Apr 17, 2020
The question is one that a lot of religious people and leaders are asking themselves right now. The global health pandemic means that responsible congregations throughout the world have shuttered their doors to physical services for the foreseeable future. Some are continuing to use their sanctuaries to film online services, others are producing online services directly from the homes of clergy and staff, and some are not meeting at all. Many are hosting online religious education, meditation, small group ministry, and social forums.
The situation is in many ways a new one. This is not the first time when religious communities have had to close their physical spaces during a time of pestilence and plague. But it is the first time that such a mass closing of worship services has taken place when technology is broadly available for almost any congregation to have some kind of online presence.
There are a lot of people trying to figure out what to do and how congregations should react to the situation. The UUA has a lot of advice. I’ve also read pieces from Sightings and from the remnants of the Alban Institute. As I have been thinking about these dynamics myself, I have been seeking answers to five questions: 1. Why have an online congregation? 2. What is an online congregation? 3. Who participates in an online congregation? 4. Where does an online congregation meet? 5. How does an online congregation meet?
1. Why have an online congregation?
This turns out to be a bit of trick question. The answer that immediately comes to mind is that we have an online congregation because our congregation can no longer meet in-person. And so, the online congregation becomes a representation of, a metaphor for, or even a simulacrum of the physical congregation that is (we hope temporarily) shuttered.
In the case of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, an online congregation is a sort of placeholder that exists to provide a way for the members and friends of the shuttered physical congregation to continue to connect with each other. It also a way for us to continue to serve the wider community by making publicly available the kind of programs we normally offer throughout the week. So, for instance, in addition to our online worship service we have a weekly online forum that I am curating and many small groups that meet over Zoom.
My description of why we have online congregations leaves aside entities like the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF)--a non-physical Unitarian Universalist church that provides services for anyone who cannot, or does not want to, connect with a congregation that gathers in-person. But, this leaving aside also raises an issue. There are some online congregations--Unitarian Universalist and otherwise--that existed prior to the pandemic. One of the principle questions that newly online congregations like mine will need to answer in the months that come is: What distinguishes us from previously existing entities like the CLF? The Robert Koch Institut, roughly the German government’s equivalent of the CDC, is forecasting that it might be as long as 18 months before large physical gatherings are safe again. If that is true then this question will become all the more important.
2. What is an online congregation?
A painting of a synagogue is not a synagogue. A photograph of church is not a church. And an online congregation is not a physical congregation. It is both representation of a congregation that meets in-person and something different than a congregation that meets in person.
In some sense, an online congregation might be regarded as what Benedict Anderson named an “imagined community.” Anderson coined the term to describe nation states that are bound together by the imaginations of their individual citizens. It is an act of imagination to envision that people who live in Houston and Chicago have something in common while people in Houston and Mexico City do not. Imagined communities are typically bound together by the use of shared symbols (such as flags) and rituals (like voting or holidays). They can be bound together by other things as well--currency, language, bodies of law--but that appears to be less important than the use of either symbol or ritual.
Online congregations are imagined communities because their members--or participants--imagine themselves to be part of the same religious community. We cannot gather together in person. We cannot easily interact with most other members of the congregation. But we can imagine ourselves to be joined in religious communion.
This imagined aspect of community is quite different than what takes place on a Sunday morning. And that opens up another question: How do congregational leaders sustain the imaginations of their members so that they continue to imagine themselves to part of the same imagined community? There are various strategies that might be deployed and First Houston is using a number of them. We have videos posted online twice a week: a weekly forum and a weekly worship service. We offer numerous online Zoom gatherings: small groups, online classes, and virtual coffee hours. We have Facebook pages for both of our campuses and send out email messages twice a week. We have a program where volunteers from the congregation call other members between once a week and twice a month. I keep this blog...
What might not be obvious is that in some sense religious communities have always been imagined communities--even if local congregations have not been. The very function of the Pauline letters in the Christian New Testament was to knit to together scattered local congregations--many of which were probably very small--in such a way as to help them imagine themselves as part of the same religious movement. The shared hymnal that Unitarian Universalists serves a similar function. And so does almost all scripture and liturgy--which allows people to imagine contiguous communities across time and space.
