Displayed on an electronic sign outside Pflugerville First United Methodist Church, the image is a lighthearted way of opening up serious conversations for parishioners during the coronavirus pandemic, said Stephanie Katauskas, director of children’s ministries.
“We're trying to mix levity and brevity and lightheartedness with the more serious things,” Katauskas said. “Because we want to connect with people spiritually, but we all also want to tell them: It's okay if you're having a hard time.”
In the age of the coronavirus, fellowship has taken on a new meaning for area churches. With in-person gatherings currently suspended, large and small congregations alike have taken on innovative strategies to assure parishioners that worship is only a livestream link away.
Katauskas has been part of Pflugerville FUMC’s team working to bring digital services to its congregation. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Katauskas said the church had never used digital streaming services before.
In the weeks before Travis County’s March 17 mandate limiting public gatherings to no more than 10 people, Katauskas said the parish wrestled with whether to suspend in-person services. But Katauskas said that knowing Pflugerville FUMC’s congregation members are predominantly age 55 and older, the decision needed to be made in their best interest.
“What do we do? Are we turning our back on people?” Katauskas said. “And ultimately, we decided for the safety of our congregation, because a large percentage of our nine o'clock worship services are 55 and plus. We really wanted to protect those individuals.”
Within days of the decision, members of staff and parishioners alike stepped in and helped make streaming services a reality. The response, Katauskas said, has been profound: Its first service reached more than 1,000 views—triple the parish’s typical 300 guests at all of its Sunday sermons combined.
Since, Pflugerville FUMC has expanded to include children’s ministry videos and messages from its youth pastor, each receiving hundreds of views. Online services run 25 to 30 minutes, compared to a typical hourlong in-person one, Katauskas said. But she added that despite formatting changes, the time still allows for parishioners to take a moment and reconnect with their spirituality, especially during a difficult time period.
“If you're familiar with a Methodist service, we're hand shakers, and we're huggers, and we're very affectionate,” Katauskas said. “And so to have that taken away is hard on the heart. Just to be able to see somebody online, or on Facebook or on YouTube, has a huge connectional value for us.”
With a congregation that tends to be older, Katauskas said Pflugerville FUMC has been mindful of the reality that some congregants do not have access to internet services or are not technologically inclined. Pflugerville FUMC has dedicated a team of staffers and volunteers to call these members each week to help ensure they are still connected to the greater church community.
Katauskas said the church is working with several area internet providers that are offering online access to those without service during this timespan. But fellowship, Katauskas said, is about so much more than just Sunday service—it also requires giving back to the greater community.
Pflugerville FUMC, Pflugerville Community Church and John Brotherton of Brotherton’s Black Iron Barbecue partnered with Senior Access on March 24 to provide 500 meals to senior citizens and those experiencing homelessness. Along with working with Senior Access and Meals on Wheels, Katauskas said Pflugerville FUMC also offers a food pantry, provides rent and utility assistance to community members, and is looking to work with Pflugerville ISD on resource allocations in the education community.
But none of these efforts, Katauskas said, could be possible without the parishioners who call Pflugerville FUMC home.
When Pflugerville FUMC hosted its first livestream service, Katauskas said there were more than 100 comments from people checking in and saying hello to each other. That, Katauskas said, is the root of what fellowship is: weathering the storm together in pursuit of a brighter tomorrow.
“They miss their church community. They miss that face to face,” Katauskas said. “And just seeing our faces on Sunday morning—it is giving them so much comfort."