When I was a kid, I went to church and I was into team sports. I know I had dreams of playing a pro sport, and I know when we came home from Christmas Eve service, I sometimes re-created the service with the help of my siblings and a few stuffed animals. But I’m sure I never imagined one day I’d be working with a broadcasting team, producing a multi-camera show like “ABC’s Wide World of Sports”—from inside a church.
As many churches did when COVID hit, Channing Memorial Church switched to prerecorded services; but after a few months, Rev. Bill Zelazny and other church leaders wanted our services to be more engaging. The question Rev. Bill put to me last July was, how can we set ourselves up to broadcast from the sanctuary, using both Zoom and YouTube, given that most of us are not too tech-savvy?
My answer was to see what we could do on our own and then hire help if we need it. We put out a call for volunteers and several willing hands showed up (on a Zoom meeting). None, including me, had all the skills we needed, but we started learning.
Since then, I have spent a lot of time with what we call our Zoom Tech Team—especially my friend and co-producer Candy Martin—and we have built a digital broadcast capability. Candy and I complement each other pretty well: she gets impatient with people who distract us and consistently refocuses us on the task at hand by carefully restating the day’s problem. She also does a good job getting us back on track when things go sideways. I’m guilty of going sideways on my own sometimes, exploring problems we don’t need to tackle yet, but I can usually see the big picture and conjure up the next experiment. I’m also persistent, which comes in handy, too.
Together, we have taken some wrong turns along the way, but we were smart enough to hire a tech consultant at just the right time for a few very useful hours in August, and by mid-September, we were broadcasting Rev. Bill’s sermons (live) and Janet Grant’s hymns (pre-recorded) into a Zoom meeting for the congregation. By mid-October, we were sending out the broadcast concurrently on the Channing YouTube channel.
In the process, Candy and I grew our team, including Michele, JoAnn, Cal, Tom, and Susan, and we taught ourselves to run camcorders and the church sound system, how to make and play music videos, and how to manage Zoom meetings. Through trial and error, we began to understand the video and audio signals flowing through our laptops, cameras, microphones, and cables. We took turns working the cameras, computers and switcher, pressing the buttons and adjusting the dials to each develop a kinesthetic knowledge of how it all worked.
It’s been fun, usually, and frustrating, sometimes. We’re still learning. We’ve made mistakes every week. Yet we’ve also saved each other from making many more mistakes. And in a funny way, that’s been the best part: We’ve proved multiple times that we’re better as a team than we would be alone.
Now we’re working to simplify the process and teach more team members to sit in the producer’s chair. But once we have refined this new semi-virtual space for “doing church,” the larger question on my mind is how can our worship be most creative, engaging, and meaningful for our spiritual lives? Could we move together as dancers? Can we create new forms of conversation? How best can we foster joy and community in place of sorrow or loneliness?*
Building the broadcast booth was a start. Now it’s time to refocus on the essential question of why we go to church? What is church as a community of faith, hope, love, and service now that we occupy both digital and physical spaces together and apart?
It’s a big question, but for me, teaming up to build the broadcast has been an act of faith by itself—faith that doing so would make a difference for others. The act of masking up as a team and creating what might not have occurred otherwise is also an act of service. But not just for those on the other end of the broadcast. In the process of our work, during a time when connecting with others has been difficult, we’ve served ourselves a generous helping of appreciation for each other as individuals as well as teammates.
*Channing Memorial Church is a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Newport, R.I.
All are welcome to subscribe to my newsletter, The Focus.