By The Rev’d Deb Bird:

On the last Sunday before shifting to online ministry, it felt like we didn’t know much. We had no idea how long it would be before we could gather in person again, how the next service would be delivered, or how many of us would struggle with isolation or fall ill. What we did know was that with an unknown stretch of physical distancing ahead of us, the need to maintain community as a place of solidarity, belonging and practical support would be more important than ever.

Communities are built on common mission, mutuality and participation. In a parish these qualities are often apparent in the sense of ownership and the unique contributions of its members. But with face-to-face gatherings temporarily suspended, it might have been easy to feel that our place in community was also on hiatus.

Many parishes have now transitioned to online services and a mixed mode of pastoral care, but clergy and lay parish leaders still face the challenge of maintaining community that fosters belonging and offers expression to the unique charisms and callings among us.

Building such community takes all of us, and there are plenty of practical ways parishioners may continue to offer their gifts and practically assist in building up a shared life across online and offline spaces.

Here are just a few ideas.

The ministry of noticing

On a typical Sunday morning, ‘welcomers’ are usually the first to notice who is new, who appears to be struggling, and whom we haven’t seen in a while. While some technologies may allow clergy to track who has ‘attended’ our new online gatherings, chances are it will still be friends in the congregation who first notice and let us know who’s missing. Likewise, when we encounter a visitor in online mediums, it may be appropriate for the ‘welcomers’ among us to offer a warm greeting and perhaps conversation in whatever manner the platform allows.

Patterns of prayer

Liturgical assistants are generally licensed to help clergy in the delivery of Sunday liturgy, as well as lead the Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. Where a daily prayer is being offered, it may be useful for liturgical assistants to help fill out the online roster, or to offer ‘phone church’ to offline parishioners. (The Church of England has published prayers and a simple order of service that could be mailed out and said together over the phone.)

Sharing news and gifts

As a church family, we share far more than liturgy and coffee. We celebrate, mourn and face adversity together, and comfort and support each other. Sharing news of our households via phone trees, Facebook groups or the church bulletin helps us stay involved in each other’s lives and may help keep our online and offline community connected. Similarly, groups such as the gardening or craft guilds may not be able to gather for now, but could perhaps share their passions via tips and challenges, photos and videos for the parish community.

Love in action

Even as the presence of COVID-19 decreases, people will still need assistance navigating online technology, getting to appointments, recovering from operations, or doing the shopping. If you can help with these tasks, let your clergy know or better yet, offer to gather a group whose practical assistance complements the parish’s pastoral response team.

Community connections

If your parish has a relationship with local organisations or grassroots community groups, stay in touch. Share the challenges and good work of our neighbours and look for practical ways to continue supporting their efforts amid distancing.

Keep us informed

Above all, keep talking to us! Right now, my favourite type of email to receive is the “I thought you might like to know…” message. While we are certainly navigating unfamiliar territory, we are never too busy to delight in your family news, puzzle together over the odd detail in the Gospel, or pray with you in concern.

One of the best pieces of feedback I’ve heard since we shifted to an alternative church model was, “We’re still showing up for each other. Everyone is here!” Between phone trees, online church and all the practical ways people are reaching out, the bond of community weaves a familiar and comforting presence among us.

Ideally, the initiatives and practices we engage in now will not only practically assist clergy and lay parish leaders, but build the resilience and spirit of our parishes, preparing us for the time when we transition toward new life as community beyond COVID-19.

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