LIMA — Kris Browning, lead pastor of Shawnee Alliance Church, laughs when he thinks about retiring in 35 years or so and helping a new pastor transition into the role.

Because human beings complain from time to time, he’s looking forward to that new pastor doing just that. In fact, he’s already prepared his joke.

“My first Sunday, no one was allowed in the church — and they need to quit whining and get to work,” Browning said.

He stepped into leadership in April 2020, right at the beginning of a pandemic.

“When I hear someone say, ‘I can’t wait for it get back to normal,’ it’s not going to,” Browning said.

Making the leap

The coronavirus pandemic has affected every aspect of life — church included.

Most churches in the area paused in-person services in mid-March, when state and local leaders began closing businesses. Some denominations and dioceses gave direction on best practices. Some churches bore the full weight of the decision locally.

After the initial rush of physical safety concerns — roping off pews to encourage social distancing, installing sanitation stations, removing hymnals and Bibles from sanctuaries, deciding against passing the offering plate, putting the paper handouts on hold, assessing communion styles — churches were left with The Big Question: If our people shouldn’t come to us, how do we go to them?

“Our work is generally about gathering people together,” said the Rev. Bryan Bucher, lead pastor of Shawnee United Methodist Church. This church averaged 300 at pre-pandemic services. “And how do you gather people together without them physically being in the same space? What happens when you can’t do that?”

Technology push

Lima Baptist Temple has broadcast services on television since the late ’60s or early ’70s. They had purchased time on WLIO but switched last year to WTLW. For television, the service is recorded, edited and aired a week later. The churches averaged 525 at pre-pandemic services.

In July 2019, the church started livestreaming.

“We already had the broadcast equipment for TV,” said Michael Green, student pastor and technology and media director. “ It was just making that small jump from just recording the services to making them live and available online.”

Lima Baptist Temple Associate Pastor Ben Anderson added, “It really positioned us well to continue to reach people and do it in a safe way that respected people’s decisions on how they wanted to handle (coming to church).”

The Rev. Bill Maki, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in St. Marys, explained the church has been broadcasting services on WCSM radio for about 14 years. The audio is also available via the internet, so it became a major outreach for what he called an affordable price.

“I’ve been (video) recording worship service since COVID and uploading them to YouTube and Facebook,” Maki said. “ We’ve ordered the camera and the equipment to be able to livestream. We realized it would be better to do it that way.”

The equipment is expected to arrive this week, and Zion’s youth director will be tasked with connecting it into the soundboard in the balcony they use for radio.

“They didn’t teach us this in seminary,” Maki said, who leads a church with pre-pandemic average attendance of about 170. “It’s been interesting because it’s forced us all to look at other ways to proclaim the gospel and then how to get that proclamation out. It’s moved us beyond our own walls with technology.”

Just prior to the pandemic, Bucher started using his iPhone to livestream church after a member requested it.

“We went through all the growing pains,” Bucher said, who had to learn quickly and purchase better gear.

Browning said Shawnee Alliance has had an online presence for years.

“We were able to make that transition relatively quickly,” Browning said. “We’ve tried really hard to make it better.”

The Rev. Dr. B. LaMont Monford Sr., senior pastor at Philippian Missionary Baptist Church in Lima for 30 years, leads about 850 people in services on average, pre-pandemic. His church has not met in-person in the sanctuary since March. They’ve held parking lot worship during warmer months and have leaned on technology heavily. They already had software for membership connection. They offered audio of the services, and he found the older generation to be Facebook savvy. But doing video was another matter.

“I’ve learned a lot,” explaining his youngest brother is a professional videographer who has helped set up the church with three iPads. He’s working on a pre-recorded series of Bible studies as well as leading the praise team through Sunday services. While they’re in the sanctuary, he said he can visualize the people who habitually sit in the same places — the people who faithfully continued their offerings in person and online to allow the church to burn its mortgage in November.

“I pray for pastors because I think a lot of people think that during this season that pastors have a chance to relax, but there was nothing ever taught to me in seminary of how to pastor through a pandemic,” Monford said. “It’s really tough. … We as believers, we talk about a God who is present and who provides in tough times, and I think we really have to exemplify what we preach. And I always say, ‘Divine sovereignty does not negate human responsibility.’”

Spiritual hurdles

In Catholic and Lutheran churches, which have also jumped to stream services, there is a snag: The eucharist.

“What they miss, unfortunately, online, they’re unable to receive communion,” said Father David M. Ross, parochial administrator at St. Rose and St. John parishes in Lima. In Catholicism, it becomes the body and blood of Christ, and it is the center of every worship service. The Toledo Diocese has given special permission for Catholics to not attend Mass.

“It’s the central part of their faith,” Ross said. “Everybody who will stay at home, we ask them to receive what is called a spiritual communion… It’s difficult, I must tell you. It’s the presence that makes the difference. It’s their presence around the altar and the church that makes the big difference and supporting each other.”

Maki, at Zion Lutheran, has similar hurdles with communion, as his church also believes it is more than a symbol.

Monford, since in-person church is on hold, hasn’t been able to hold baptisms, something central to his church.

Some pastors wonder if the ease in “tuning in” to a streaming service is taking something out of it. Church becomes passive.

“It’s like buying pet food or choosing shampoo,” Bucher said. “Worship has always been a participatory, transformational experience. It’s something that people participate in together. And as they practice the faith together, it allows the spirit to sanctify us, to become more like Christ and what Christ wants us to be.”

Learning curve

“I’m only in the pulpit,” Lima Baptist Temple Senior Pastor Al Elmore said, deferring to Green and Anderson on tech. “I let them do all the other stuff.”

He’s in his 60s and has needed practice with the camera. He enjoys the time flexibility of streaming but struggled at first to connect with the camera in an empty auditorium. He is quick to joke, and he likes to be able to see people react to those jokes.

Maki, also in his 60s, struggled with missing both Easter and Christmas. During Easter, they were on pause. During Christmas, he was recovering from COVID-19. Most of the pastors interviewed for this story have had the disease.

Rae Neal, vice president of the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship of Lima, said their average of 20 people attending were first served by videos put out by the fellowship’s association. They soon realized they were going to have to help their older group to connect. They’ve used Zoom in addition to meeting in person at times for small groups, before the virus numbers spiked. Now, they’re focusing on using technology.

“But we still have some that are unable to access that, so it’s still a struggle to maintain that interaction with some people,” Neal said.

The fellowship’s programs and events are still being planned, from dropping off activity kits to the homes of the youth, organizing a plant sale in May and helping maintain community gardens.

Steve Merrill, owner of St. Henry’s Stage Right Productions, does commercial installation of sound, lights and video equipment in churches and schools. He said customers are interested in livestreaming and improving their livestreaming as time goes by.

“I’m a Christian myself, I’m a Catholic over here in Fort Recovery, I understand,” Merrill said. A usual Sunday will see him at Mass with his wife and kids as well as at least popping in on the streams he helped install at other churches.

“There’s times when it’s like, ‘Oh, I gotta get ahold of pastor tomorrow. That was a disaster,’” he said with a laugh.

If churches don’t have the budget — and he says about $6,000 is a starting place for livestreaming equipment — he encouraged them to try what they can.

“I’ll install whatever,” Merrill said. “I’m like, just do something. Don’t not do anything.”

Future direction

From drive-in services to new online small groups, churches are in the middle of a long experimentation phase — all while grieving for friends lost to COVID-19.

“But the livestream even after the pandemic will always be top of our list because it is such a good (ministry),” Elmore said. “It’s not just the future, it’s the present, more so than ever now.”

Elmore’s former church in Alabama just hired an online-only pastor.

Green can imagine a future in perhaps 20 or 30 years where congregations will meet virtually, using virtual reality goggles and the like, without ever stepping foot inside a church building.

Bucher can see that, too.

“My kids play ‘League of Legends’ with people in China and Korea on a regular basis, so why wouldn’t it be possible for us to worship with family communities all over the world?” Bucher said. “I don’t know what God’s going to do with all this. I’m an analog guy in a digital world. But I think the potential is pretty exciting.”

Browning said Shawnee Alliance Church hosts a basketball league. He was scrolling through registrations when he realized some people, when asked what church they attend, entered “Shawnee Alliance Church online.”

“And we haven’t seen them physically yet,” Browning said. “We’re not trying to grow this tall. Right now, we’re trying to grow this wide. … There are people now who will come to church in person, start a watch party on their phone and pick up their phone and interact with people, and I love it.”

Bucher believes how we “do church” is different now.

“Even when the vaccine is out and the pandemic is over, I get the feeling that the way people have experienced worship is not going back,” Bucher said. “I feel it’s changed forever.”

Like all churches, time goes on and plans must be made. Lima Baptist Temple is working on Easter, all the while going day by day.

“So we know if we get shut down again, we’re prepared,” Elmore said. “It’s different now. It’s a new reality that we’re in. It’s not a new normal.”

Ben Anderson, associate pastor at Lima Baptist Temple, helps with the livestreaming and online programming now offered at the church. Many churches have had to improve their technology skills to reach their members during the pandemic and continue outreach.

The Rev. Rick Friebel celebrates Easter Mass on April 12, 2020, at SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Ottawa. In the early days of the pandemic, the church used a laptop computer to stream services over Facebook Live. The church has upgraded its equipment since then, moving to a more powerful camera that zooms and pans from the back of the church that doesn’t leave electronic equipment near the altar.

Shawnee United Methodist Church turned to outdoor services to deliver God’s message to members during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Michael Green, student pastor and technology and media director at Lima Baptist Temple, has worked with youth at the attached Temple Christian School to learn technology skills.

Ben Anderson, Michael Green and Al Elmore are working together to be sure Lima Baptist Temple can reach their members during a pandemic but also encourage others to consider joining the church.

Pandemic spurs faith groups to learn technology

Reach Adrienne McGee Sterrett at 567-242-0510.