The world as we knew it changed on March 14, 2020. Gov. Phil Murphy declared a state of emergency and everything shut down. We could no longer congregate in groups –first only 25 then 10. For the first time since the Spanish Flu, our houses of worship closed their doors, at the most vulnerable of times. A new world emerged – a virtual one.

A space known for social networking became a life source for many.  Many area congregations moved their sanctuaries to living rooms, transforming to a virtual world. Now, one year later, they face challenges to keep their members engaged and to grow. While some have partially opened their doors, many still only hold virtual services.

In separate interviews, five houses of worship – St. Paul’s Congregational Church and Franklin Reformed Church in Nutley, Brookdale Reformed Church and Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair share their struggles and triumphs during this pandemic.

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St. Paul's Congregational Church - United Church of Christ holds Zoom services and uploads them to Facebook. Interim Pastor the Rev. Cindy Reynolds said attendance dropped. Members who do not use Zoom – see prayers, scriptures and sermons by email. Reynolds said a few people record the music in the sanctuary, but she preaches from her living room.

“With [the virtual platform] we reconnect with long standing members that moved out of the area. Even when we someday go back to in-person worship, we will continue to do online worship as well, so that those people who live a distance can stay connected,” she said.

Weekly announcements turned into newsletters on Facebook and Instagram. “People know we are out there and we are trying to encourage people to tell their friends to sign in,” she said.

People rely on churches for comfort affirmed Reynolds. “In a church we support each other in the physical time. How do you do that when you can’t touch? Nothing can replace an in person hug; that’s really hard,” she said.

Franklin Reformed Church holds worship on Zoom, however, last summer they gathered on the church lawn.  “I think for us to be connected with each other is important for our congregation. We need to be taking care of the folks that are the core of the church,” said the Rev. Jill Fenske.

A challenge they face is that they have 14 groups and according to Fenske, some of them cannot meet on Zoom. “We need to reopen safely and we cannot do that right now,” she said.

Brookdale Reformed Church began limited in-person worship in July; however, the Sunday services and Bible study are accessible on Zoom. Now with nicer weather, Doward and some members have been walking along Bellevue Avenue praying near the church.

The congregation reaches out to members they have not seen since the pandemic. “People being isolated, feeling alienated, being with people who are ill and not being able to visit. I think in this day and age I think [the virtual platform] is definitely a blessing,” said the Rev. Susan Dorward.

According to Dorward, they are not going out of their way to entice new members, however they are active on Facebook and some new people are coming. “It has been an interesting time. We have been global for a while and it’s kind of neat. It is both challenging and exciting and we have to look for the excitement except for the challenges,” she said.

Rabbi Marc Katz of Temple Ner Tamid said most services are on Zoom. To keep members engaged they have been adding new virtual events and guest speakers. “We try to make it as interactive as possible,” he said.

Their in-person Saturday morning service, usually yields 100 to 200 people, is only at 15 percent. According to Katz, they had a successful high holy day although it was virtual. “We are trying to keep our stride going during the pandemic,” he said.

The toughest part Katz said is building the community, gathering after the service, which is missing online.

Katz checks in on his members. “Keeping the community up at this time is I feel the hardest challenge of it all,” he said.

The religious education enrollment and pre-school programs however is lower. According to Katz, membership is marginally down. “It’s not easy and I’m not sure how connected our congregants are feeling right now because a lot of them are “Zoomed out” and don’t want to hop on Zoom after work,” he said.

Unlike the other houses of worship, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair (UUCM) has been actively working on growth internally and externally during the pandemic. They recently developed a new branding logo, redesigned their website and wired the sanctuary, and coffee hour, groups, events, and classes moved to Zoom. They added more activities and groups including the weekly Drop-in that meets on Wednesdays and for the first four months every Friday evening they held a Soulful Sundown with entertainment or trivia games.

The biggest project for UUCM was wiring the sanctuary to professional live stream the services and creating a welcome video to invite new members.

In separate Zoom interviews, the Rev. Scott Sammler-Michael, senior co-minister and Nancy Silverman, chair of the Membership Team talk about all they are doing to keep members engaged and growing during the pandemic.  

UUCM reaches out through social media and the press to attract people and in doing so welcomed 16 new members, most who have never stepped foot in the sanctuary. They also created a virtual Connection Card, which is usually a paper card placed on the back of the chairs in the sanctuary. They average about 90 views during the live stream worship service and about 20 more during the week.

Silverman said the after service Connection Café on Zoom is a wonderful experience. They use breakout rooms to reflect on the Sunday worship question. An average of 25 to 30 people attend the virtual coffee hour with the reverends. “We are doing such a good job on Sundays that people are interested in what we are doing during the week,” she said. 

Members also keep connected through their Facebook UUCM Community Page where they reach out to help one another and share upcoming events and photos.

The ministers called and followed up by email with 75 people who have not joined the virtual sanctuary, attended committee or group meetings or a class. In addition, they create and deliver a DVD of select services to those who cannot watch virtually. In addition, the Care Team Ministry and Membership Team reached out to every member offering assistance.

Sammler-Michael said they have members willing to teach others how to access the services and use Zoom. The Membership Team has also enlisted people to guide new members and the adolescents from the Coming of Age program.

As soon the shutdown began, UUCM went from simulcast to pre-recording the Sunday services. “We’re lucky in our congregation to have professional engineers for media, audio and video, video editors, music producers. And a few of them stepped up at the beginning of COVID to help us produce live streaming worship services,” said Sammler-Michael.

UUCM purchased state of the art full high-definition audio and video capture, which Sammler-Michael and a trained team of techs will staff it. The choir loft transformed into a control booth for the equipment. Sammler-Michael was a professional electrician and a construction project manager, so with his experience and member Randy Crafton’s assistance on picking the materials, they were able to install the cable, wires and equipment. According to Sammler-Michael by doing the labor themselves, they saved the congregation about $15,000.

Their Christmas Eve service streamed almost entirely from the sanctuary.

“We found once we went virtual that there are people seeing us that may have never went through our doors because of where they lived […], we wanted to make sure that we were still able to serve them when we were back in the space in person,” he said.

A camera is also set in Fletcher Hall. They intend to set-up four classrooms with technology for those unable to attend the religious education programs and group meetings. “The reality is there is going to be many people who are not comfortable gathering with large groups of people. […] In a real way, this congregation has embraced the challenge to create the congregation of the next century,” said Sammler-Michael. 

Although all services and events are still virtual, they held their annual Heritage Bread Communion in November and a Holiday Open House in December on the congregation’s lawn. “It was a way to connect very briefly and safely outside,” he said.

The biggest struggle during the pandemic for Sammler-Michael is that he does not know how people are doing. “I can’t look them in the eye, like when you can see them on Sunday or across the table at a meeting. You can tell no matter what somebody says by their body language how they are doing and you really can’t tell that on Zoom,” he said.

Sammler-Michaels biggest concern when his congregation reopens is how reluctant are people going to be to gather, because they are still afraid. “I pray that we do it right so that they understand that they don’t have to come. […] The virtual technology will help keep them connected,” he said.