Church leaders are pondering what digital adaptations might be worth retaining post-pandemic
“I don’t know if we’ll keep doing it…afterwards,” is a line that keeps echoing in conversations from organizational and congregational leaders. Looking forward with hope to a post-pandemic horizon that permits safe, large, indoor gatherings, leaders are especially pondering which, if any, of the digital adaptations they’ve made might be worth retaining even when they’re no longer strictly necessary. From the perspective of mission advancement, there are a number of those digital adaptations that are actually essential to keep doing.
Digital givingDigital giving options are here to stay. Particularly in the congregational context, but also for judicatory-level programs, offering digital giving options is a pivot that was overdue. Most non-congregational nonprofits had long since made the move, but concerns about costs, shyness about technology, and a sense that ‘our people won’t give that way’ had kept some faith communities from making the leap. In Lake Institute’s September 2020 COVID-19 Congregational Study, 27% of congregations reported not having had an online giving option prior to March 2020 – although a third of those congregations had since added the option in the first six months of the pandemic.
Revisions to how those online gifts can be given may still be needed, with attention to the ease of use of one’s giving platform and some cost-benefit analysis around the features available, but a cumbersome or nonexistent way to make gifts online is a serious hindrance going forward. Congregations that had already established online giving report weathering limitations on in-person gatherings better than those that did not. Even when those limitations are lifted, digital giving options will remain important as an element of hospitality for one’s supporters who rarely deal with checks or cash as well as for those who find themselves at a distance from the place they wish to support with a gift.
Virtual attendanceOnce travel and activities resume at full strength, many individuals are once again going to find themselves away and unable to attend in person the events of the congregations and organizations they value. For worship services in congregations, particularly, participants have a new normal experience of virtual attendance – Pew Research Center reports that nearly three-quarters of US adults who typically attend worship at least monthly did so online or on tv in the summer of 2020 – and a third of U.S. adults overall did so. Congregations and other nonprofits struggled valiantly to move swiftly to online forums for worship, for counseling, and even for fundraising gala events. While returning to in-person events is a priority for many, there’s a benefit to considering how online options can exist side-by-side, or how the online versions may even be preferable in some situations.
Vacationers, the ill and injured, students, and those deployed far from home can all preserve and deepen their relationships and engagement with the congregations and causes that are close to their hearts even when they are at a distance when there are efforts to put events online. Online classes and counseling cut out travel time for those whose commutes or home responsibilities would otherwise stand in the way. Even posting portions of events or clips of interviews or messages online can make a difference in sustaining and enhancing the linkages people already have – and they can help in inviting new people to get a taste of what the congregation or organization is all about. Some of the greatest leaps have already been made – the tripod and microphone have already been purchased! – and it would be a waste to set all of that digital engagement aside. The digital divide is real in the United States – but even back in 2019, 28% of Americans reported being online “almost constantly,” with another 45% reporting being online several times a day: our organizations and congregations shouldn’t abstain from engaging with people meaningfully in the digital space.
New learning worth carrying forwardFinally, religious nonprofit organizations and congregations have learned a lot (well beyond just learning how to mute on Zoom…), and the learning process itself, along with the self-discoveries unearthed, are well worth carrying forward:
Unexamined traditions have had to be revisited, with rich blessings to be discovered and treasured in some of them, and practices that can be left behind without much cost in others—on one hand, high holy days aren’t the same without a crowd, and sacred spaces are valuable; on the other, not every meeting has to be in-person or last all day in order to accomplish what needs to get done.
Staff and board leadership have discovered that their organizations are more nimble than they might have thought, and change sometimes can happen overnight, with positive and meaningful results.
The gifts of faith organizations and their relevance for their communities are multi-layered – from physical facilities, to tangible assistance, to spiritual depth in difficult and challenging times – religious organizations matter to their members and their neighbors.
There is much to hope for in what might come “after” pandemic restrictions are no longer needed – but part of that hope is to carry forward the discoveries and the practices that can advance religious organizations’ missions in a changed and changing world.