Ministry Spark (David C Cook) and Dark Horse Insight, a research and strategy consulting firm, partnered up to survey ministry leaders across the country. We asked leaders several questions about the current challenges we’re facing, and we’ll be sharing their comments and stories to help you as you navigate this time. This is the first article of the series.
Our first open-ended question was related to how technology has supported or hindered relationships during COVID-19 closures.
Responses fell within these categories:
Let’s dive in!
Ministry leaders have creatively employed digital tools in maintaining relationships remotely, customizing communication to their various audiences, and adjusting in real time when a platform stops being useful.
They say remote communication requires a new level of intentionality from all parties if quality relationships are to continue.
Digital tools are proving most effective in situations where relationships are already strong, and they are most useful as a short-term solution. In the long term, users are growing weary of screens and exhausted from keeping up with the various platforms and channels.
In the end, while these leaders say technology has definitely supported their relationship-sustaining efforts, nothing takes the place of face-to-face interaction.
Tools and How They’re Working
Church leaders have gotten creative to maintain relationships remotely. Many have begun using multiple tools to reach different audiences—and adjusting when a tool seems to become less effective.
These tools run the gamut—from snail mail to digital standards like email, text, Zoom, and Facebook—to more recently discovered tools like Marco Polo (video messaging), GroupMe (group chat), and online group game sites like Jackbox.
Having so many options is helpful, but managing the different platforms and customizing communication also equals a lot of time and stress for those in ministry.
What Ministry Leaders Are Saying About Tools Working
“Phone calls and text messages have probably worked the best for personal contact, so I have been contacting our families this way every two weeks, but this is very time consuming, and I find it exhausting!”
–Children’s and Family Pastor
“I think because I am a bit older (well, more than a bit), technology is work for me. Sometimes I just want to talk to people. With the children from the church and parents, it is harder. Some respond best by email, some by Facebook messenger, some by text.
It’s a lot of work. I am going to start this week meeting a few kids outside their homes for a few minutes to check in on them.
We are starting a limited Sunday service next week, but no children’s ministry. We do have a few areas around us with poor phone and internet service. Rural area. It’s a challenge.”
“I’m not going to lie, I’m tired. I’m tired of trying so hard to connect without being together.
I think a variety of contacts is the number one way to try and strengthen relationships right now. Doing Zoom calls and calling people on the phone, sending emails, and snail mail—reaching out in different ways reaches different people, so even though it is more work on our side, it is worth it in the end.”
“Messenger seemed a good way to contact everyone at once and see how everyone is doing or needs anything. Now only a few are responding. Individual texts seem to be working better.”
Distance Inspires and Requires Intentionality
Being unable to meet in person has inspired more intentional efforts to stay in touch, and technology allows for that.
On the flip side, this type of communication also requires more intention on the part of all participants—coworkers in a conversation, the speaker and the listeners of a sermon, and the recipients of an email or text—to make it effective.
What Ministry Leaders Are Saying About Intentionality
“I found that intentional efforts from both parties to check up on each other and keep a conversation going has helped make relationships stronger—it has to be both parties and not one-sided though.”
–Children’s Ministry Volunteer
“To keep relationships strong, there has to be constant input. We cannot rely on the technology of online services to do the work. It is a fabulous tool to keep people connected to the pastor, the weekly message, the church that they are familiar with. But it will be a hindrance if that is all we rely on.
It definitely takes a person to employ technology (phones, Zoom, messages, etc.) to reach out to another individual. Taking interest, giving encouragement or help is very necessary relationship builder.”
“The ease of bombarding with emails can be very one-sided and less personal than a face-to-face or even phone conversation. We can feel like we are really being relational when really all we are doing is adding to the noise.”
“Not being able to meet with people physically has caused me to start calling people much more often. Phone calls and Zoom meetings have been my most frequently used ways of meeting with people lately, and they’ve been surprisingly effective in keeping my relationships active and strong.”
“What technology has been getting in the way of is seeing or connecting with all my leaders. Not everyone responds.”
Technology More Effective for Already-Strong Relationships
Where strong relationships already existed (such as in small groups), online tools have helped maintain touchpoints of connection. But where a relationship was weak pre-pandemic (as with infrequent or inactive attendees), remote-only connection has created more distance.
For some families with competing priorities (like homeschool), the screen overload has also pushed digital connection with church into the background. They are overwhelmed.
