Some fifteen years ago, General Stanley McChrystal faced a complex and rapidly changing situation. He had been named commander of U.S. forces in occupied Iraq following the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. A radical Muslim insurgency was engulfing the countryside as our military tried to stop the terrorists and pacify the war-torn nation.

The problem: The Army, Navy, and Air Force were three separate branches of the military, each with independent chains of command and decision-making processes. Many opportunities for successful joint operations were being missed due to the lack of daily communication on operational details. The solution: General McChrystal pulled together the top strategists from across the military branches to form a team that met regularly and worked in partnership. The result: Greater effectiveness was achieved by working together instead of independently. The general’s best-selling book, Team of Teams, identified principles of leadership in a fast-moving world that he believed could work for businesses and organizations as it had for the military.

2020: Year of the Pivot

Pastors Brad Rogers and Doug Pratt had read and discussed the implications of McChrystal’s book in late 2019 as part of Brad’s doctoral studies. Little did they expect that the year 2020 would prove to be a perfect laboratory for testing and applying the Team of Teams principles. When a sudden shut-down of routine life in Florida occurred in mid-March, the pastors and staff of First Church began meeting to brainstorm and strategize how to continue our ministry amidst a global pandemic. Our large congregation, at the peak of the winter season, was suddenly scattered, distanced, and isolated in greater ways than ever before. The ministries and activities that depended on face-to-face gatherings were instantly disrupted. Convinced that God would guide us, and that the option of simply shutting down our church and ceasing to worship and serve our congregation was not acceptable, the staff rolled up their collective sleeves and went to work.

Our first action was to assign the pastoral staff to write what we labeled The Shepherd’s Voice—brief devotional thoughts delivered to church members and friends via email twice weekly. Its primary purpose was to help, support, and encourage our members during a time of significant fear, panic, and disorientation as the initial COVID-19 lockdowns were instituted. With The Shepherd’s Voice, our Communications Team soon became skilled at using a different set of technology tools and pivoting away from print materials. New processes were developed to respond to a whole new set of challenges.

Our second decision was to pre-record a weekly worship service with all six of our pastors participating in various roles. We maintained the previously established schedule of preaching. The Sacred Arts Ministry, which had to cancel all performances and choir activities, demonstrated great flexibility and creativity in providing high-quality music for each service. From mid-March through the end of April, worship took place on a pre-recorded basis only and could be viewed online. With staff organist Barbara Wischmeier quarantined due to health issues, we enlisted the services of Brice Gerlach, Choir Director and Organist at First Presbyterian Church in Naples. Brice played keyboard for our recording sessions, and he continued to play organ and piano for our live services from May until September.

A New Strategy

Our Media Ministry, which for nine years had been recording and editing Sunday services for delayed posting online, quickly adapted to this new reality of recording worship with no live audience. An additional challenge was presented to that team (led by Media Manager Tommy Hillegass) when the Florida Governor removed the Safer at Home orders on May 1 and we resumed live worship at 8AM and 10AM with limited attendance. Our media specialists smoothly transitioned into livestreaming, purchasing the necessary technology to begin direct internet broadcasts at 10AM every Sunday. The response to online worship has been remarkable: on many Sundays, more than 2,000 people have tuned in to be part of our online congregation. We even received comments from many of them, some watching from afar who had never set foot in our Sanctuary—a unique way for a church to grow!

While juggling the challenge of bringing worship online, in April we adopted a weekly video Pastor’s Chat as a way of connecting and unifying our congregation. One of our pastors would give an update on conditions in Southwest Florida and here at First Church and offer some spiritual perspectives on the problems confronting us. This was recorded and emailed to members and friends with a link to the video. The Pastor’s Chat now continues as a monthly communication.

Adapting and Expanding

In May, First Church produced a five-part video series on key sections of the Book of Acts and made it available online. This experiment in video recording a pastor’s class led to a new brainstorm: the development of a new dimension to our church’s teaching ministry called Life Academy. These online video/audio presentations cover a wide range of practical, theological, and spiritual topics, all presented in short 20 to 30-minute episodes by our pastors. The Life Academy library continues to grow as new episodes are recorded and made available through our website, by email, or even podcast
(audio only).

Maintaining all the electronic (multiple websites, social media platforms, emails, and electronic newsletters) and print communications (bulletins, flyers, brochures, tickets, promotional materials, roadside banners) of the church has required an enhanced Communications staff. In the summer of 2020, Karen Quintero was hired to work in digital design and social media. Communications Director Michaela Carson now has four full-time and one part-time staff members working to keep our congregation connected and the community informed.

Recording for Life Academy put a significant strain on the Media Team and the church facilities, as each recording session required extensive set-up and tear-down, using old and inferior equipment. In June, the Session made several important decisions: (1) to hire a professional videographer, Mark McClellan;(2) to purchase the best equipment available for our purposes; and (3) to hire Gil Urick as a consultant to research the possibility of creating a state-of-the-art recording studio. In September, the Session approved the lease of approximately 3,000 square feet of office space at 9696 Bonita Beach Road, where First Church Communications and the Spiritual Development Center are located. The space was renovated to house the new recording studio, which opened in December. The first production was a historical sketch presented by our Drama Ministry under the direction of playwright Delvyn Case and shown in worship services on December 13.

Collaborative Effort

Successful operation of this new multi-faceted online ministry of First Church has been the collective effort of more than a dozen dedicated professionals. The “Team of Teams” that meets, plans, and executes these activities consists of three dimensions: content, provided by the pastoral staff and Sacred Arts Ministry; production (filming and editing), coordinated by the Media Ministry; and distribution, overseen by Communications. This collaborative effort requires a wide range of skills; no one person can do it all. Thanks be to God that He has called to this place and time just the right people with the right gifts to make it all happen.