Pastor Derrick Elliott is a busy man.
In addition to being an Air Force chaplain and doctoral candidate, he is the pastor of Desert Heritage Church (DHC), which is an open and affirming congregation of both the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Mesa, Ariz.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and DHC closed its doors in favor of online services, Pastor Derrick took on even more roles when he began pre-recording his sermons. Despite only being employed part-time by the congregation, he became an amateur editor, director, and producer.
“It was exciting at first because it was something new. But after a month it started getting tiring,” he admits, “because I was doing all that work plus being a pastor.”
While he has had a member of his faith community volunteer to manage DHC’s Facebook page, most members are technology hesitant. Early last year, they were just getting used to a projector being used in their sanctuary.
So like many of his colleagues at the beginning of the pandemic, Pastor Derrick started recording his sermons on his cell phone. While his setup worked well at the time, he started to collect devices that would better suit his needs, such as a wireless microphone and pack, different stands, and lights that wouldn’t wash out his dark complexion. (Color film and photography were originally optimized for white skin; technology that continues today in most cameras.) Like many of his colleagues, Pastor Derrick went through a period of trial and error.
“I will count it as a blessing,” Pastor Derrick says. “I actually hate being videotaped then watching and hearing the playback, so this learning experience has gotten me out of my comfort zone.”
At first, he purchased a wireless live streaming camera from Mevo, but it just didn’t quite capture what he wanted it to. Then in conversation with other clergy in his area, he discovered LiveControl, a remote video production and live streaming company. Using a U.S. $5,000 technology grant from Disciples Church Extension Fund, (DCEF) Pastor Derrick and his team hired the company to produce their worship services for a year. After they installed two 4k PTZ cameras that LiveControl sent them, all they have to do is tell the company the time and date of a service and it will be live-streamed to Facebook.
“While I miss doing the pre-recorded service because I got to watch it with the congregation, I don’t miss all the work that went along with that,” he chuckles. “If I messed up when I was recording my sermons, I had to go back, edit it, and record it again. But now in a live, if I mess up, I just keep going. What a relief!”
While the plan is to evaluate the feasibility of continuing to use LiveControl after 12 months, the results so far are overwhelmingly positive. Not only has hiring a company to produce worship services lifted the burden of responsibility off Pastor Derrick’s shoulders, but it has also increased the number of worship attendants.
“One time we got up to 100+ views on a service,” he recalls. “And normally we get an average of up to 40 to 50 people inside our sanctuary!”
Moreover, their Facebook Live videos have reached congregants who are not able to gather in person.
While most of DHC’s congregants are Americans, some are Canadian “snowbirds” who travel to Arizona for the winter. Due to border restrictions for COVID-19, they were unable to fly to the United States when they normally would. But having their faith community’s services streamed live meant that they didn’t need to miss out on worship or women’s group meetings.
“I have noticed through Facebook and website analytics that more people are attending our worship service who don’t live near the church,” shares Pastor Derrick.
Having an online option has also made worship more accessible for one congregant who’s a cancer survivor. While she was able to join in-person services when DHC initially re-opened, the Delta variant made it unsafe for her to continue to do so, as she lives with a compromised immune system. So she went back to attending the church’s online services with her sister in tow, who lives in a different town.
“Those who want to be in the sanctuary can come because our doors are open again,” explains Pastor Derrick, “and those who don’t feel comfortable with that or who don’t have the energy to do so can worship online now because we have that technology.”
DHC also used its grant from DCEF to fix its sound system. Due to the church building’s age, (it dates to the mid-1900s), the soundboard went out. DCEF’s funds enabled the congregation to replace some of the wires and play their music again, which includes a variety of traditional and modern songs.
And it is this last piece of DHC’s experience over the past year and a half that best summarizes where this joint congregation is now. A blend of old and new, of in person and digital, of learning and trying all for the sake of your community, no matter where they’re worshiping from.
To strengthen your congregation’s online presence moving forward, apply for technology funding from DCEF. Loans of up to U.S. $50,000 are available to churches looking to improve their streaming ability and make tangible equipment purchases. Contact your regional Building and Capital Services Advisor for additional information.