Unitarian Universalist churches broadcast sermons for the subway, coffee break, and gym.
The Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd was less than a year into her first called ministry in the fall of 2004 when the congregation’s webmaster introduced her to a new term––podcasting.
Why not, said Jack Harper, let members and friends listen to her sermons on their iPods and other MP3 players while commuting to work or exercising?
McDonald Ladd, minister of the Bull Run Unitarian Universalists in Manassas, Virginia, thought it was a fine idea. Harper went to work, and now the congregation’s website offers sermons by podcast. “We have a very spread out congregation,” said McDonald Ladd. “A lot of people who can’t get here every Sunday are finding it beneficial to listen to my sermons outside of church.” She said many of the congregation’s young adults who are away at college are using podcasts to keep up with the church. “And members tell me they’re using them as a way to introduce friends and other family members to our church.”
A podcast is like a radio broadcast, except that the audio lives on the Internet rather than traveling through the atmosphere. The podcaster records an audio file on a computer, publishes it on the Internet, and syndicates the podcast so that subscribers will automatically be notified about new programs. Listeners can download the podcasts to their own computers and onto pocket-sized media players to listen to at their convenience, although you can also listen to a podcast on a desktop computer.
Approximately 25 Unitarian Universalist congregations are believed to be providing at least some sermons or other material in podcast form. (Click the link to “Unitarian Universalist Podcast Directory” below for a guide.)
At Bull Run, Harper processes the recorded sermon and by Tuesday it’s generally up on the website. The actual work takes him no more than an hour and 10 minutes. “If I don’t do it fast enough people let me know,” he said. “With the commute times here people want these for the drive to work. And some people who heard the sermon Sunday morning want to hear it again.”
McDonald Ladd prefers podcasting to providing written copies of her sermons, although she does both. “I write a sermon to be heard. There are aspects of meaning that don’t come across when you read a sermon. With a podcast you can hear the emotion.”
Alex Gacic, webmaster at the UU Fellowship of the Emerald Coast in Valparaiso, Florida, where the Rev. Rod Debs’s sermons are now in podcast form, observes that most congregations could easily use this new format. “Someone can produce a simple podcast for next to nothing,” said Gacic. “If you have an MP3 recorder or just a computer with a microphone you can do it.”
Tracking actual usage of podcasts by congregants can be difficult. Gacic said it’s not possible to tell how many people have actually downloaded sermons from the church website, only the number that have visited the site. While only a small percent of churchgoers use podcasting at the moment, the numbers will grow, he noted.
Peter Johnston, administrator of the Arlington Street Church in Boston, said that his church's website has counted 700 downloads of sermon audio files since they began podcasting a month ago.
The UU Church of Berkeley, California, started podcasting each week’s sermon last summer. The Rev. Christopher Craethnenn, minister of religious education, sees valuable public relations potential in podcasting. “One of the things the liberal church is trying to learn from (those) in more conservative circles is how to do outreach,” he told the Oakland Tribune in October. “Our religion is really grounded in free exploration, so we work really hard to bring people into our circles.”
One of the more ambitious UU podcasting projects is UU Radio, a broadcasting project of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Canandaigua, New York. It produces half-hour radio programs designed not only for broadcast on local AM-radio stations but especially as podcasts. Hosted by the Rev. Carl Thitchener, the congregation’s minister, programs mix music, interviews with guests from a variety of community organizations, worship readings, and a prayer or meditation.
Deborah Weiner, director of electronic communication for the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, understands the appeal of podcasts, but cautions congregations to give careful thought before jumping into use of the technology. “It’s critical that people think about why they want to do this before they get on the bandwagon of this hot new thing,” she said. “People should think first about how it relates to their mission and what values it lifts up. Producing good quality podcasts is not a trivial matter. It can also be a challenge to sustain. It takes work and planning, just as with congregational websites.”
Christopher L. Walton contributed to this story.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.