“I lost a church member to COVID yesterday,” Steve Bezner, Senior Pastor of Houston Northwest Church in Houston, Texas, told me on Monday. “Because I’m at-risk and my son currently has COVID-19, I can’t go sit with a new widow in my congregation. I can pray with her on the phone, but it’s bizarre. I felt very inadequate and helpless.”
I heard a similar story from Tommy Welty, Lead Pastor of Inland Hills Community Church in Fallbrook, California, just one day later. “The thing I miss most is hospital visits and visiting shut-ins,” Welty said. “Praying over the phone is not the same as holding hands and praying.”
Welty’s congregation also lost a member to complications related to COVID-19. “The shame of not being able to be with him in his final moments, the grief of having lost a dear friend, and the difficulty of ministering to his family from a distance has taken a tremendous toll on myself and the congregation that Facebook Live can’t heal,” Welty said.
Similar laments have poured out on social media since March. We see you, shepherds. You miss your sheep, your pastures. You miss the sheep you haven’t even gotten the chance to meet—all those livestream visitors you haven’t had the opportunity to greet in person. You became pastors to care for people, to sit side by side and counsel, comfort, teach, disciple. Now, you’re largely stuck behind screens, trying to work and connect, wondering if it’s working.
“One thing I realized was how much information I was receiving on Sunday mornings from conversations in a hallway,” Bezner said. Without those touchpoints, it's remarkably easy for needs and heartbreaks to fall through the cracks.
There’s no quick fix for any of this. We can’t create a technology that replaces the feeling of an arm around a shoulder or of a beloved pastor walking through the door of the hospital room. And we can’t recreate the Sunday morning church lobby with decades of conversations still echoing around its halls, a legacy of connection and community that’s difficult to translate online. If we can’t recreate the incarnational, and we feel exhausted by the digital, what is there to do?
Pastor, let me say that the answer is “not everything.” You do not have to understand the internet the way you understand Scripture. You don’t need to have social media acumen that parallels your ability to facilitate a gathering. So much of what you need starts with the ache you feel—the grief and lament over the way things have changed, the fear that congregants won’t physically come back to church even when they can, the hope that your people can be cared for even now.
That longing to pastor is exactly the type of shepherding people need. You don’t have to become an online expert in order to survive this time. You can be yourself, armed with a tool or two that helps you bridge that divide from incarnational to digital, so that you’re not just looking at numbers or click rates but continuing to find ways of connecting with sheep in need of shepherding.
If you enjoy learning new things and the progress-toward-a-goal feeling of an academic setting (or if you fondly remember all those seminary classes), you may find that an online course in web and social media use for churches is a great fit for you.
Right Now Media offers a course called “Online Church” that helps you assess your comfort level with all things digital. It also helps you set goals and take reasonable steps toward an online presence that empowers you, your congregants, and visitors to connect with one another and the things of God.
If you want to zone in on a specific aspect of reaching people online—and actually connecting with them—Steve Fogg offers a course in maximizing Facebook Ads for your church. Through video presentations, audio files, and printable worksheets, Fogg walks you through possibilities, opportunities, and mistakes to avoid when leveraging Facebook Ads to build “successful foundations to reach your community and make more impact.”
Church Marketing University also offers a course called “Facebook Ads: Learn How To Reach More People.”
“Are you ready to go to the next level in reaching people on social media?” CMU asks. “Facebook ads can be a very powerful tool in connecting with people in your community. But you need to know how to use these tools effectively so you are not wasting money.” Perhaps even more appealing—CMU offers a course called “Lead Pastors: What Senior Leaders Need to Know,” which they encourage you to watch before diving in to the specific trainings for Facebook Ads and other media tools like Instagram, text messaging, and Facebook Groups.
Social Media Management
If you’re not crazy about the idea of dedicating time to a course, or being the person with the information who now has to implement all of these plans, you should consider hiring a social media manager. Larger churches may need a full-time staff member for such a role, while others are able to make do with a part-time or even volunteer position. Regardless, it’s helpful to have someone who excels (and takes joy) in connecting to church members in this way.
Look for someone who has both a solid grasp of how social media can benefit your church body as well as a larger perspective that can inform expectations of what social media can provide for your congregation. It’s easy to get excited about the idea of a social media expert leveraging every possible tool for the sake of the gospel, but the more prudent choice may be harnessing a few tools to their fullest capacity so that your leadership team, volunteers, and congregants don’t find themselves burned out or overloaded.
“The Ultimate Guide to Communication & Marketing Job Descriptions” by Vanderbloemen provides a great place to start by guiding you through questions, possible job responsibilities, and the nuances of qualities like emotional intelligence and caring leadership that matter just as much as social media acumen. If you’re considering bringing on a whole team, or enhancing an existing team, check out “How to Effectively Build a Social Media Team for your Church Ministry” from The Connected Church. This piece walks through possible roles to add to your staff team, as well as potentials like contracting with a social media agency or a digital consultant.
It’s hard to grow a congregation when the doors are closed. It’s difficult to invite someone to visit your church when that equates to tuning in to the livestream. And, perhaps most frustrating, it’s hard to even have these conversations with prospective parishioners when everyone is masked and socially distanced. How will the sheep find a shepherd?
If you’re tired of watching the livestream numbers fluctuate on Sunday mornings without having any sense of who those numbers represent—GlooConnect is here for you. People in your community are turning to Google every day to find churches that can care for them, support their families, and meet the needs you long to meet. GlooConnect helps you find each other in a real way—beyond your online presence, beyond their Facebook account, and into relational conversations.
With the help of Gloo’s experts, you’ll fill out a simple profile about your church’s ministries. Then, GlooConnect will run social media campaigns and PSAs that connect with real needs in your community and help match the people with those needs to your church. Like a dating website that emphasizes sustainable matches and real connections built on shared values and desires, GlooConnect hands you new relationships with people as eager to be cared for by you, as you are to care for them.
Digital and incarnational are hardly equal, but the two don’t have to be at odds. With the right tools and help, you, your existing church community, and those yearning for it, can bridge the digital and relational divide, walking across it together toward true connection, care, and community.