“I guess we’ll all get to see how well our pandemic plans actually work.” The moment my dad said that to me is the moment I realized that none of us were prepared for COVID-19. Even businesses that developed a pandemic plan never really tested it. And I do not know of a single parish that planned ahead for the complete interruption of normal operations. Now that we experienced “Corona Time,” as my pastor likes to call it, we have learned much about virtual ministry, found best practices, and discovered its unique benefits. Corona Time has forever changed our parish’s formation strategy and disaster preparedness for the better.
Our Virtual Ministry
The key for our Faith Formation Team was to establish a schedule, both for working from home and for our digital presence. When we first started, we all struggled with throwing together some content and slapping it on the parish Facebook feed whenever it was finished. Within a week, we settled into a programming schedule that kind of felt like running a TV station. We continued emailing specialized content to specific groups—we emailed First Communion Preparation content to second graders’ families and Sunday reading worksheets to every family every Sunday—but most of our content was posted to social media at designated times.
Every weekday at 8:30 a.m. during the stay-at-home order, I live streamed programming geared toward families with young children for about 20 minutes. This is where my five kids helped out. Some days we read a few storybooks and sang some songs with motions. Other days we recreated our parish’s Holy Half Hour, which under normal circumstances was 30 minutes of Eucharistic Adoration for little ones and their parents that involved prayers, stories, and songs. We live streamed this in front of our family’s prayer table. Other days we live streamed an abbreviated “Making Music Praying Twice” session from our living room; visit MakingMusicPrayingTwice.com to read more about this excellent program for young families. I found that content for this age group was a huge hit, and there probably was no such thing as too much or too often. Anything that engaged a young child and drew them into prayer was perfect.
Our parish live streamed daily Mass at 9:00 a.m. every day during the pandemic, and some days we live streamed prayers and devotions at 10:00 a.m. So, at 11:00 a.m. every weekday, our Faith Formation Team posted or live streamed content geared toward elementary grade students. Some of this was sacramental preparation, some was a Bible reflection and a few songs, and some was a video created by teenage volunteers that we vetted for orthodoxy. Since presenters were not faced with interruptions and discipline issues, teaching this way was easier in some ways. It also provided an opportunity to address topics that do not usually come up in a normal session or to introduce prayers and devotions and why you love them. It was also an excellent opportunity to promote liturgical living at home that reinforced the topic.
Our Director of Middle & High School Ministry live streamed each weekday at 1:00 PM with encouragement and humor, spiritual insights, and prayer challenges. High school students met via Zoom on Thursdays and Saturdays at 9:00 PM for “Late Night Life Teen.” They played video conferencing games, like scavenger hunts around the house, before settling into prayer and a Bible study. Our Young Adult Ministry met like they always do on Wednesday evenings; only during the pandemic they used Zoom, which allows you to break into small groups.
Once or twice each week, I recorded a catechetical video geared toward adults, whether they are parents, volunteers, average parishioners, or seekers who might stumble upon the video. We posted these around dinner time. These videos were a great platform to address catechetical topics that we do not often cover that became very relevant during a pandemic: indulgences, spiritual communion, perfect contrition, extra-sacramental ways to receive grace, creating family prayer space, and many others. Several volunteers also submitted blog articles reflecting on Christian art, the Sunday readings, or an upcoming feast day, and we posted these in this dinnertime time slot.
Relational Ministry in a Digital World
A huge part of effective ministry is forming relationships, and that is a significant challenge in an all-digital world. However, a pandemic presents a unique opportunity to utilize a low-tech option: the phone call. The pandemic was a great chance to call every volunteer and every household in the program. During stay-at-home orders, people crave personal contact from outside their home. A simple phone call to check in, ask for prayer requests, and see how the family is holding up actually opened up relationships that were closed off when all we had was a quick hello in the hallway at drop off and pick up.