3. Who participates in an online congregation?
This might be the most disruptive question in my list. And it is something that depends a lot on the technology choices that congregational leaders make and how they choose to advertise their congregational offerings. The staff and I have decided to make the offerings of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston open to all who are interested in them. We are posting prerecorded services to YouTube and inviting people who are interested in participating in our online meetings to preregister for them. This is essentially what we did prior to the pandemic: Sunday services were open to anyone who wanted to visit and programs were open to anyone who registered to participate in them.
There is, however, one striking difference: anyone in the world who has access to internet and who wants to can view our prerecorded services or register and participate in our online programs. We have seen two shifts in congregational life as a result. First, we have had a small number of non-Houston based people participating in either our program offerings, such as our parents group, or viewing our Sunday services online. We have received, for instance, some Sunday morning offering donations from people who don’t live in the Houston area.
Second, we have been able to draw from non-local people for participation in our programs. We have specifically done this through our visual meditations. They have drawn from artists through the United States, Europe, and the Middle East. Those artists have shared the videos with the friends and families, thus increasing the reach of the congregation. I have also started to do this through my forum guests. Of the four people I’ve done forums with thus far two have been local (Kim Waller and Diana Tang) and two have been from outside of Houston (Kate Coyer and Ty). Thus far, the most watched forum is one featuring a guest from outside Houston.
My big questions here are: What will this larger reach mean for the congregation when we begin to gather again in person? Will we want to keep people from outside of Houston engaged in congregational life? If so, how will we do that?
4. Where does an online congregation meet? and 5. How does an online congregation meet?
These last two seem like they should have obvious answers: on the internet and through multiple platforms. However, I think that the answers can be somewhat nuanced or complicated. For instance, the online congregation need not meet only through the internet. I speak regularly with folks from First Houston on the phone and we have a LINKS program where each member of the congregation is assigned a volunteer who calls them on a regular basis. These are forms of meeting that fall outside of being strictly online. I also find them to be more effective than a lot interactions mediated by the internet.
As for how, well... there are a lot of different platforms available. We have decided against livestreaming services in favor of pre-recording them and posting them as YouTube videos. This allows us to have an easy public face that anyone who wants to can access and also doesn’t lock people into participating at a particular time. Right now, we have just over 900 households viewing our YouTube videos on a regular basis--almost triple the number who attend the congregation when we meet in person.
There’s been a strong tendency towards religious communities using Zoom to host various kinds of online gatherings--something we’re doing. I suspect that as the months pass we’ll shift the exact how of we meet online. Technology will most likely evolve and we’ll find somethings to be more effective than others. For instance, it already seems clear that the programs that we offer for general check-in are not nearly as popular as the more structured ones. It might also become clear that alternative platforms to Zoom are more effective for the congregation’s needs.
In sum, there are a lot of unknowns about how the next several months will unfold. Religious communities like mine will need to continue to adapt. The pandemic brings with it both grave challenges and some interesting opportunities for congregational life. Both addressing the challenges and seizing the opportunties will probably take a fair amount of imagination. I’m actually excited to see how religious communities adapt themselves. And I hope that in our efforts to adapt the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston will continue to be what has been for more than a hundred years: a community devoted building the beloved community and uncovering the potential lying within each human heart.
Mar 18, 2020
I have been asked by a couple of people to make Board report for the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston public and share it on my blog. I have included a modified version of it below. I have substituted staff positions for names and redacted confidential information. Hopefully, other ministers and congregations will find it helpful in thinking how they might address the current crisis.
March 17, 2020
Dear Board and Staff:
These are strange and extraordinary times. The most important things we can do during them are to take appropriate safety precautions, take care of ourselves and all the members of our community, avoid panicking, connect with each other virtually, and think strategically.
