By Rev. Deb Conklin
The last 14 months have been the most difficult in my twenty-plus years as a pastor. On Friday, March 13th, 2020, all ministry leaders in the Greater Northwest received a message from our bishop that our buildings were to be closed, effective immediately, due to the COVID-19 virus.
Many of us who had never broadcast our worship in any way had two days to decide if—and how—we would get online for Sunday, March 15th. Some of us made it. Some of us didn’t. I did post a live-stream worship that Sunday. (As much as I think what I am posting these days is primitive and minimalist, I can only laugh when I look at my first attempts at livestream.) We all believed that the church would be back to in-person services “shortly,” so we settled for make-shift worship with all its foibles for the first few weeks. It was a couple of months before it became clear this was a long-term situation.
I have long made it a practice to only perform in public doing those things that I do well. Creating livestream worship services with no staff to offer tech support has forced me out of my comfort zone in a very public way. I do not do what I consider a professional quality job. Once I go live on Sunday morning, what goes up is what goes up. I’ve had Sundays when I had trouble getting any audio. I’ve had Sundays when I had to move my location after starting worship to get online at all.
Easter 2020 (of all Sundays) was a total failure. Because we so missed having worship music, we decided to use the Easter service generously offered by the Conference. The plan was to get everyone on Zoom together, which took many hours of walking people through and practicing the Zoom process. After our opening, the goal was to do a screen share of the Conference worship, and then we would come back together on Zoom to have communion.
It was a disaster. People who had been on Zoom the day before could not get on, even with my help (by phone). The Conference worship did not share successfully. No one (other than me) could see or hear it. As we tried to make it work, people kept giving up and dropping off. Finally, we gave up on the Conference worship and the 4 of us who were left shared communion together and said goodbye. Not our most joyous Easter!
At one point, I was persuaded by colleagues to use YouTube rather than livestream. My musicians and I spent an entire Saturday pre-recording the music for three Advent services. At the end, the computer failed to ‘close’ the recording, and we lost all of it. That was the end of my YouTube efforts!
One year into this, I still get frustrated and experience failures. I have learned that the minimum necessary resources for me to ensure I can post something are a laptop, two Surfaces, and two tablets. And, at the start of each service, I leave the room briefly and use my phone (a sixth device) to make sure the livestream has both video and audio. And don’t even get me started on creating and posting Facebook events each week to invite folks to our services!
The perfectionist in me has found all of this deeply stressful. But as the year has gone by, I have found that I am increasingly able to let go of the need to be perfect and be content with being good enough. I have received so many kind and encouraging comments posted—especially on the weeks when I had major flubs—but also on the weeks when something went really well! I have also learned to walk away from the computer and take a break when Facebook won’t do what I tell it to.
Another source of stress was trying to do too much. The winter COVID struck, I had begun posting a nightly prayer on Facebook, which was very popular. Once we shut our buildings, I added a Facebook Note with a daily reflection—often touching on moral and spiritual implications of current events. Because some of my congregation will listen to something but not sit down and read, I began sharing those daily reflections on livestream as well as posting the Note. This meant twice a week, I was pushing my tech competence to the limit of my capabilities (and sometimes beyond).
Naturally, I eventually burned out. I had to step back. For many weeks, I cut back to only doing the essentials, online worship being the main essential. And it was fine. In this time of pandemic, it was enough.
It has been a difficult and challenging year. It was a year I would not care to repeat. And, it has been a year of immense personal and professional growth. I have actually learned many new technical skills. I have learned to be kinder to myself. I am learning to live with good enough. (Or, even, not THAT bad!) And I have learned that my expectations for myself have been way higher than the expectations anyone else has had for me. So I am learning to lower my expectations (a little), receive grace from God and others, and understand that perfection is impossible this side of heaven.
Now, I am learning the tools I need to do “Hybrid” worship – both online and in-person. We will see how well I have learned my lessons!
Rev. Deb Conklin serves as pastor of St. Paul’s and Liberty Park United Methodist churches in Spokane, Washington.