Phone calls also gave us ideas for our digital content and uncovered pastoral needs. Parents asked questions or alluded to struggles that we incorporated in our videos. They told us what their kids missed most about our program, and so we did our best to recreate those experiences digitally. Occasionally, we discovered pastoral needs that a family may not have brought to anyone’s attention under normal circumstances.
Direct outreach with phone calls quickly became a critical piece of Young Adult Ministry during the pandemic. Many young adults experienced great anxiety because they lived alone, they did not have adequate savings to survive a prolonged layoff, they feared for their parents’ and grandparents’ health and safety, or they worked in the healthcare field and feared exposure to the coronavirus. They needed more than ever to be known as an individual and not just a number at an event or a square on a video conference.
What Good Was God Working?
We know that God works all things for good (see Romans 8:28), so what was he up to during this pandemic? I have seen several surprising benefits of doing ministry this way.
We were modeling for parents how to engage the faith with kids of various ages. For the first time ever, they could see how we explain different doctrines to different ages. They could see what we meant by talking to their kids about the faith.
Families could self-select the content appropriate for their kids. If their fifth grader was ready for something deeper, they could just look at the middle school content and did not have to move the child into a sixth-grade small group that met on a different day.
When volunteers created content for us, it was a beautiful opportunity for mentorship. We could coach them through how best to explain a topic and how to word it for a particular age group. We also coached them through their delivery when they recorded a video (and we got some helpful critiques of our own presentations).
We could tailor our content to the unique needs of our community. Since we called our families asking for prayer requests, we knew better how to apply a doctrine to their lived experience. Corporal and spiritual works of mercy became concrete actions that applied to spouses and siblings. Bible stories of God asking something difficult and nonsensical became a commentary on families lived experience in a pandemic. Families were able to ask follow-up questions on topics we had not planned to address. We did not have to rely simply on the content printed in a book and the chapter assigned for that week. It was a much more dynamic presentation of doctrine tailored to our families.
The entire parish and their social media contacts could see our ministry efforts. Unless they are volunteers, the daily Mass crowd does not usually know what happens in Faith Formation. During the pandemic, when they were looking for the live stream of daily Mass, they came across our content and saw hundreds of people interacting with it. Our young family content was especially popular with our shut-ins because they wanted to see young children singing, reading, and smiling!
Truthfully, we should have been using many of these formation strategies all along. It is easy to record a quick video explaining what we will teach during the next session, or what kids experienced while they were in our building. During a regular flu season when attendance dips, we should create simple digital content to fill the formation gap in a more personal way. Even when illness is not circulating, all the above fruits of such labor still apply.
Finding Your Digital Presence
When our parish began working remotely, I challenged our Faith Formation Team to pray more than ever for our families and to find a digital presence. Before being forced to engage solely through the digital world, I generally avoided social media. The thought of recording a video of myself was repulsive. Live streaming an activity with my five kids sounded like asking for a problem that the whole world could watch again and again. I was pretty uncomfortable with a digital presence.
What I found during the pandemic was that it was remarkably easy and shockingly effective in reaching large numbers in a short amount of time. A simple live stream video of a prayer, a reading from the Catholic Children’s Bible, a few thoughts about it, and the song “Trading My Sorrows” got a few dozen live viewers and a few hundred views by the end of the day. In one 20-minute video, I reached more people than would attend a gathered session. Social media also gave my families the option to watch it again and share it with others, even with people who were not Catholic.
Maybe you are like me and do not like the idea of recording yourself. Resist the urge to share someone else’s video. Make your own. Do not say in an email what you can record yourself saying in person. During a pandemic when personal interactions are limited and nothing is normal, give your flock a small taste of normal ministry, which is you talking to them. I resisted this at first too, but now I wonder why this was not a part of our formation strategy all along. It certainly will be going forward, especially if we are forced into all-virtual ministry again.
Jason Gawaldo is the Director of Faith Formation at Saints John & Paul Parish in Pittsburgh, PA. He holds an MA in Theology. Jason is blest to be the husband of Natalie and the father of their five children.
This article originally appeared on page 16-17 of the printed edition. Photo by Josh Applegate at Unsplash.com