At First Parish in Cohasset, where I serve as minister, 10-15% of our Sunday congregation each week attends online. This percentage is probably typical of most Unitarian Universalist congregations.
A recent study shows that in Black churches, the percentage is much higher. As reported by Religion News Service (RNS): “According to the Pew Research Center, Black Protestants outrank all other U.S. religious groups in choosing to worship outside of brick-and-mortar locations, with 54% saying they took part in services online or on TV in the previous month.”
African Americans were hit hard by the COVID pandemic, and many remain wary of in-person worship services. Although J. Drew Sheard, a bishop with the Church of God in Christ who was interviewed by RNS, points out, “That fear does not seem to prevail when they go to sports activities or the mall…. But they have been invoked with fear that you can catch COVID at church.” I can relate. I still have many COVID-related fears, and I’m still wearing my mask in church; the fear is still there. I completely understand why some Black churchgoers don’t want to show up for in-person services
Besides, I really do like online services. I like being able to attend Sunday services while sitting on a couch in my jammies drinking tea. That’s about as good as it gets. On the other hand, my favorite part of Sunday morning is social hour, and I don’t care for online social hours. So personally, I like having both options available: both online and in-person services.
I’m betting that online access to worship services is here to stay. W. Franklyn Richardson, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in New York, puts it this way: “The impact [of the pandemic] is not over yet but we see signs of church being normal…. [But] normal is a fluid word. Normal is change. Change is normal.”
Written on Sunday, March 25, but not posted right away due to press of events.
Carol and I went to the Sunday service this morning at the Open Circle Unitarian Universalist (UU) Fellowship in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Carol’s dad went to services there before he died, and was warmly welcomed, so it seemed like a good place to go.
I was impressed by the congregation, and by some of the innovative things they’re doing. So here’s a quick summary of my impressions.
Open Circle share a minister with the UU fellowships in Green Bay and Stevens Point. The minister was present in person in Fond du Lac this week, while the Stevens Point and Green Bay folks watched him via livestream. In addition, several Fond du Lac members joined the service via Zoom. (Presumably some Green Bay and Stevens Point folks joined their congregations via Zoom as well, but I only happened to notice what happened in Fond du Lac.) Thus there were six groups of people joining in: in-person and Zoom participants from each of three congregations. I believe there were three people managing the tech in Fond du Lac: someone to operate the camera and sound board; someone to manage the Zoom meeting; and the minister managed the PowerPoint slides.
I noticed a few other technical points. Only the sermon was recorded, thus doing away with copyright problems for the music and readings. Both announcements, and joys and concerns, were done at the end of the service, after the Zoom session had split into three breakout rooms (one for each congregation), so no one had to worry about making announcements, or stating joys and concerns, that didn’t apply to the other two congregations. The children’s story was a video of a reading of a children’s book taken from the internet — this was probably the low point of the service for me, since the audio quality of that video was poor (needed EQ), and the background “music” was more repetitious than a video game. However, using such a video did away with possible copyright conflicts. All in all, I felt the video and audio technology was handled extremely well.
The whole service was very well done: smooth and competent, without going too far in the direction of the overly polished feel of glitzy mega-church worship services.
I wondered if coffee hour would live up to the high standards of the worship service. It did. People started talking with us from the moment we stood up at the end of the service. There was good conversation, fair trade coffee, and good snacks. Before we knew it, an hour had gone by. You learn a lot about a congregation from coffee hour, and clearly this was a congregation where people liked each other, and cared for one another.
In short, we both felt welcomed, both service and social hour were good, and I learned a lot watching how Fond du Lac handled multiplatform multicongregation worship services.
Three years ago at this time, I was planning to attend General Assembly, the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists. I was finally getting recovering from a major health issue, and ready to travel again. Then, of course, the pandemic hit.
