“If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old.” – Peter F. Drucker
During the first inning of the COVID-19 outbreak, there was an immediate pause of in-person gatherings. This created unrest in chapel communities among chaplains, religious affairs specialists, directors of religious education, and volunteers. The team had to consider new ways to implement religious support in a pandemic setting. Digital strategies emerged, releasing the power of the collective spirit, inviting virtual community building, and empowering innovation.
Release the Power of the Collective Spirit
My unique vantage point, as the USAG Wiesbaden director of religious education, is the USAG Wiesbaden chapel communities, where many of our volunteers have willingly offered their gifts and time to meet the intense spiritual needs of Families during this unprecedented time.
In our garrison and others OCONUS and CONUS, people are working together to find innovative solutions to offer religious education activities like Vacation Bible School (VBS), and small-group ministries to build community, deepen faith formation, and extend service for God and country.
VBS is a staple event for faith formation of Families in most, if not all, garrisons. Families have been kept safe, but well-served by offering alternative formats to the in-person VBS this summer. Due to restrictions for Health Protection Conditions, we could not have reached them otherwise. The same could be true in major changes to Force Protection Conditions.
Here at USAG Wiesbaden, the creation of virtual classrooms, pre-recorded video content, and individual learning packets resulted in 77 children with their parents being encouraged in the safety of their homes during our recent virtual VBS.Though physical human contact can’t be replaced, volunteers eased the spatial gap using engaging livestreams, creating presence, and caring for their crews through real-time interactions around life-changing content for the kids and parents.
Volunteers had collectively directed and created high-quality video material which they fed into virtual learning classrooms using a semi-live streaming format.
Day 2 – https://youtu.be/G-AkbaYtz3c
Day 3 – https://youtu.be/1Oj7J1T4KrY
Day 4 – https://youtu.be/VQMH8AKjGgQ
Day 5 – https://youtu.be/qXdOsZNgKVU
At USAG Italy, my DRE colleague, Dr. Grace Yeuell, has produced personalized video faith formation content aired on Facebook paired with participation guides for families to utilize within their homes. This leverages the family for the intimate process of religious education with their children. At Fort Huachuca, another DRE colleague, Roxanne Martinez, has adapted the VBS script to meet the specific needs for Families by translating the material into a virtual format. She also shared the modifications with other garrisons to adjust for their local contexts.
Virtual VBS formats can also be repeated for future sessions. USAG Wiesbaden and Italy plan to utilize the pre-recorded material to offer future iterations of VBS to serve Families during the PCS “summer surge.” Our initial assessment reveals that Virtual VBS costs are about half those of a traditional VBS. Virtual VBS also uses fewer volunteers but with the potential of serving even more Families.
There are many unknowns for post COVID-19 religious support, but this may be the best time to build teams for innovative ways to address challenges and support opportunities for a new normal – maybe even a better normal. In one of Wiesbaden’s recent training events, “ministry in a post-pandemic world,” our religious support office gathered volunteers and UMTs in a virtual training environment. The goal was to discern a long-term response to the effects of COVID-19 and future similar restrictions to perform or provide religious support for our community in a “new normal.”
Dr. Grace Yeuell, Dr. Rebecca Powell, DRE at USAG Stuttgart, and Susan Nishimura, DRE at USAG Ansbach, have created a digital training space called the volunteer academy online to develop volunteers leading virtual gatherings. The training empowers volunteers to support Army Families through technology. Such virtual instruction also creates a stronger network of training offerings and maximizes efficiency by availing limited garrison assets to a broader digital audience.
Community Building, Digitally
DREs are going beyond historic limits by using digital learning platforms to engage Families, cultivating religious education environments with messages of hope and, support, and providing a fuller spectrum of care during an otherwise disconnecting crisis.
Social distancing guidelines have made it necessary to meet using non-traditional spaces and means to provide access to religious education.
DREs have enabled faith formation by access to digital resources for small group participants through platforms like Right Now Media (RNM) and Formed. RNM offers curated religious education material by streamed video and downloadable learning guides. Small group members participate at any time, anywhere, with other souls around the globe.
The Office of the Chief of Chaplains (OCCH) recently secured access to RNM and Formed accounts for all Army garrisons. In addition, OCCH outfitted Religious Support Offices with high-quality video equipment to empower virtual ministries.
Religious Support Offices are using such platforms for greater synergy by connecting the content of chaplains’ worship services to DRE’s religious education for volunteers’ pastoral care for each other. These teams can leverage RNM and Formed for unique training opportunities to resource small group members with discussion guides related to the sermon series taught in a chapel. The aim is for greater consistency, spiritual depth, and broader community in real-time interactions that build relationships around a chapel message or teaching viewed digitally.
Necessity is the Mother of Innovation
The unfortunate spread of COVID-19 has created the need to discover digital religious support strategies. As the adage denotes, necessity is the mother of innovation. Unit ministry teams, directors of religious education, and volunteers are reinventing the ways and reasons to use social media, video production and video conferencing.
It is true that virtual gatherings will never completely replace in-person gatherings, but during this time, digital strategies provide an option for Families to consistently care for each other. DREs hope to create vibrant community and leverage technology as an opportunity to close the social distance gap and to strengthen spiritual readiness. We believe virtual ministries should never be a temporary substitute for religious support. They must be an enduring addition.