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COVID-19 and our church one year later: Asbury UMC balances online and in-person ministry

By: Doreen Gosmire, director of communication, Dakotas UMC

In  March 2020, churches across the Dakotas closed their doors at the recommendation of the Bishop. Congregations found they were in uncharted territory tapping into creative ways to be the church but not be in the church building. This is the fourth article in a series sharing the ways congregations have navigated the year of the pandemic and found new ways to make disciples. 

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Rev. Kip Roozen. Dakotas Conference file photo.

"We can't be just looking at, 'let's get back to normal.' We have to look to the future," says Rev. Kip Roozen, who serves as the lead pastor at Asbury United Methodist Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. "What is a new thing that God wants us to pursue? What can we be doing that is meaningful, purposeful, and God-led? What new thing can be done?"

In-person worship came to a halt in March 2020 for all churches across the Dakotas Conference. The need to be online was not new to Asbury UMC, as they offered a live stream of the service for some time. They quickly moved from streaming worship live to pre-recording the worship service and scheduling the recording for viewing.

The equipment that was in place included one camera on the balcony. The camera was moved to be more of a close-up view, and two separate worship services were pre-recorded, traditional, and contemporary.

The church embraced digital ministry.

Sunday School transitioned to an online format. The 30-minute lesson or interaction is pre-recorded and goes out on the website and Facebook. Other small groups are meeting on Zoom, including the Caring Connections women small group.

Wednesday night, which typically happens in-person, was transitioned to online Bible studies. People join on Zoom if they want to interact or watch on Facebook if they're going to watch it later or watch passively.  

Every day of the week, you can tune into Asbury UMC's Facebook page for check-in with one of the staff members. Sometimes it is Pastor Kip. Other times you will see Rev. Matt Morrison, the associate pastor, the children's ministry coordinator, or lay leaders in the congregation. There typically is a brief devotional and announcements. Sometimes there is a special guest who will speak about a current issue or mission project.

In-person worship resumed in February of 2021. The leadership team set a limit of 50 people per service to follow social distancing guidelines. People pre-register to make sure there is a space for them. Attendance is smaller. About 50 people attend three different services.

"We surveyed to see what people would like to do for worship and small groups. A lot of people said they are going to wait until more people are vaccinated," says Pastor Kip.

Asbury Online

Graphic courtesy of Asbury UMC.

Online attendance continues to be the choice of most of the members of the congregations. Two pre-recorded worship services, traditional style worship, and a contemporary style, are produced and pushed out on Asbury's website and Facebook page.

"We hope that in-person worship attendance keeps growing. But we do not want to diminish our online presence. We want to keep that going," says Roozen.

A second camera is waiting to be installed in the sanctuary to help live streaming any of the services. One thought is to have a pre-recorded service available to viewers online and live-stream one of the sanctuary services. Pastor Kip and Pastor Matt are responsible for planning, filming, editing, and pushing out the pre-recorded service.

Asbury UMC is part of the Digital Campus Initiative and participated in training throughout February. A team was formed to try to take the online ministry to the next level to make meaningful connections.

"In some ways, the online ministry has connected us to people that I am not sure they would have walked into our building. They connected with us online. It was a little bit surprising to me that a woman called and wanted to join the church after viewing our worship service online. Another woman has gotten involved with the women's group online and Sunday worship. Now she is coming to in-person worship services."  

These two new people have helped with outreach mission projects like serving at the Banquet West.

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Asbury UMC photo.

Mission goes on

One of Asbury UMC's signature ministries is a partnership with Laura B. Anderson Elementary School, right across the street from the church. The school was shut down last spring. The school currently does not allow people in the building other than students and staff into the building. These hurdles have not stopped the congregation from reaching out.

Last spring, when children left the building, so did several books from the school's library, and the books did not return. So, Asbury raised funds to replace the books. 

 "We raised more than $1,700 through donations. Asbury donated thousands of disposable masks. That was one of their requests. We have purchased some clothing items to have on hand. We have had meals delivered for staff meetings. We carry on the ministry," says Roozen. "The kids wrote thank you notes to the church. That was fun to see."

Asbury is a mission partner with Tree of Life Ministry in Mission, South Dakota. Typically, groups from the church travel to serve at the mission on the Rosebud Reservation. The congregation has been raising funds for food and other items that are needed.

Groups from Asbury UMC have been serving the "to-go" meals at Banquet West, a Sioux Falls food mission. The Night Watch canteen, a ministry of the United Methodist congregations in the Sioux Falls area, is part of the members' mission ministry at Asbury UMC. Nightwatch serves a meal out of a van at crucial locations in Sioux Falls.

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Rev. Matt Morrison. Dakotas Conference file photo.

Shifting to the future

Meetings of committees and the church have been meeting by Zoom. Some groups have not met and will decide if they will begin to meet in person or continue ministry differently.

The pastor's workload has shifted. "Our time frames have shifted. To get things ready each week, we have to set time aside to plan, film and edit. We all of a sudden, as pastors, have become producers," says Roozen. "Pre-recording has helped us avoid several glitches. We found that being live invites an opportunity to fail. We limp along and adjust as needed."

Offering in-person and digital ministry means finding the volunteers to make both happen. Volunteers have been slow to help with in-person worship. Additional volunteers are needed to be the online host or greeter during online worship service. 

 The workload balance has become a challenge for church staff. Pastoral care has been the biggest challenge. Making visits, personal connections has not been happening. Most care ministry has been happening with phone calls.

"The difficult or disappointing part is missing the personal interactions and connections. It is tough to figure out how we can assist or be there for people going through difficult times. We constantly have to ask things like, can we visit them? How can we help this family or person grieve? How can we minister to them? "

The congregation hopes to map out a future with a vibrant ministry that happens online and in person. Roozen shares phases that he and the members of his congregation have been living through during the pandemic. They were first treading water, trying to keep up and continue with ministry, then moving to a phase questioning when things would get back to normal—finally understanding that we are entering a new phase, where God is asking us to look to the future and build a new thing.

Pastor Kip says, "Some of it is just getting your head around the new normal and asking, what can we be doing that is meaningful, purposeful, and God-led? What new thing can be done?

Lessons learn

Learn and adjust to what is going on around you. Take the time that is needed to make things happen with the tools and resources that are present. But also listen to what the needs are and what might be required to meet the needs.

"It really would have been much easier to simply leave the camera in the balcony at the back of the church and not do all of this planning, filming, and editing," says Pastor Kip. "But God is calling us to learn, lead and do a new thing."

Mission and outreach keep people connected and growing in their faith. The mission projects and outreach did not stop at Asbury UMC. They continued with adjustments as necessary. The signature ministry with Laura Wilder Elementary was needed throughout the pandemic for the school and the congregation members.

Listen for God's voice. Many of us are hoping that things will "get back to normal." Pastor Kip and the members at Asbury UMC are now hoping for a "new normal." Take time to ponder what God is calling each of us to do.


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