[Episcopal News Service] Amid conversations about whether churches should abandon online worship options developed because of COVID-19 or keep them, a small church in the Diocese of Kansas found that its online presence has not only kept its community together during the pandemic but has also attracted new people, some of them living hundreds of miles away. And in what may be a first for The Episcopal Church, the congregation elected an online member to its vestry.
When St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Wamego, Kansas, suspended in-person worship in March 2020, its rector, the Rev. Casey Rohleder, feared livestreaming wouldn’t keep its 60-member parish community connected, she told Episcopal News Service. Instead, they gathered using Zoom, with each participant’s name and, if they wish, image, appearing in boxes on the screen. Rohleder said that to her surprise, “people started to join who were not our in-person Sunday regulars.”
Among them were Denise Thornton and her husband, Mace, who live in the St. Louis suburb of Chesterfield, Missouri. They had been active in an Episcopal church in Virginia before Mace Thornton’s job took them to St. Louis late in 2019. Denise Thornton told ENS that in the early days of the pandemic they tried watching worship livestreams but felt the services lacked the sense of community they had known.
Denise Thornton grew up Presbyterian in Wamego, and through a Facebook chat with a childhood friend who’d started attending St. Luke’s, the couple began to worship there via Zoom as well. They loved it and became regulars, joining what has grown to about a dozen online worshippers who make up about a third of the congregation’s average Sunday attendance. They also began tithing, attending Bible study and movie discussions and reading lessons during worship. In August 2021, the Thorntons made the 700-mile round trip journey to attend the funeral of a parishioner whom they had grown to know and love. It was the only time they have been inside the church building.
And for Denise Thornton, online worship not only provides a real sense of community; it also keeps her safe. The medication she takes to manage rheumatoid arthritis weakens her immune system. “I have to be really, really careful,” she said. “Getting COVID would be a serious risk.”
When St. Luke’s vestry began discussing who might have the leadership skills and spiritual formation necessary to fill an upcoming vacancy, someone suggested Denise Thornton, and members agreed unanimously, said Rohleder, who then checked the canons and consulted with Kansas Bishop Cathleen Bascom to see if anything would prohibit Thornton’s election. Denise Thornton ran uncontested and was elected to the vestry on Feb. 6. Her election “felt groundbreaking,” Rohleder said.
As a vestry member, Thornton wants to look out for everyone in the church but feels especially protective of the online congregation, “partly because of how important it is in my life, but I see the importance it can have in many other lives.” St. Luke’s online presence might be of help to people who, like her, just can’t be in a church, especially others with a serious illness or who are in nursing homes, she said.
Even after St. Luke’s returned to in-person worship full time in February 2021, the church has worked hard to include Zoom parishioners like the Thorntons, Rohleder said. During services, the Zoom screen is projected on back wall of the nave, so participants can see and hear everything taking place and, as importantly, can be seen by those in the pews and at the altar. Sometimes an online worshiper serves as lector. During the passing of the peace, some parishioners will step in front of the camera to greet the online community. Even coffee hour isn’t neglected, Rohleder said – the Zoom community is on a TV monitor in the parish hall with a tabletop microphone and a camera nearby, so those in person can chat with those online.
When asked if they had discussed connecting with a church near their home, Thornton said they had and decided against it. “We are very comfortable at St. Luke’s and with Mother Casey,” she said. “Maybe years down the line we may feel differently. Right now, our needs are totally being met with St. Luke’s.”
Thornton appreciates the value of people being physically together, “but it’s not the end-all, because for some people, it’s not an option.” she said. “Who says that we have to have fellowship in only one way? What would Christ say? He met people not just in the temple but on mountains and other places. Would he have preached on Zoom? He went where people were. And a lot of us need to be on Zoom.”
– Melodie Woerman is a freelance writer and former director of communications for the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas.