Colorado Church Uses Volunteers as “Virtual Ushers”

Pastor Jake Forsythe, Ministry Program Director at Summit Church in Durango, talks about church volunteer program

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We spoke with Jake Forsythe, Ministry Program Director at Summit Church in Durango, Colorado to learn how he helped his church adapt their volunteer opportunities after COVID-19 hit.

What is your title at Summit Church and what do you do?

My title is Ministry Program Director. I supervise a lot of our staff, work with our lead teams, and coordinate all of our mission trips. We have three primary focuses at our church: building communities, changing lives and bringing hope. The bringing hope part is about actually going out and using our gifts to serve others, and we call those Engage Teams.

How have things changed since COVID-19 hit?

It has been a huge challenge for us. So many things were right on the docket when COVID-19 hit. So we had to cancel. We had two teams going to Guatemala, a team headed to Houston to do disaster relief work, and we were about to launch a brand new ministry doing family-to-family ministry with the Navajo nation. A family here signs up to connect with a family down in the Navajo nation. The families then build a relationship. They pray together, encourage each other and possibly even help meet practical needs. They might bring in food or help with basic repairs for their house…things like that. So it threw us for a loop when the stay-at-home orders hit and we had to cancel.

So what ways have you found to engage people during the pandemic?

We’ve started doing Facebook live posts every day. We have a morning devotional and prayer time led primarily by our pastoral staff. Then we have noon posts that vary each day. Mondays are focused on our Children and Families ministry, where we offer unique ideas for families with young kids to do together or to use as an outreach to friends and neighbors. Tuesdays are our Caring Ministries day–everything from hospital ministries to ideas for how the congregation can care for one another. 

What are some of the ways that you suggested caring for one another?

One of the things we did early on was offer our congregation an opportunity to sign up for a phone call outreach to anyone we had connections within our database. Every person who volunteered for that received a list of 10 names to reach out to. If the person had any needs, those would be reported back to the office.

What creative ways did you find to engage with the community?

Thursdays are Takeout Thursdays, so someone on staff or a volunteer will do a Facebook live from a local restaurant. The idea is to encourage our church to support local restaurants by eating takeout at least once a week. That’s one way we can encourage the local businesses in our community. Then Fridays were called “Bringing Hope Fridays”. Part of our mission statement is to “bring hope”, so we do different posts at noon about opportunities for our congregation to support local organizations financially. We’ve raised money for about four or five different nonprofits so far–the soup kitchen, our local food bank, and various other organizations who are still serving our population. I think we’ve raised over $12,000 so far.

I heard you are using “virtual ushers.” How exactly does that work?

For our Facebook live events, we are offering opportunities for volunteers to serve as virtual ushers. They can sign up for either the 9 a.m. or noon event, and then they provide support by managing the online dialogue–responding to questions or comments, chatting with people and providing links–so that the speaker does not have to worry about that. We provide an usher training with links, photos and any information that they will need in advance. The volunteers are also given a script of what we’re going to talk about so they can post at the appropriate time as well as  provide  ideas for how they can get people chatting and connecting with one another.

Our worship services are livestreamed every Saturday at 5:30 p.m. and on Sundays at 9:30, so we’re using virtual ushers for those services as well. We offer those services both on Facebook and on our website, so we need two ushers for Saturday and two for Sunday.

How have people responded to the idea?

It’s been really well received and it’s pretty amazing. So we’ve been livestreaming our 9:30 service on Sundays long before COVID-19, and our Communications Director has tried getting on and chatting with people in the past. However, there never seemed to be much of a response. She would ask people to comment and let us know they were watching, but few would respond. 

But now that we don’t have in-person gatherings,the conversations are exploding online. People have been communicating and connecting with one another and chatting back and forth throughout the service. It’s pretty interesting. The dynamic has definitely changed. 

What have you learned from all of this?

It’s really brought to our attention that moving forward we need to continue with the virtual ushers, even once we are back to meeting in person. We have a feeling that our livestream services will continue to be well-attended, even more so than in the past, so there will be an ongoing need for our monitors. We’re even trying to be more creative about ways they can post–maybe even adding “next steps” that they will be able to click on or a button with “opportunities to connect”. We want to be more intentional about having next steps for people so they can get more engaged in the church.

Tell me about “Summit Cares.” What is that, and how does it work?

We’d like to be able to offer our congregation opportunities to not only give to a cause, but also volunteer to help deliver. For example, we’d like to put together care packages for our San Juan Basin Health Department, and then have some volunteers put those together and go deliver them. Then we’ll probably roll over to other frontline workers–firefighters, medical workers, police officers–people like that. Now that things are loosening up a bit more we’ll start doing more things like that. 

So what advice would you give to other ministers who want to engage their churches in outreach in this challenging environment?

I think one of the most important things we’ve learned is that whether we like it or not, online platforms are the best way to stay engaged. So you absolutely have to be open to that. If you haven’t already started doing so, stay connected with your congregation virtually. We’re getting a lot of great feedback from our congregation that they truly appreciate all the extra efforts. I know a lot of people really appreciate getting a personal phone call just to check on how they are doing. We wouldn’t have been able to do that without a bunch of volunteers. We have a large congregation, so we split it up and gave 10 names to each person. That way we don’t burn out any of our volunteers.

Has this changed the way you will do church moving forward?

Yes. Having a way for connection Monday through Friday has caused us to think about rearranging some things in a way that will allow us to continue to do that at some level. It would be especially beneficial for our elderly and homebound people. We’re realizing we can utilize technology in so many ways. If it helps us to do ministry better, then we want to implement it.

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