The exhilaration of Online Ministry

“the move online has enabled and facilitated my aspirations around building community in ways I could never have imagined” — Recent graduate of OneSpirit Interfaith Ministry training Patricia Higgins reflects on the scope of online ministry during and post-pandemic

Image credit: Richard Gomez

In being asked to write about Online Memorial Services, I first wanted to address the wider question of Ministry Online.

Like many newly ordained OneSpirit Interfaith Ministers, I wondered about ‘where to now?’ post-ordination. To whom do I minister? OneSpirit Interfaith Foundation offered a route to ministry not available to me as a woman within the Catholic Church. In choosing this route, I was making a conscious decision to be part of creating new spaces and ways to engage with those who might feel ‘over Church’ but not ‘over God’. I was excited by that challenge. However, I found myself with a certain envy of the post-ordination path within a more formal Church structure. To be assigned to a pre-existing community seemed very appealing, in spite of the many challenges such communities, and indeed the institutions as a whole, face. By contrast I, along with my newly ordained peers, faced the questions of where and how to begin? And with whom?

I wanted my ministry to be about building community — connecting people with themselves, each other and with the God of their understanding. I wanted those who came to me for ceremonies to be centrally involved in the planning and delivery of them, and for all who attended to feel fully involved and engaged.

The migration to online format that came as we finished our training, seemed to me to seriously threaten those aspirations. Like many at the start of the lockdowns, I found the idea of working with people and connecting on screen anathema.

The move online for faith and spirituality related gatherings, however, has not proved to be as negative as feared. A study, conducted in mid-2020 by Dublin City University Ireland, on the impact of Covid on people’s Church practice’ found that not only had those attending Church services regularly increased since services moved online, but that over 60% felt as close or closer to the church at this time, and 80% felt that the same or closer to God. This pattern of increased attendance was mirrored across US and Canada.

For myself, the move online has enabled and facilitated my aspirations around building community in ways I could never have imagined. Online Memorial Services was one of these, which I will discuss in more depth below, but I want to first mention smaller faith-sharing community gatherings, and seasonal gatherings arranged with a wider group, that I have been very involved in, as both were significant in the development of Online Memorial Services.

Small faith community

I have a group of five female friends, who pre-Covid, met at least twice a year by ourselves and also gathered annually with our husbands and children. Faith exploration and sharing had been a big part of how we had come to know each other originally and has remained a regular part of what we did together as a group of women, and an occasional feature of our family gatherings. When Covid restrictions kicked in last March, I suggested we might try to gather on Zoom and — with the excluding a short summer break- we have been meeting every Sunday since. We take it in turns to host the gatherings and the creativity, energy, insight and depth of sharing has been more than any of us could have imagined.

Seasonal Reflective gatherings

Some of this group, along with people from several other overlapping groups had been gathering pre-Covid for seasonal reflective walks once or twice a year. The motivation to arrange these walks, was a shared sense there’s a real need for new and creative spaces to allow both the young and the not-so- young to explore if/how faith connects with our everyday lives. This gathering also migrated online during Advent 2020.

Image credit: Patricia Higgins

The image to the left is of myself and my children in Phoenix Park in Dublin, listening in via WhatsApp to a guided reflection during one of an Advent events focussed on finding God in nature. Though we were within 100m of one of the park’s most notable landmarks, the Papal Cross, we could not see it through the fog. The cross is a 35m high structure, erected when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland in 1979. Over 1 million people turned out to see him that day. With all the changes in Ireland since, the cross now marks something of the difference in how Irish people, including myself, relate to the Catholic Church. The experience of wandering within the fog captured well the sense of setting out as a newly ordained minister at this time: wanting to find a new path, but still somehow connected to the core of the tradition I grew up with. Despite the dense fog, there was a real sense of exhilaration from being connected online with others walking or in groups of up to 6, across Dublin, and over 100 miles away in Counties Cork, Tipperary, and Clare as well.

Online Memorial Services

This experience with smaller and larger groups online opened my eyes to what was possible online and gave me a certain confidence with the mechanics of that. In terms of finding a focus for my own ministry, one group who came strongly to mind were those who had suffered a bereavement during Covid.