Well, we’re slowly learning to live with the ongoing pandemic. I live close enough to Pittsburgh, the location for this year’s General Assembly, that I could drive there. The question is — by the time General Assembly rolls around, am I going to be psychologically ready to attend a gathering with more than a thousand people?
I’m not ready to make a decision. Maybe I’ll watch online (I’ve come to quite like online attendance at conferences). Maybe I’ll attend in person (if I drove to Pittsburgh I could stop and see cousins Steve and Cheryl, and friends Paul and Gina on the way). Maybe I’ll set up a local conference-watch party, to combine a smaller in-person gathering with General Assembly programming. I hate to admit this, but I’ve been feeling fairly disconnected from denominational politics so I might just ignore General Assembly.
I wonder what other people are thinking about this year’s General Assembly….
The point that I found most interesting: “How long the damn thing has lasted.” Branswell reports:
“[In the past,] the pandemics that have been recorded have mainly been caused by flu. And in the recorded flu pandemics, there was generally a wave or two — sometimes, in some places three — and then humans and the new virus reached a detente. The new flu virus settled into causing seasonal flu activity, not pandemic flu.
“A lot of people STAT spoke to thought that was the way this pandemic would play out. They didn’t anticipate that we’d be where we are now, with waves of transmission still occurring at various points in the year, rather than during the winter, as is the way of most respiratory pathogens.
“‘I never would have imagined that three years later we would still be dealing with this in the way that it’s ever-present in our conversations and in our society,’ said Messonnier, the former CDC official….”
As a layperson, I never dreamed that after three years, we’d still be dealing with high levels of virus transmission, and serious health consequences. I’m glad to know that the experts are equally flummoxed.
And the second most interesting point, from my point of view: “The ripple effect.” Branswell summarizes what one expert said:
“…Hatchett, for all his studying of previous pandemics, wasn’t anticipating the geopolitical impacts of this one. He likens it to a meteor strike. [emphasis added]
“In addition to the crushing waves of illness, the lives lost, the swamping of hospitals, and the disruption to routine health care, he points to the economic disruption of the past couple of years, the onset of inflation, the spike in energy prices, and the upheaval in supply chains as all being of a piece….”
Another ripple effect not mentioned in the article, but which I see every day: the COVID pandemic has changed the shape of religion in the U.S. permanently. The pandemic accelerated the ongoing trend of disaffiliation from religious organizations. The pandemic is finishing off a fair number of congregations already weakened by the Great Recession in 2008. The pandemic deepened the divide between the conservative Christians who were vaccine deniers, and everyone else who was religious (and who had to explain that yes they were religious, but they were vaccinated). The pandemic advanced livestreaming acceptance incredibly rapidly. The pandemic is causing quite a few religious professionals to seek other lines of work….
The list goes on. Yes, it was like a meteor strike. Organized religion in the U.S. will never be the same.
In one of the “lightning talks” in today’s session of the Religious Education Association annual meeting, Dr. Eileen Daily of Boston University’s School of Theology posed some questions about how the pandemic is going to change religious education. One of the questions she asked is whether this is an opportunity to reach out to the “nones,” those who are not affiliated with organized religion (remembering that many of the “nones” are “spiritual but not religious”).
A few hours later, I was in a small group conversation with some scholars and practitioners, and we wound up talking about online learning — not surprising given that the pandemic has driven both the academics and those of us working in congregations to doing all our teaching using distance education techniques. I posed the idea that a nonprofit structured like Khan Academy, but devoted to religious education, could be a worthwhile project. Then the conversation moved on….
But I’ve been thinking about that idea since then. What if there were a Khan Academy for online religious education? I could envision three main curricular areas such an entity could address: (1) religious literacy, including resources to introduce young people to the wide variety of religious expression in their community and in the wider world; (2) skills associated with the practice of organized religion including leadership in nonprofit membership organizations (voluntary associations), social justice organizing, group singing, etc.; and (3) building community including building both interpersonal skills (social skills) and intrapersonal skills (self awareness).
