Karen G. Johnston decided to move Sunday services online via Zoom beginning March 15. Johnston likewise emphasizes the need for more human connection during this time, so the 107-member congregation is offering a menu of additional options, including a Friday night bedtime story for families with children. Zoom, which allows people to see and talk to each other, is also the application the congregation is using for additional services that have been added during the week, including opportunities for members to join together for meditation, a poetry reading, and similar activities.

In a matter of a day or two, Johnston and Jessica Bors, the congregation’s acting director of religious education, who also works as DRE at the BuxMont UU Fellowship in Warrington, Pennsylvania, pulled together an online gathering on Sunday night for the dozen or so families with children in the East Brunswick congregation. Bors returned from vacation to work on the service, and in less than 24 hours she created a package of items to use at home—including a battery-powered candle, crayons, glass stones, and more—and mailed one to each family, Johnston says.

“By coming into connection online we strengthen our individual and our communal resilience, so it’s a gift we offer ourselves and we offer others,” says Johnston. Offering more services online is “a forced exercise in emergence,” she says, and “an opportunity to find people who need us” but who were not attracted to traditional brick-and-mortar gatherings. Even after the pandemic ends, she says, “We might need to—and find we want to—retain some version of this.”

The Rev. Jessica Rockers, minister at Kitsap UU Fellowship in Bremerton, Washington, also sees adaption to the crisis as an opportunity for creativity in reimagining worship and more. For some time, Rockers and the Rev. Zackrie Vinczen, minister of Cedars UU Church on Bainbridge Island, Washington, had discussed leading joint worship services for their two congregations, which each have about 150 members. When the COVID-19 crisis necessitated a switch to online services, “we decided to take this opportunity to do worship together,” says Rockers.

On March 8, they livestreamed together via YouTube from Vinczen’s office on the island; the following week they broadcast from Rockers’ office.

“We’ve had really amazing response from our congregations,” says Rockers. YouTube offers the option for people to join chats, which enables them to participate in joys and sorrows and other shared moments, although worshipers can’t see each other’s faces. After the worship services, they hosted a Zoom meeting for coffee hour, in which people could see each other. “So we’ve basically become one big congregation”—and one that’s expanding: on March 15, the Tahoma UU Congregation in Tacoma, Washington, also joined in.

“I really feel one of the things I’d love to see more congregations take advantage of in this time is to do more things together,” including joint services over Zoom or other apps, Rockers says. Instead of simply doing worship more or less the same but over the Internet, “this is an opportunity to do something entirely different and to worship together . . . connecting with one another in a deeper way.”

Sharing services can help ministers lighten their loads during a difficult time when congregants need more pastoral care. “Reverand Zackrie and I have found that sharing this has really been joyful and a lot less work and a lot more of trying new things,” Rockers says.

About 150 people showed up online for the Sunday services, and another 500 viewed the recording later online, she says.

Rockers, who was a learning fellow at the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF), credits CLF for pioneering online worship and for improving her technical skills. She says using YouTube to livestream services isn’t difficult: “All you need is some extra software and a pretty good internet connection, and there are a million YouTube videos that show you how to do it.” She prefers YouTube over Facebook Live, in part because not every congregant has a Facebook account, and because anyone with a Smart TV can watch YouTube on a larger screen.

University Unitarian Church in Seattle held three services via Zoom on March 15—a regular worship service, a children’s chapel, and a youth worship. All were recorded so people could watch them later that afternoon, says the Rev. Jon Luopa. The congregation also held a virtual coffee hour after the main service, with about 190 people in attendance, “which made it quite a challenge on the Zoom screen, but it was really sweet to see folks at home, couples sitting together on the couch,” he says. People were gratified for the online option, he says, and the congregation is brainstorming how to connect with congregants who don’t have computers. Among other things, they’re discussing putting together “quarantine care packages” to deliver to people.

Inspired by videos of people in Italy, sequestered in their homes during the pandemic, who opened their windows to sing in the streets, the congregation is also discussing creating an online singalong. The church recently underwent a huge renovation (and has had to postpone its building rededication) that included sophisticated technology for livestreaming. Luopo says they hope to be able to switch from Zoom to the new technology by next week, to allow for a higher-quality viewing experience.

For congregations and other groups looking to quickly adapt to virtual services and meetings, there are simple options, these ministers emphasize. Livestreaming can be as simple as holding up a smart phone to videotape and stream it online via Facebook or YouTube. A much more complicated and expensive system, such as that used by First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon, which has livestreamed its Sunday services for several years, offers much better sound quality and a more sophisticated viewing experience, such as the use of multiple camera angles.

“Experiment with it, try new things, don’t be afraid to fail,” says Larry Stritof of the UUA’s Information Technology Services staff group. As the kinks are being worked out, “Congregations should be mindful that some people may watch these things and find it frustrating and not come back, so congregations should hear out those frustrations. At the same time, congregants need to give feedback and also give these things a second chance.”

To help provide worship music during the COVID-19 crisis, the music licensing service One License is offering faith communities free use of its music, which comes from a variety of member publishers, until April 15.