Gigs, Geeks and God Conference

Our Lady of Lourdes staff, pastoral council and finance council meeting to envision the next 10 years coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Submitted photo)

When the world was thrust into lockdown last spring, staff members at Catholic parishes all across the Archdiocese of Milwaukee rose to the occasion. From learning social media best practices to engaging parishioners virtually via FlockNote to troubleshooting faulty internet connections during livestreamed Mass, they tackled challenges that no amount of ministry training could have prepared them for.

“As one of my coworkers put it, we were building the boat as we were sailing it,” said Marc Puechner, director of communications and technology integration at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Milwaukee.

Almost a year later, the question now is how to retain some of these skills and protocols and apply them to evangelization in a post-pandemic world. Together with Maureen Rotramel, director of youth and young adult ministry at St. John XXIII Parish in Port Washington, Puechner tackled that very issue at the virtual Gigs, Geeks and God Conference on Jan. 14.

“We don’t have all the answers,” Rotramel acknowledged at the beginning of the presentation, which was entitled “How Do You Adapt This Beyond the Pandemic?” Instead of prescribing solutions, Puechner and Rotramel led the participants in a collaborative discussion wherein parish staffers were able to share their own experiences and ask questions of others who are facing similar issues.

At the onset of the discussion, a quick poll was taken of the attendees to determine their parish’s current level of virtual engagement and their plans for continuing that post-COVID.

Eighty-one percent of participants said their parish was livestreaming Mass, while just 4 percent said they had previously done so and stopped. Thirty-eight percent said plans were in place to continue livestreaming after restrictions on gatherings are lifted; 19 percent said they would discontinue livestreaming, and 42 percent said they were not sure.

As for parish meetings and faith formation, the majority of responders reported those ministries were being conducted both virtually and in-person. Seventy-seven percent said they were unsure if virtual options would continue to be offered after restrictions are lifted.

In a breakout session that divided the attendees into small groups, participants explored the questions of what skills their staff had developed since last spring, and how they saw utilizing those skills in the future.

“The general consensus (in our small group) is that everyone moved the needle forward,” Angela Bravata of St. John Vianney Parish in Brookfield shared with the larger group. “Four out of five of us had to add livestreaming skills that were not present in the parish beforehand, and we’ll continue to use that and those skills keep improving. Once you learn something, you want to add something.”

Bravata also said that her small group agreed that the pandemic had revealed how important it is to improve communication channels electronically with parishioners via website improvements, the addition of programs like FlockNote and the availability of digital bulletins.

“One of the common themes is we have learned not to be afraid of technology,” said Russ Koth from St. Lawrence in Hartford. “We can learn to use it and it’s not as scary as it seemed before.”

Tricia Pardo from St. Patrick in Racine said that her parish “did a lot of communicating through Facebook.”

“We have a lot of families and members that liked our page through Facebook, and that’s how we ended up telling them the office is closed and the Masses are online now,” she said. Masses for the Catholic Community of Racine, of which St. Patrick is part, are all conducted by Facebook live, which their parishioners seem to prefer over YouTube, said Pardo.

Looking to the future, Rotramel asked attendees if their parishes were having discussions now about what a post-pandemic Mass and ministry schedule was going to look like.

“Everything I’m reading says that (restrictions will last for some time),” said Rotramel. “And there’s always going to be a risk of another resurgence, a new strain, a new virus, so we might have to shift quickly back into lockdown mode.”

Liz Harrison of St. Mary’s Visitation in Elm Grove shared that she had been pondering this on her own, separate from parish-level discussions. “We have such a diverse type of people (at the parish) that are afraid no matter what level the virus is that them coming back to any kind of normalcy is going to take a lot of prayer and a lot of faith. That’s the reality we’re seeing,” she said. “We’re meeting them where they’re at, kind of like the mantra we’ve always had in ministry. Whatever it is that we’re being asked to do for the future, I think we just have to rise to that occasion and utilize all the tools, pull out all the stops and make it happen. I think everyone in our parish is on board with that mantra — meet them where they’re at, and do what we can to keep them close to the parish and to Jesus.”