Improvisations for a Pandemic Year

Improvisations for a Pandemic Year

Congregations continue to evolve to foster faith and worship online.

Illustration of a person at home in a Zoom meeting as a cat sleeps nearby.

© SophonK/iStock

© SophonK/iStock


Long before “social distancing” became a part of our everyday lexicon, the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, the Rev. David A. Miller, and the Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd, senior ministers of the D.C. metro area’s Cedar Lane, Fairfax, and River Road congregations, were regularly meeting to talk through religion and faith in the modern world. So when the pandemic hit, the stage had already been set for them to form the Potomac Partnership, an alliance between their three congregations to share gifts, meet common challenges, and practice faith more holistically in the time of COVID-19 and beyond.

Under the partnership, the congregations jointly host worship services, lay leader meetings, art classes, children’s programming, and more—all online—with the goal of shared learning and growth. Members from all three congregations, through surveys and working groups, were heavily involved in shaping what the partnership looks like. And by guest-ministering at each other’s online services, the ministers find new ideas and opportunities for their congregations. River Road, for example, now streams its Zoom worship service through YouTube Live to allow for live chat, after McDonald Ladd was a guest minister at Cedar Lane and saw how it worked.

“Collaboration among our congregations has deepened our UU faith and identity,” Miller says. “COVID was the stress test for a lot of the theories we’d been talking about.”

The partnership’s reach is extending beyond its congregations, too. Jointly produced content, including hymnal videos, is being shared throughout UU congregations in the region, while interview clips from an ongoing Potomac Partnership oral-history project, “The Storytelling Project,” are sparking dialog in worship services and small groups. “This has been an amazing opportunity to actualize our potential to work together in the most extraordinary way possible,” says Janamanchi.

Such work is possible only through the pooling of resources, the ministers agree. “What makes it possible to move quickly together in times like these,” explains Miller, “is relationships and trust. Part of the struggle with putting something like this together is getting past ego and territorialism to really do what is possible to serve the mission of our work together.”

Ministers and lay leaders from coast to coast say the same thing: collaboration, flexibility, and creativity are all key elements of a meaningful worship experience in these ever-changing times.

The Rev. Dr. Jane A. Page learned quickly during the pandemic that kids are over virtual learning. Over it. Done. Which initially made providing online religious education to the youngest members of the two congregations she serves challenging. Instead, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro and the Unitarian Universalists of Coastal Georgia shifted away from virtual religious education in favor of providing families with plans and materials to learn together at home.

Youth programming isn’t the only place Page has seen adaptation. When the Welcoming Congregation certification team leader of one of her congregations had to step away from the project due to a non-COVID related illness, members of the other congregation’s team stepped in to help complete the submission.

At East Suburban UU Church in Murrysville, Pennsylvania, none of the members are production pros. No one has a background in multi-cam recording or expertise in video editing. And yet, that didn’t stop the just-under 150-member congregation from creating a social-distance safe, video version of its yearly Stone Soupplay this fall in support of the Westmoreland County Food Bank.

Inspired by the way the City Theatre of Pittsburgh quickly pivoted to online performances in the wake of COVID, the congregation shot and distributed its 2020 performance of Stone Soup on Zoom.

“At first, we thought: ‘There’s no way we can do the play this year,’” says member Marianne Jew, who produced, recorded, and edited the performance from her computer at home. “Then we thought, ‘Well, we could film it . . . it doesn’t have to be a Hollywood-quality production. We already have a way to meet, and it comes with a recording button.’”

So Jew and her cast, including playwright Mary Warwick, gathered one fall day via Zoom to perform Stone Soup, as adapted by Warwick to include the pandemic, sci-fi, and UU principles. They filmed the scenes in sequential order and used simple software (Snagit, Windows Video Editor) to edit the parts together. “It’s kind of like an old-fashioned home movie, and for our UU community, it’s just perfect,” says Jew.

The play is part of a larger Stone Soup Sunday annual tradition at East Suburban. Members gather to watch its performance during worship and afterward they eat soup made from ingredients donated potluck-style, à la the children’s story Stone Soup. Food and financial donations to the Westmoreland County Food Bank are encouraged. This year, ingredients and food donations were dropped off into coolers outside the church, and Stone Soup’s online worship service included a direct donation link to the food bank.

“We welcomed all donations while encouraging cash to the food bank because they can get so much more food per dollar, plus they can get what their clients most need,” Jew says.

Volunteers made different soups at home using the donated ingredients and quarts were frozen then either picked up or delivered to congregants the weekend before Stone Soup Sunday.

The adaptation sparked a new ministry, Cup o’ Love, an invitation to members and neighbors to make and share soup as a gesture of compassion and community.

“If you have all the resources and love to craft professional-grade elements for worship, that is wonderful and beautiful!” says Jew. “And if you don’t, you can create something different, something that warms the hearts and feeds the spirits of your extended family, church members, and friends.”

An abridged version of this article appears in the Spring 2021 issue (pages 38–39).