In the first of an ongoing series, we speak with Manningham UC minister Claire Dawe about how COVID-19 has affected her church. In the coming weeks we will speak to a variety of people from all walks of the church to hear their stories.
On Sunday March 22, Manningham UC members were able to take part in an interactive and intergenerational worship by going to the church’s website. The innovative format included text, such as song lyrics, accompanied by MP3 files to sing along with, interspersed with video contributions recorded by Clare and other Manningham members.
What was the thinking behind doing the digital service in the way that you did?
We had been tinkering with live streaming before because we saw it as a way to offer worship to those who were unable to attend a 10am service. People in aged care, for example.
With the new social distancing restrictions, we decided to pre-record a service and make it available on our website, but we didn’t want to just bung anything on there. We’ve been mulling over for some time what should and shouldn’t go on there to connect with people. Merryn Gray has been working on this for a year already.
By pre-recording, we could also involve those who were already isolated at home through health issues or because they had returned from travel and were trying to keep others safe. It was a way to ensure everyone felt involved and connected.
How did you organise the recorded music and readings?
Basically, we bought Zoom! We knew we would need something for meetings and face-to-face studies and discussion groups and Zoom is easy and people can participate. It’s important that people feel connected. Musician and songwriter Nathan Creek supplied the MP3 files.
Readings and prayers were done Manningham UC members, including those is self-isolation such as Zoe and Tony McLachlan.
How else have you been connecting with your church community?
We’ve hit the phones. Our ministerial and leadership team hit the phones with a vengeance and just connected with people informing them of what was going on and finding out if they needed anything. Our pastoral care volunteers also rang people they knew and cared for. It was an intense time.
We also have an “everyone” email list which we use at least once a week with news, notices and, during Lent, we’ve been sending out weekly reflections about the upcoming Sunday’s reading linking worship to personal prayer. This email list has been invaluable at this time to keep people up-to-date with advice.
However, we also know we have about 70 people in our congregation who don’t have access to internet and so we have put together some offline reflection and pastoral resources and will continue this every couple of weeks, making sure they also have our pastoral team’s phone numbers. We also have a new email for people called care network if they need help and cannot get hold of us by phone but that’s for people with the internet.
Hopefully, we are covering all bases but we are very conscious no-one falls through the gap at this time.
How has was the service and your other efforts been received?
The worship online was received really well. We will do this again because it gives people a range of options. Our supply minister, Rev Bob Ridley, has recorded a communion liturgy which will go on the website and we will expand this area as the weeks progress.
People have been wonderful as they can see we are trying. Sadly, we have some very sick people in hospital we are simply not allowed to visit, but there is the phone. As the minister at this time, my aim is to keep everyone safe whilst being spiritually nourished, but that means our pastoral care team cannot go into aged care homes or hospitals. Sometimes phoning is a challenge if people are hard of hearing, but we are getting there.
What in particular do you think has worked well, or not, in your new worship format?
People really liked having the individual sections to click on and then stop, do the activity or reflect upon the prayer etc and then restart. That worked really well so we’re sticking with that format. There seems to be room for reflection and personal development in this format. That is something we need to take with us and learn from when we regather physically, whenever that happens.
This week we are adding Zoom discussion groups after the service – one at 11.30am and one at 3pm. We began a “right of reply” following the reflection each Sunday as we are modelling a congregation of both learners and teachers – something we pinched from Richmond UC minister Rev Sally Douglas. So, the Zoom meetings will fulfil this role but also get discussion going on the reading and how people are feeling. It’s that deeper connection again rather than just consuming something that is offered online.
How else is Manningham doing church meetings, mission and discipleship?
We are beginning virtual playgroup next Tuesday morning – the families will Zoom in and we’ll have a massive show-and-tell about what we’ve been up to, one of the leaders will read a story, I’m leading some songs (every other leader was too chicken!) and we’re trying to work out if we can all do a simple craft at the same time. It’s a way to stay connected.
And our youth theatre programme, Fresh, went virtual last night too, with a play-writing workshop, which will be performed as a radio play as we obviously can’t meet in person for live theatre production. So, we’re still meeting, still offering pastoral care, but doing so in different ways.
Mission is an interesting one as Manningham is very focused on community. The church’s Mission Development Officer Emma Hanna has been giving people ideas on how to connect safely with neighbours using the Viral kindness Cards and encouraging people to share what they’ve been up to at this time on the website. There’s a plan to connect with neighbours around the church safely, again using the idea of the kindness card, as people may just want to have a chat on the phone with someone or they may be stuck in isolation and needing supplies. This is very much a work in progress and it has to be done safely as we’re being told, quite rightly, not to go out unless we have to.
Bible studies have moved from face-to-face to self-guided study supported by Zoom discussions so I’ve been furiously rewriting my study notes to accommodate this. Fortunately, we have been using the Holy Habits book by Andrew Roberts during Lent over three study groups and that lends itself to all sorts of platforms. Again, I’ve borrowed material from both Andrew himself and Rev Sandy Brodine who is also working her way through the material with her colleagues at the Banyule Network.
Discipleship is happening through our worship, our outreach, our studies – they are continuing but differently. Faith formation doesn’t stop. We are collating resources of things to do whilst at home – there are free colouring resources plus we are looking at our Messy Church and how to do a simple Messy at home with what people already have, ie no-one going out to get supplies for a church service. We are linking the playgroup families into this too. Our Sophia discussion services on different ethical issues are going entirely Zoom. Everything will be advertised and linked on the website.
Given this is for many a difficult and uncertain time, is there a short message of faith or encouragement you would like to share?
Can I just begin by saying don’t get carried away by the technology – the motivation is to worship and worship well, to connect and connect well, to keep being a community that prays and loves and praises God. We are doing it differently, but still doing what we’ve been doing for centuries.
I am not one for plucking Scripture verses as I find that unhelpful – we need to be reminded of the message of hope and grace that the sacred texts contain, not just a verse that someone has selected as an inspirational quote. Having said that, the verse we have used consistently in our communications is this one from Isaiah. My hope is that people can hear the reassurance – the God who created all things is here and present and not going anywhere. This strength and help comes from God, it will come and probably in ways we never expected:
So do not fear, for I am with you;
do not be dismayed,
for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
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You can find Manningham Uniting Church’s online service here.