Months ago, no one could have predicted what COVID-19 would do to our communities, much less our parishes. Even leaders of our strongest faith communities had to scramble when they were advised to shut their doors and cancel public Masses to slow the virus. However, by utilizing resources available online, as well as calling on parishioners to volunteer for some much-needed assistance, many parishes have proven that Church really isn’t a place … it’s who we are as people of God.
Fr. Charlie Garza is the pastor of St. Albert the Great Catholic Church in Austin, Texas. According to him, St. Albert was one of the poorest prepared parishes to take on COVID-19 in so many ways. However, by following the principals of the Amazing Parish, a growing organization that helps pastors and their leadership teams with a goal of helping the group discover ways to take their parish leadership practices from the level of mundane to truly spiritual, they were able to adapt quickly to the circumstances and come out stronger on the other side.
When news came out that all parishes had to close due to the coronavirus, Fr. Garza knew that his parish couldn’t just stop all ministry and wait for the virus to end. He and his leadership team had to find a way to continue the mission of Christ in a new way.
“On hearing the news, we immediately began brainstorming ways to get creative. As a team, we were committed to the idea that we were not going to say ‘no,’ but rather that we were going to say ‘yes’ in a creative way under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,” he explains. “We each had to surrender to the idea that we could not do certain things as usual. We had to ask the Holy Spirit in prayer to show us a new way.”
Digital Ministry as a Way of Life
Fr. Garza says that his congregation’s reaction to canceling public Masses was one of sadness but compassion, as well.
“Some were upset that Bishop Joe Vásquez did not cancel Masses sooner and thought that decision should have happened earlier,” he remembers. “On the other hand, some were upset that the bishop cancelled public Masses in the first place. The majority, however, were understanding and felt the decision and timetable were correct.”
Knowing that time was of the essence, the parish quickly shifted focus to digital ministry.
“This is where having a leadership team was key to our quick pivoting,” Fr. Garza explains. “We were just as unprepared as any parish out there for this, especially for livestreaming. However, we responded very quickly because each leadership team member responded to a key area.
“One team member handled the electronic giving aspect, another the livestreaming, another the digital pastoral care aspect, another the social media communication. Within a few days, we were livestreaming and pushing things out on social media and our podcast site,” he adds. “It was a growing process, and we made mistakes, but as a team we improved our digital outreach over time.”
Tithing a “Way of Invitation”
Focusing on keeping donations steady through all of this has been key, explains Fr. Garza, although asking for money was a little difficult for him in the beginning.
“It was once hard for me to ask for money, but now I see it as inviting people into mission with us,” he says. “We made a big push once COVID-19 started to increase our electronic giving. Today, about 60-65% of our total offertory now comes from online donations.
“Our weekend offertories took a dip in the first couple weeks after the suspension of public Masses, but we recovered quickly as the message of giving was heard by our parishioners.” Today, the parish is back to pre-COVID-19 offertory numbers and giving has increased by four-times to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, as more requests for financial assistance came pouring in as jobs were lost and families struggled.
The key to the offertory “push” was using a variety of communications and consistency in messaging, according to Fr. Garza.
“We sent out physical and social media mail-outs very quickly that explained our three giving options,” he says. Electronic giving was the most stressed method, mail-in giving was mainly for the envelope users, and the parish’s outside drop-off box was geared toward cash givers.
“Our parish is very diverse, and so we recognized the need for diverse giving methods. In every weekend livestreamed Mass, we stressed our three giving methods during the offertory time period. We also maintained momentum by sharing success stories of how our parish’s generosity is making a difference, while highlighting specific needs that came up.”
A More Effective Way of Doing Things
While the world waits in anticipation for things to go back to normal, Fr. Garza believes that some aspects of the Church will keep new ways. In fact, some of it needs to change because it’s just a more effective way of doing things.
While he is now back to celebrating public Mass, Fr. Garza says that many of his parishioners are reluctant to come back regardless of the precautions the church is taking, so they will continue to offer livestream Masses for spiritual communion. His ministry team also continues to emphasize the importance of supporting the parish through recurring giving, especially through online donations.
“We have maintained our same electronic giving percentage even as some people come back to public Masses,” he added. “Our hope is that we have successfully shifted our parish so that the majority will continue giving online.”
Looking to amplify your online giving message but don’t have the time or the resources? Sign up for the Weshare Engagement Campaign — a FREE service for parishes — and watch how a few simple steps from your parish can translate into big results for your community.