Creating community when you can’t be together can be a challenge.
What Ministry Leaders Are Saying About Strong Relationships
“[Zoom] seems to work best when relationships already existed, so small groups and our youth group are using this effectively.”
–Children’s and Family Pastor
“We have found that the network of cell groups and teams across the church is so helpful. People are already connected and so they must just continue to put into the relationships.”
“I have a lot of kids (200+) to try to reach, and it’s been challenging, to say the least. You have to reach the parents to reach the kids.
Our church body as a whole is not super active on social media, they don’t typically check or respond to emails, and so many families are just trying to manage schooling their kids and working right now.
I know a majority of our regular attenders and ‘churched’ families are doing their own things at home, but it is our new-to-faith or new-to-the-church families that I worry about and am sad I haven’t been able to find a way to connect to them.”
“Zoom meetings help right now for small groups, but it should be a short-term solution. My biggest concern once this calms down is that people will just stay home and not bother coming to in-person church or small groups out of convenience and not to actually have to engage in real relationships that are vulnerable and sincere.”
–CE Lay Leader
“It’s hard to get people engaged long-term. Kids are using technology for school, and parents are stimulated between work and teaching their kids. They are tired of technology.”
–Pastor of Children and Youth Ministries
Online Tools Are Best for Short-Term Use
Church leaders see Zoom and other tools as short-term solutions that are nearing the end of their shelf life. They say people are overloaded with screens, and with so much of life being online right now, they are seeing attrition and disengagement.
In the work environment, Zoom is better suited to taking care of business than building relationships. People tend to talk business and end the call without the after-meeting interpersonal chatter that typically accompanies physical meetings.
What Ministry Leaders Are Saying About Tool Use
“We are all encountering ‘Zoom fatigue,’ so although it allows us to connect, it has a shelf life and limited value.”
“For connecting with the members of our church, Zoom has worked for some, but some people won’t connect this way and others are ‘over it’ and are not engaging. Technology has been an awesome tool, but it doesn’t substitute for personal contact. And some have so many online conference calls they are feeling overwhelmed.
We feel like Zoom Zombies!”
–Children’s and Family Pastor
“Technology is just being overused these days. I’m finding people are getting tired of meeting over these platforms and are engaging less and less as the weeks progress.”
–Pastor of Children and Youth Ministries
“It is so much easier to see someone by walking down the hall and having impromptu meetings with them. It is certainly more effort with less relational payback. We meet via Zoom, phone, or email and take care of business and then get off the phone.
It takes much more effort to stay connected. For the most part, Zoom helps us get business done, but it doesn’t promote relationships.”
“Not sure meeting via internet is always as productive. Not being able to walk into someone’s office or have a Bible study in person is difficult. People aren’t always as personal when on video. Some are nonchalant, but others are worried about being on screen.
Also, having to make a call or video chat to discuss work is sometimes tedious and just gets avoided when being in the same building would mean a quick 2-minute conversation.
Meetings are more agenda motivated whereas when you meet in person, you tend to have off-line casual conversations with people as you wait for the meeting or Bible study to start.”
Online Tools Cannot Replace Face-to-Face
Church leaders say online tools can never take the place of in-person meetings and that this whole situation has served to highlight the value of face-to-face interaction.
What Ministry Leaders Are Saying About Face-to-Face Interaction
“[Technology] just cannot fulfill the need of a human long term. I need a hug, a handshake, a ‘real’ interaction with other humans.”
–Children’s and Adult CE Pastor
“What seems to work for me, in trying to keep strong relationships, is use of texts, phone calls, emails, and even snail mail letters (those seem especially appreciated!).
Of COURSE I’ve found that technology can support relationships—but I have also found that, for example, Zoom meetings can become tedious and can cause my mind and attention to wander. The value of FACE-TO-FACE relationship time has never been so obvious!”
–Sunday School Leader
“Our small group is feeling the strain of not being able to get together physically. While Zoom works, it’s not the same as meeting in person. We’re a group of huggers and so this has been a stretch.
When we do a meeting with our entire team—might be 20 people—everyone is on mute because otherwise it would get distracting with all the excess background noise. But it’s an extra step to unmute yourself to say something, so it seems like less people are talking or you go to unmute and there are a couple other people unmuting and then you’re trying to figure out who should say something first.
People can misread your face—umm … no, I’m not upset. It’s just my regular face… It works, but I don’t see it as a long-term solution.”