I’m leaving out a fourth major curricular area: the kind of “faith formation” that is instruction on how to participate within a specific religious or denominational tradition. Should a nonprofit producing interreligious learning material produce this kind of faith formation? Well, no — if we’re trying to serve the “nones” as well as though affiliated with organized religion, denominational faith formation will not be a central concern. But what if we think big? If this nonprofit is designed from the beginning to scale up (think: Khan Academy), and if this nonprofit builds expertise in delivering online religious education, then when it grows in size and expertise the nonprofit will eventually becomes able to enter into partnerships with various religious groups to produce this kind of faith formation material.
So what are the funding sources for this nonprofit going to be? I think at the beginning, this nonprofit is either going to be the brainchild of someone like Sal Khan, and inspired charismatic leader with the skills to create content and then bring other people into the project — in this first case, the project is self-funded until it gets big enough to scale up — either that, or it could be hosted by a university that has both experts in religious education and some level of IT support (but if such an organization starts in the academy, I would hope that the plan is to quickly spin it off as a separate nonprofit). Then as the nonprofit grows, because it’s not tied to a specific religious organization, I would expect that a substantial part of the funding would be grants from philanthropic organizations. And why not target Big Tech for grants? — using research that shows that religious literacy can reduce religious bullying and religious violence, you could make a pretty compelling case that this kind of education is important and worth funding.
I’m sure others have already come up with the same idea. And who knows, maybe there’s already such an organization out there….
For an adult religious education class on Unitarian Universalist theologies, I recorded four short videos. I’ll get to the videos in a moment, but first, a word about online teaching….
Like so many educators, I’ve been trying to figure out how to adjust to our new reality of distance teaching. We feminists have criticized patriarchal pedagogy as disembodied; patriarchal education keeps everything in the head, ignoring the reality of the body. But how do you do embodied teaching when all you see are a bunch of tiny images of people’s heads on your computer screen? A great many pedagogical tools in my feminist-educator toolkit are useless in online learning.
I was talking over this problem with someone I have a great deal of respect for, a feminist who has been doing online teaching for a decade now — she moved to online learning because her subject area is quite specialized, with the result that her students are spread out over the entire North American continent. She said what has worked best for her is to record short videos, of under ten minutes, with lectures outlining a topic area; after showing one of the videos, she moderates an open discussion of the topic.
I’ve been teaching a biweekly adult religious education class — with mixed success — and I decided to try this approach for last night’s class. I was scheduled to teach an hour-long class on Unitarian Universalist (UU) theologies. I focused on four UU theologies, as exemplified by five different persons, prepared four short talks, and recorded four short videos. The class went reasonably well, from my point of view. While the videos were playing, I was able to monitor the chat in the videoconference call, and I could look at the video feeds (of those who left their video on) to monitor facial reactions. The videos were followed by a lively discussion — though with 21 log-ins, it was less than spontaneous, since everyone had to stay muted except for me and one person making a point or asking a question.
Making the video lectures took more time than I would have liked. Yet by recording these short lectures in advance, I could trim out all the times I coughed (with all the smoke in California, I’ve been coughing a lot), and if I stumbled verbally, I could trim or re-record the part where I stumbled. I could also clean up the sound while editing the video, and control the lighting and composition of the visuals.
Another benefit to pre-recording the lectures: I can post them online, where they’re accessible to people who were unable to attend (e.g., due to child care responsibilities). And I can re-use the videos to teach the same class in a year or so, because the discussion that followed the lectures will always be different; plus, with several short videos, I can record new videos on the same topic.
My final conclusion: Although this method of teaching is nowhere near as good as in-person teaching, it was still the best approach I’ve yet tried for online teaching.
In a subsequent post, I’ll include a link to one of the videos, followed by the text of the lecture.
If you’re one of those using Zoom to carry out online programs and ministries for our congregations, you’ll want to update to the latest version of the Zoom app (a.k.a. the Zoom client). The latest version is 4.6.10, and I got notification about it an hour ago.