Over 45,000 people have died on the island of Ireland since Covid restrictions began, and for most of that time numbers have attending funerals have been severely restricted. Under level 5 , only 10 people are allowed to attend a funeral in the Republic of Ireland, and in UK, the recently published roadmap indicates funeral attendance will be capped at 30 until at least Jun 21st. Families bereaved in the last year have suffered therefore, not only the loss of a loved one, but also the loss of the ‘normal’ grieving rituals, which in Ireland have a particularly strong significance. Recent research by Irish Hospice Foundation showed that over 87% felt that gathering was important in dealing with grief, and 62% felt it was more difficult to offer sympathy given these restrictions on attending funerals and wakes.

Online Memorial Services are intended to fill something of the gap. They are simple, dignified services, created with those close to the person who has died, to help them honour and celebrate the life of their loved one and allow a space where the stories and memories traditionally exchanged at a wake or a funeral can still be shared.

Held on Zoom, up to 100 households can attend: from the neighbours down the road, to family members at the other side of the world. The format means that all those who attend can, if they wish, be seen and heard by everyone else there. Participating in a Memorial Service, therefore, is quite different than viewing a funeral service via webcam, where the lead mourners may have little or no tangible awareness or sense of connecting with those who are ‘tuning in’.

While highlighting this contrast with funerals, it is important to say, that Online Memorial Services are not intended to replace the formal funeral, rather to complement it. Like all OneSpirit Interfaith Ministers, I have been trained to work with all faiths and none and I am committed to working with those who want the Memorial to shape it in such a way that fits with their own beliefs and those of their loved one. The timing can vary- to mark a month’s mind, an anniversary, or any date with significance. Orla Keegan, Head of Bereavement Services in Irish Hospice, believes ‘Online Memorials are a great idea, to help family and friends connect on special days after a loss.’

The Online Memorial Services can play a helpful role in a workplace context too. One of the first requests for a service was from an IT company where a young staff member had died. Her colleagues had no physical sense of her death, as they had been working remotely for a year. After the service, which had been prepared with 4 members of staff, all were very appreciative of the opportunity. According to Annie the Senior Manager, ‘it allowed us to reflect on and record with gratitude all she (their colleague) had meant to us. It was a wonderful option to have had at this time’.

Online Ministry Post-Covid

As light at end of tunnel of Covid restrictions begins to appear, what part will Online Ministry play post-Covid? The evidence on this is mixed. A leading US commentator, Tony Morgan, Founder and CEO, of the Unstuck Group, a US Based group who has worked with 100s of faith leaders to develop digital strategies in the wake of Covid, believes that as the Covid risk lifts, ‘the way in which people interact with our churches will be permanently changed and will move to a way that is even more digital.’ The DCU study of Irish people and Church suggests that here the pull back to physical gatherings in community spaces is stronger on this side of the Atlantic, with less than 1 % said they would only or mainly worship online.

Image credit: Patricia Higgins

So, while the migration to online connecting around faith and spirituality, and with it online ministry, may be more muted in Ireland, there will definitely be scope for more hybrid gatherings — connecting those physically present at a ceremony with those not able to physically attend. This is something which is both challenging and exciting. Several years ago, I was part of setting up an Association of Catholics In Ireland — a lay led organisation to push for change within the Irish Catholic Church. One of the many learnings from that experience was advice given to us as we set up our website: learn to manage the site for ourselves and in so doing embrace the inherent democracy of online spaces. I have thought of that often in the last year. With Zoom now ubiquitous, there are opportunities to create spaces with others, that were never possible before. And these spaces can be so much more easily built and shared, than bricks and mortar spaces could ever be.

To return to the picture at the beginning of us in the fog… someone else who was part of that gathering, was five miles away from Phoenix Park, up in the Dublin hills. Her house sat far enough up the hills to be above the clouds. This final picture is her photo from that same day — blue skies, stunning sunshine, and a clear view of the top of the Papal Cross. That gave me great hope. It can feel like a fog, but I trust that the Spirit of God has a clear view, and while I try to steer a course, near to but at some remove from traditional paths, She can see that and the all the beauty that still lies beyond, clearly.

For more information on Patricia, explore our Register of OneSpirit Interfaith Ministers, and on www.patriciahiggins.ie

Responding the changing spiritual needs of our times.