In March 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic caused people to adjust how they worked, went to school and socialized, most in-person worship services were halted. Congregational leaders rushed to find innovative ways to deliver the word of God, keep parishioners spiritually fed and engaged, and stay connected during a difficult time.

When Emanuel Lutheran Church in Seguin, Texas, ceased in-person worship, there was a quick fix: its radio broadcast ministry already provided a weekly worship-service recording to local radio station KWED-AM. The congregation has held this broadcast spot for more than half a century, amassing a large following for its Sunday 10:30 a.m. services.

However, “through continued planning, we realized this facilitated only one part of our normal worship time together, as we knew our folks wanted a visual place to gather as well—not just the audio,” said Marcus Bigott, a pastor of Emanuel.

Emanuel partnered with St. John Lutheran Church in nearby Marion and began a 14-month endeavor of recording, editing and broadcasting worship services for the two congregations. Using iPads and iPhones, congregation leaders created a Facebook and YouTube worship service while continuing the radio broadcast each week.

About four months into the partnership, leaders of Emanuel and St. John invited Andrew Lemlyn, pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Seguin, to join them. This allowed for even more sharing of resources and gave the congregations with smaller staffs space and time to focus on the ways congregational care needed to happen even as they maintained an active worship presence.

Emanuel’s Facebook page and YouTube channel became hubs for posting and sharing content. The pastors rotated who preached, who presided at communion and who welcomed the various communities to worship. As time passed, they changed sanctuaries and added different musical instrumentation; during Advent, they even welcomed physically distanced choir members.

“Our goal was to create a worship service that met our folks where they were, and to some extent where many still are, as the pandemic intensified and plateaued,” Bigott said. “Working together, across ecumenical lines and in partnership with our bishops, allowed the worship weight to fall across numerous pastors, lay leaders and musicians, versus just a select few.”

He said the cohort accomplished exactly what it had set out to do: “Keep our churches, their families and friends, and even the wandering seeker connected and engaged in worship when gathering together was neither safe nor advised.”

Bigott added that sharing responsibilities also let members hear various voices reflecting on the gospel.

The partnership extended beyond worship services. “We were able to put together a fully online vacation Bible school program, which served over 200 area children,” Lemlyn said. “We also began a lectionary discussion podcast. Right now, our ecumenical partnerships are more important than ever.”

Pennie Swanson, office secretary and treasurer for St. John, said the cohort was instrumental in keeping members of the congregation and community connected.

“Working with Emanuel’s Lutheran Church and allowing us to take part in its knowledge and technology helped our members and community stay focused and in touch with one another and, more importantly, Jesus,” she said. “It has been a joy, and I hope we can continue to grow together in Christ Jesus.”

Many congregation councils, including Emanuel’s, readied themselves to return to in-person worship on Palm Sunday this year, but Bigott said leaders realized they needed to finish the cohort’s 14 months together by celebrating Easter. Easter Sunday was the last time the ecumenical group came together for a worship service, but its work continues on the offering Pastors With a Podcast.

Cindy Uken
Cindy Uken is a veteran, award-winning reporter based in Palm Springs, Calif. She has worked at USA Today, as well as newspapers in South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and California.

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