This update has one absolutely critical security feature that you must have: you can prevent participants from changing their screen name. The previous version gave participants the ability to change their screen name to anything, including something obscene, and the host couldn’t do anything except boot that person off the call.
There are other security enhancements, too. Update now.
I like several things about Abby’s videos. First, they’re a great supplement to Zoom calls — some of us are getting Zoom burnout, and it’s nice to be able to watch a video when YOU want to watch it. Second, they’re Goldilocks videos — not too long, not too short, but just the right length. Third, they don’t put a big burden on parents — the crafts project can be done by kids on their own without parental supervision, kids can watch the installments of Alice on their own, and the story time for young children has them doing what they’re going to be doing anyway which is sitting in a parental lap.
So I repurposed this Youtube channel, where I already had some religious education videos. I added a video we used in last Sunday’s service. I created a couple of playlists, one for crafts (Abby’s craft video is included there), and another for story time (Abby’s Alice stories are going there, because Alice in Wonderland is a sacred text). I’ve got a children’s librarian from our congregation half convinced to do a story time, I’m planning a story time (I think I’ll read aloud from an old edition of the Jataka Tales), there will be more crafts projects.
Blog readers, if you know of some videos that you think would be appropriate to share on this Youtube channel, please send me the links. I can’t promise to put everything up, but I’d really like to see your suggestions — send them to danharper then the little “at” sign then uucpa then a dot then org.
With the shelter-in-place order, any socializing we do is on camera. Plus many of us have to use videoconferencing for work. As long as we’re going to be spending lots of time on camera, we might as well look our best. So here are some tips for making yourself look good on your laptop’s (or your phone’s) crappy little web camera.
First of all, and perhaps most importantly, have your laptop or phone sitting on something stable. Ideally, you want to move the camera as little as possible, for two reasons. First, if you’re in a videoconference, you want to focus attention on your face, and if you move the camera around that’s going to be a distraction. Second, unless you have a really fast internet connection you probably want to save bandwidth; if you have a stable backdrop, that will be less information you’re sending out, and so you’re less likely to have degraded audio or video.
Second of all, don’t place your camera too low. If your camera is too far below your face, people will be looking up your nose, and if you’re middle-aged they can see all those incipient jowls that you’ve been trying to hide. In other words, don’t do this:
Boy, do I look ugly in the photo above! Don’t make yourself look ugly. Place your computer or phone so that the camera is about at the level of your chin. However, don’t place your camera too high; there’s a psychological disadvantage to giving your viewers the impression that they are higher or taller than you.
In addition, learn about the Rule of Thirds. Imagine that your screen is divided in thirds both horizontally and vertically, sort of like a tic-tac-toe board. Have your eyes placed so that they’re about a third of the way from the top of the screen. Move so that your head is NOT in the center of the frame, but about a third of the way to one side (I like to move to my left, so that my right hand, my dominant hand, can make gestures in the space to my right). Setting up your camera using the Rule of Thirds will make you look more professional, because that’s what we’re used to seeing in movies and on television.
Now let’s take a look at lighting. In movies and television, they use what’s called “three point lighting.” That just means that they use three light sources to light someone’s head. First, you set up the “key light,” which is the most important light. If you’re at home and on a videoconference during the day, your key light is most likely determined by the nearest window — in that case, try to sit so that the light from the nearest window is coming towards you at about a 30 degree angle — and you want diffuse daylight, so make sure there’s a curtain or something to give diffuse light. At night, sit so that the strongest light in the room becomes your key light.
With only the key light, your head will look a little one dimensional or washed out; and if you have any wrinkles or blemishes, they will tend to stand out. Therefore, you need to set up another light, called the “fill light,” which will fill in the stark shadows cast by the key light. The fill light should be less bright than the key light. The drawing below shows where the key light and the fill light come from:
Then if you want really professional lighting, you’ll add what’s called a “back light.” This comes from the same side as the key light, and it lights up the back edge of your head. By lighting up that back edge of your head, it makes you look that much more three dimensional. However, it’s super time consuming to set up a back light, so I don’t bother when I’m on a videoconference.
Now here are some examples of what I look like with these different lights. Here I am with just the key light — it’s adequate, but pretty stark:
The shelter-in-place order has made livestreaming our church’s worship services a little more complex. We just had a tech rehearsal with worship leaders and tech support people each in their own locations, using Zoom as our basic platform. We have learned a lot since we livestreamed last week! Here’s a summary of what is currently working for us:
(1) Before the rehearsal, whoever owns the Zoom account needs to log in to their Zoom account and go over the settings carefully (see the screenshot below to see where to find “Settings” when logged in to Zoom). The critical settings you need to be aware of are as follows: (a) Do not allow “Join before host.” This is to prevent someone from hijacking the feed with inappropriate screensharing before you take control. (b) UNtick “Participant video: Start meetings with participant video on.” You want participant videos off, partly to prevent distraction, but also to prevent trolls from putting inappropriate content on their video feed. (Zoom will allow participants to start their video feed again, so you’ll also need someone to monitor participant videos during the service; see below.) (c) Tick “Mute participants upon entry.” (d) Tick “Allow co-hosts,” for two reasons: First, you’re going to need 2-3 people to manage the video feeds; second, make all worship leaders co-hosts because that puts them at the top of the participant list so you can more easily find them when switching back and forth between worship leaders and musicians. (e) Tick “Allow host to put attendee on hold.” Just in case. (f) Under “Screen sharing,” make sure you select the option where only allow host(s) can share screens. This prevents so-called “Zoombombing,” where trolls put up inappropriate images on your Zoom feed. (g) Tick “Disable desktop/screen for users.” (e) Tick “Allow users to select original sound in their client settings.” This improves the audio quality of musicians enormously.
(2) Well before the service starts, make sure you have email addresses for all co-hosts and worship leaders. Cell phone numbers would be a good idea too. If something fails, it’s nice to have a backup communication method besides private chat within Zoom.
(3) Start the Zoom call at least 15 minutes before the stated start time for the worship service, and make sure your co-host(s) who are managing participants also log in early. You want to have at least two hosts managing participants before the stated start time, when you’ll have your big influx of participants log in. Have your worship leaders log in early as well, and assign them co-host status so they appear at the top of the participants list.
(4) During the worship service, you’ll want people in the following tech roles: (a) One host to “Spotlight video” of whichever worship leader or musician is on. (b) One or two hosts to manage the participants. If you have a really small service (say, 30 or fewer participants logged in), you might be able to combine this role with the previous role. (c) One or two people to work on audience engagement; these people will be monitoring the chat. Specific tasks might include monitoring chat for joys and sorrows (we’re going to allow joys and sorrows in chat); pasting hymn/song lyrics into chat at the appropriate moment; watching for newcomers to the service and perhaps greeting them privately in chat; generally monitoring behavior. (d) Optional: we’ll also have a few knowledgable people monitoring audio and video quality, and providing feedback and/or advice as needed.
(5) Send out a script ahead of time. Our script, which was the basic order of service, proved to be inadequate. The primary worship leader (the senior minister in our case) is going to send out a full script, and our music director is going to insert cues for the host who’s in charge of switching the video feeds.
(6) We did a brief postmortem to talk about what worked and what didn’t work, and of course we’re doing email follow-up as well.
One final point: While putting on a worship service is always a team effort, it becomes even more of a team effort when you’re livestreaming (especially when everyone has to watch from home), because the tech crew becomes an integral part of the worship team. I consider this a major benefit of livestreaming services: in these times, when we’re all feeling a little isolated and scared, being a part of a team effort can be quite comforting.