The Board will be meeting virtually on Wednesday. The staff is planning, for the time being, to continue to work from the Museum District campus so that we can create a high-quality online worship experience for the congregation. We are also working on developing a plan to deliver online worship services in the event that it becomes necessary for us to shelter in place. [Music Director] has a home music studio and [A/V Tech] is able to produce the service on his laptop. Starting on March 17th, the ministers will be taking cameras to and from work so that we have appropriate equipment to record sermons at home if we need to.
This letter essentially serves as a substitute for my monthly Board report. It outlines my current thinking and the steps I believe the church should be taking to best serve our community and weather this difficult time. There are ten things I believe we should either assume or be planning for:
1. At least six months of online church.
We need to do all we can to help flatten the curve. The state of Texas is urging for the closure of schools for the rest of the school year. Many colleges and universities have switched to online classes through the end of the school year. The best epidemiological modeling I have seen seems to indicate that the peak of the pandemic should hit in about July--this was hinted at in the President’s most recent statement. If that is true, then we probably will not able to reopen either of the campuses for Sunday services until September.
We are planning four sets of online programs:
1. An online Sunday service, delivered via YouTube and made available on Sundays at 10:30 a.m. We have opted against streaming services because we believe that [A/V Tech] can produce a higher quality YouTube program than a livestreamed service. [Senior Minister] will be primarily responsible for this program.
2. An online Sunday gathering place, curated by [Director of Religious Education]. The online gathering place will be an opportunity for members of the congregation to connect virtually. It will include an intergenerational opportunity for check-in, reflection, and song. It will most likely take place over Zoom. It may require the recruitment of some number of volunteer facilitators. [Director of Religious Education] will be ultimately responsible for this program.
3. A midweek video message from the senior minister, delivered via YouTube and made available on Wednesdays. These videos will be short conversations between me and an expert or community leader who can help the congregation better understand how to deal with the crisis. The first video will go live on March 25th and feature Dr. Kim Waller, the epidemiologist and member of the congregation who had originally planned to offer us a forum on March 22nd. [Senior Minister] will be primarily responsible for this program.
4. A midweek online space for religious education families curated by [Director of Religious Education]. She will be using Zoom to facilitate and may ultimately decide to recruit volunteers in order to host multiple groups at the same time. [Director of Religious Education] will be ultimately responsible for this program.
2. Significant financial hardship for the church.
Many economists now believe that the economy is in recession. The speed at which the virus that causes COVID-19 has spread suggests that this will be no ordinary recession. I served the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland during the Great Recession of 2007-2009. During that recession, we experienced an 18-month lag in financial impact on the church. I believe that the financial impact of this recession will be much more rapid. To give just two examples, we will likely lose all of rental income for the remainder of the fiscal year and for part of the 2020-2021 fiscal year and see a dip in our weekly offering income.
I will submit a modified budget for the rest of the fiscal year tomorrow morning based on our revenue and expenses through March 17, 2020. I am also submitting a budget for the 2020-2021 that takes the current financial crisis into account in projections. [redacted]
I believe that we should attempt to keep everyone who works for First Church employed through the duration of the crisis. The modified budget I am submitting includes the following provisions:
-- a freeze on all program spending effective immediately;
-- the continuation of pay for hourly employees per their regularly scheduled hours;
-- the deferral of all non-critical maintenance on either campus that cannot be completed by [Sexton].
The budget I am submitting for the fiscal year 2020-2021 will:
-- anticipate significant drops in pledge, offering, and rental income;
-- freeze all staff salaries at current levels;
-- cut programs at both campuses;
-- use the Reserve Fund to maintain staff levels for growth.
3. The possibility that some members of the congregation will get sick or even die. The assumption that many of them will experience financial hardship.
[Assistant Minister] has been tasked with developing a plan to connect with the most vulnerable members of the congregation on a regular basis. This plan will include how we might safely organize food delivery for them in the event they need it and hold online memorial services if necessary. It will also include plans for distribute aid, if requested, for members in need.
4. The possibility that the staff will be confined to their houses.
We need to prepare for the possibility that the staff will have to work from home. In the event that occurs, [Business Administrator] and [Bookkeeper] have been tasked with figuring out how to run our financial operations remotely. We are also preparing to create online services remotely and make sure that the building will be safe in the event that no one is able to get to into it. [Business Administrator] and [Senior Minister] will be taking ultimate responsibility for developing this plan.
5. The possibility that some members of the staff will get sick.
In the event that staff members become incapacitated, I am designating the following chains of succession:
1. [Senior Minister]
2. [Assistant Minister]
3. [Minister Emeritus]
1. [Assistant Minister]
2. [Campus Program Staff Person]
3. [Senior Minister]
1. [Business Administrator]
3. [Minister Emeritus]
Director of Religious Education:
1. [Director of Religious Education]
2. [Religious Education Assistant]
3. [Membership and Communications Coordinator]
Membership and Communications Coordinator:
1. [Membership and Communications Coordinator]
2. [Administrative Assistant]
3. [Assistant Minister]
1. [A/V Technician]
3. [Membership and Communications Coordinator]
1. [Music Director]
3. [Volunteer Musician]
Facilities (Museum District)
2. Volunteer Designated by the Board
3. Volunteer Designated by the Board
1. Volunteer Designated by Campus Advisory Team
2. Volunteer Designated by Campus Advisory Team
3. Volunteer Designated by Campus Advisory Team
6. We should use this as an opportunity to build our online presence.
The global health emergency means that people will be more online than ever before during this time of crisis. We will be doing everything we can to expand the congregation’s social media and online footprint. [Membership and Communications Coordinator] has been tasked with simplifying the front page of our web page so that it only includes the following:
-- embedded video content of the most recent online services and midweek message;
-- links to archived video content;
-- donation tab;
-- information about joining the congregation;
-- information and links to online programming;
-- links to social media channels (Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram);
-- a subscription button for our newsletter;
-- links to recent news;
-- a links to the current website, which will be archived until such time as we return to physical services.
As starting metrics, I note the following:
Newsletter -- [aaa] subscribers
Church Twitter -- [bbb] followers
1st 24 hour views of an online church service -- [ccc] views ; [ddd] likes
YouTube -- [eee] subscribers
Facebook (MD) -- [fff] Likes
And, I’m setting the following goals for September:
Newsletter -- [aaa*1.33] subscribers
Church Twitter -- [bbb*1.33] followers
1st 24-hour views of an online church service -- [ccc*1.33] views
YouTube -- [ccc*2] subscribers
Facebook (MD) -- [fff*1.33] Likes
[Membership and Communications Coordinator] has also been tasked with developing an online path to membership. Before the pandemic hit we had [ggg] people planning to join during the month of March. Our goal is that by September all [ggg] of these people will have joined.
7. We should be prepared to move immediately to two services at both campuses when we resume services.
We should be prepared to do this for two reasons:
a) We will want to encourage social distancing for some period of time after the pandemic dies down;
b) We should anticipate pent up demand for physical community once it is safe to gather again.
[Assistant Minister] has been tasked with developing the plans for two services at both campuses.
8. As difficult as it seems, we need to think strategically about the long-term growth of the congregation.
9. We should, for the immediate future, act as if there is no federal or state government.
The United States government and the state of Texas have shown a frighteningly absences of leadership during this global health emergency. We cannot rely upon them for leadership. Instead, we will be looking to the following authorities and individuals for guidance on how to respond to the crisis:
a) The City of Houston and Harris County. Both Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo have been frank about the city and county’s lack of preparedness to deal with the health crisis. They have urged urgent action and reasonable counsel. We will follow their recommendations as to how religious communities should be responding to the crisis.
b) The governors of New York and Ohio. Both have shown significant foresight and appear to be ahead of the curve on how to contain the virus.
c) The Unitarian Universalist Association. President Susan Frederick-Gray has proven herself again and again to have a level head in a crisis and to demonstrate compassionate and thoughtful leadership--requesting that churches close last Sunday. Her decision to discourage over 100,000 people from attending worship almost certainly saved lives.
d) The Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. The response of the CDC has been a national embarrassment. The current President gutted their funding, a move which undoubtedly slowed their response to the pandemic and did much to create the current crisis. However, the CDC now seems to be getting its footing and offering useful advice. The WHO has offered useful advice throughout the pandemic.
e) [names of members of the congregation who are health professionals, redacted]
10. We should prepare for the possibility that the current President will use the pandemic as an opportunity to consolidate power.
