Emmanuel Church in Cumberland is a youthful congregation by Episcopal standards with an average age of 44, almost 15 years below the churchwide average. Its members’ lives “are so full of upheaval with so few sacred cows, it can be easier to shift directions,” says the Rev. Joan Testin, the church’s rector of 10 years.
This stood the parish in good stead when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing congregations around the world into a lengthy period of adapting services, ministries and formation opportunities for consumption online. And it was equally helpful when the cloud of COVID began to lift and some people returned to services while others did not.
Having a rector who taught music and drama for 23 years, and who picked up a few ideas about improvisation, and “telling stories through theater” didn’t hurt either. The process of adapting during the pandemic wasn’t always smooth, and Testin acknowledges that some of the “quirky” things that worked at Emmanuel might not work elsewhere. But the congregation’s experience illuminates the particular challenges that have faced congregations everywhere in the last several years.
Compared to many churches, Emmanuel seemed well-positioned to confront pandemic challenges. The parish began a virtual Sunday School in 2018 with a video each week featuring cartoons, a story, and other activities. The video was linked each week in the e-newsletter and themes and images presented virtually were then brought up during Children’s Chapel for younger children, reinforcing the lesson.
Testin created an avatar, or cartoon, of herself as “Vicar Joan” who engaged with children attending virtual Sunday School each week. “It was a lot of fun and we were poised, then, when 2020 hit to continue doing that kind of Christian formation for the kids.”
The congregation had also done the difficult work of reshaping its service schedule to meet the changing needs of its members. Recognizing in 2016 that getting to church on Sunday morning was a struggle for some people, it switched its 11 a.m. service to 5 p.m., a move Testin describes now as “an abject failure.” But moving the service to 5 p.m. on Saturday and setting a contemplative tone with reflective opening music had proven successful.
The pandemic, however, disrupted both dynamic and static parishes alike, and some of Emmanuel’s adaptations and innovations were lost, at least temporarily, only to be replaced by new ones. The parish worshipped either online—a 9:30 a. m. service each Sunday—or outdoors for most of the first two years of the pandemic before returning to in-person worship.
The virtual Sunday School did not survive the transition, and the parish has shifted its efforts to drawing children more deeply into Sunday worship. The Children’s Chapel is once again available during the 9:30 service, while older children serve as lectors and acolytes and confirmed youth serve as lay eucharistic ministers. Children who are not serving on the altar (where coloring books and crayons are readily available) are invited to sit near the front to see something other than the backs of other heads.
The 9:30 Sunday service—which is still live-streamed—had the parish’s highest pre-pandemic attendance. While that is still the case, Testin notes, the service has also had the highest level of attrition in in-person attendance. Some congregants to watch the livestream, as do newcomers who discovered the parish online, and the numbers of in-person and online attendees are about equal, Testin says. The 5:30 Saturday service is also back on the parish calendar.
The parish has come back to life in other ways, too. Bishop Knisely visited recently to confirm those who had completed the parish’s two-year preparation program. After baptizing nine babies this year, Testin and the parish held a reception for the infants and their families. Helping young parents get to know each other, asking what the parish can do to support them, and building a strong foundation of connection supports the parish’s goal of engaging children and teens in the worship and communal life of the congregation.
Emmanuel also offers opportunities for older members, whom Testin says “may have more time and energy for formation and fellowship.” Online, hybrid, and in-person, book studies, DVD courses, and a monthly lunch and learn program with the United Methodist congregation down the street meet many of those needs, while accommodating people’s varying degrees of ability to gather in-person. Some participants in a recent “theology of Harry Potter” series came for the study and stayed to become members of the parish.
Testin’s own attitude about the post-pandemic challenges ahead were best captured in a sermon she preached early in 2023 and her rector’s report to the Annual Meeting, which focused on the need to discern what comes next. “The church we were in 2020 will never come back. It is hard to let go—and it is gone.”
She believes that during the pandemic, Sunday morning became family time. Just as with the tension between worship and Sunday-morning sports practices, she wonders how the parish can continue to offer opportunities to participate in worship. “These families with young babies, I want to ask them if Wednesday evening works better for them. We are wrestling with two goods here: how can we figure a way for both things to happen?”
The best response to the challenges facing the church will arise from individual congregations discerning in their own contexts, she says.
“We need to be true to being Emmanuel, just as other parishes need to be true to being themselves … We see article after article after article telling us that the church is dying. I think the church is pregnant. And yes, it’s hard, and yes, it’s exhausting, and yes, it’s painful, but in the end, we have new life. That’s where we’re going, but it’s going to be a while to get there. You have to find what is going to work in your own context and what’s going to be authentic for who you are and go from there.”