Five congregations partner to offer online worship

April 02, 2020

By: Christa Meland

For congregations that have never recorded or live-streamed worship, there’s lots to learn—and figuring it out alone can be overwhelming.
With COVID-19 forcing churches to suspend in-person worship, leaders at Stewartville UMC came up with the idea of partnering with other nearby local churches to jointly offer an online worship experience that surpassed what any one of them could have created independently.
For the past two weeks, Stewartville, Racine, Sumner Center, and Dexter UMCs, and United Church of Grand Meadow, have been pre-recording a basic, multi-segment worship video featuring piano music and messages from all three of the churches’ pastors. The finished video is uploaded to YouTube and disseminated around the time each of them typically held in-person worship on Sundays. (Watch videos here.)
Initially, the videos were recorded in the Stewartville UMC sanctuary; but given Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s “stay-at-home” executive order, they opted to switch to each pastor recording a worship segment from home and sending it to Stewartville Youth and Worship Ministry Director Catie Levenick to be edited into a single video.
“I appreciate the opportunity and ability to work together as colleagues in ministry,” said Rev. Wane Souhrada, who serves Stewartville UMC. “Each person has strengths to offer. Each congregation has unique gifts to share. The burden is held together and doesn't seem quite so overwhelming. I have always believed as United Methodist churches, we are in this together. We will all do well (or not so well) together. I also sense the members of our congregations are uplifted and encouraged by seeing us work together. They do not feel so alone either.”  
For Levenick, a key benefit of the video is that it includes all three pastors because they connect with people watching in different ways. Something one of them may say in a Sunday video could reach someone whom they have never met face to face.
“It is my hope that God would take all we have to offer at this time and multiply it more than we could ever know,” she said. “It is my hope that the members of our churches would take that ounce of hope, of ‘community’ and creatively bring it to someone else.”
Levenick hopes to be able to expand the partnering congregations’ virtual offerings to include small groups in the coming weeks, and Souhrada hopes that the five churches can continue to partner in ministry even after the days of extreme social distancing are behind them.
Rev. Jon Marburger, who serves Dexter UMC and Grand Meadow United Church, said the collaborative weekly videos have been a Godsend—particularly because he’s someone who struggles with technology. But with a little coaching and some practice, he’s been able to record himself on his smartphone and offer a word in each video.
“I, and my congregation, are exceedingly grateful to the other three churches in sharing their technology skills and ministry opportunities with us,” he said. “In a rural setting like ours, we would not be able to pull off online worship on our own.  I hope that churches in other communities might be able to partner in similar ways.”
Rev. Bridget Sheely, who serves Racine and Sumner Center UMCs, said the responses to the collaborative worship services have been extremely positive among not only members of her congregation but also friends in the community.
“It has been a surprising blessing to experience community unity through technology advances,” she said. “Also offering each of the pastors and lay people video time has offered a sense of peace and connection. We are united as Methodists and when we put our minds together, beautiful God moments shine for all to enjoy.”
Through the worship videos, church leaders hope to not only help their members stay connected to God and one another, but that members might invite their family members, friends, and neighbors to participate so the congregations can reach new people hungering for connection and community at this time of social isolation.
“We continue to be a witness to our communities,” said Souhrada. “We worship. We listen for God to speak to us through song, prayer, scripture, and the proclaimed word. We are encouraged, uplifted, and called to go into the world bringing light and hope.”

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. 

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