The current President has shown himself, again and again, to have autocratic and anti-democratic politics. Both global and national history has repeatedly shown that such individuals rarely let a crisis go to waste. They often use crises to implement policies or pursue agendas that they would never be able to put in place during normal times. The national crisis of September 11th was used by the then resident of the White House to: effectively destroy the post-World War II global (or at least European and United States) human rights regimes; launch an unnecessary war of choice that destabilized an entire region of the world and cost millions of lives; and sideline or silence domestic dissent and social movements.
In sum, at such a moment of crisis, we are called to remember the prophetic function of our religious community even while we focus on the all-important tasks of pastoral care and stewardship before us. In light of this, [Assistant Minister] and I will continue to maintain a free pulpit. We will continue to work with our partner organizations to, as best we can, dismantle white supremacy, address the climate crisis, foster democracy, and build the beloved community.
the Rev. Dr. Colin Bossen
Nov 7, 2018
Dear Members and Friends of First Houston:
November is a big month for First Church. It will begin with the move of the Thoreau campus to Richmond. The campus’s new building is located on a lovely five-acre plot immediately across the street from a new housing development. It represents a real opportunity for the congregation to grow a voice for Unitarian Universalism in Fort Bend County.
The project has taken more than a year to complete. It wouldn’t have been possible without the hard work of the Rev. Dr. Dan King, Jan Elias, and Betty Johnson. Together they served as the staff and volunteer project managers. They have modeled shared ministry: staff and volunteers collaborating in service of a common vision.
The move comes at the same time that we have launched a new website and started a YouTube channel. If you haven’t seen the site yet go to http://firstuu.org/ and check it out! You’ll find a link to our YouTube channel once you get there. We’re still tweaking the website. If you find something that needs to be fixed or you think should be changed please email email@example.com with you comments. The website is another great example of shared ministry. Special thanks go to Betty Johnson, Ben Ochoa, and Nikki Steele for bringing the project to fruition.
My own work over the last month has largely focused on goal setting for this year of transitional ministry with the Board and the staff. I have participated in retreats with each group. The goals the Board and I set together are: work on governance; build trust within the congregation; and improve staff morale, structure, and supervision. Bob Miller has more extensive reflections on these goals in his President’s letter.
I share them because increasing communication and transparency are important parts of building trust throughout the congregation. Good communication is also essential for effective work together. Over the next few months we are hoping that the new website, as well as new social media initiatives on Twitter and Instagram, will help us to improve communication across campuses.
The biggest news on the communication front is that starting in January we will be live-streaming the sermons from Museum District to Tapestry and Thoreau. I am pretty excited about this shift. I am hoping it will allow First Church to feel like one church with three campuses rather than three separate worshipping communities as I am afraid it sometimes feels.
Writing this column has been a reminder that much of the work of an interim is internally focused on the life of the congregation. It is the work that is necessary to lay the groundwork for the ministry you will do in the future, ministry that is desperately needed to help heal our world. I am grateful to have the opportunity to serve you as you both live in this moment and prepare for what will come next.
As always, I close with a fragment of poetry, this one from Wislawa Szymborska’s “No Title Required”:
It turns out that I am, and am looking.
Above me a white butterfly flits about in the air,
his wings belonging only to him,
and through my hands, a shadow flies,
none other, no one else’s, than his own.
Facing such a view always leaves me uncertain
that the important
is more important than the unimportant.
Oct 8, 2018
As part of my work with the First Unitarian Universalist Church, Houston, I am helping with their social media strategy. So, we've expanded the congregation's presence to YouTube. A podcast of sermons from the Museum District should be coming soon as well. In the meantime, you can watch me, the Rev. Dr. Dan King, and all our guest preachers on YouTube!