Keith Holeman gets ready for one of the first livestream services at All Saints, Pasadena, made necessary by the coronavirus pandemic. Photo: All Saints, Pasadena, via Facebook

Serving as a St. Mark’s Church greeter once meant welcoming parishioners with a big smile and a warm hello, opening doors for them, shaking hands, offering hugs, exchanging pleasantries, passing out paper bulletins.

Now, in the age of COVID-19, worship and coffee hour have moved online, and digital greeters at the Upland church still welcome members, instead ushering them from a Zoom “narthex” into a “sanctuary” room where worship happens.

On Zoom, as in a church, the narthex is where people initially congregate. It is also often the place where technical troubleshooting happens, according to Julia Warren, St. Mark’s junior warden.

“Sometimes people just need help to make sure their computer is working, or their video is on,” she told The Episcopal News recently.

With the advent of online worship, once visible and more personal ministry roles like greeter and usher have shifted to accommodate the change. Members of some Southland churches say serving as a greeter has become more a behind-the-scenes support role as digital greeters are called upon to assist church members with technical difficulties.

“It’s created a bit more helpful atmosphere for people coming into Zoom who need a little bit of extra attention to get to the place where they can participate fully,” Warren said.

The virtual narthex has also helped create a less disruptive space, she said. “The idea is, you can talk in the narthex, but we’re going to be quiet in the sanctuary so people can have a moment of contemplation and prayer before worship.”

To Kimberly Cortner, who has been both an in-person and online greeter at St. Mark’s, virtual greeters are important because, she said, “It’s very awkward to come into meetings and have no one present on screen who’s host. It is important to acknowledge everyone, speaking up whenever two to three people join and saying, ‘Good morning, everyone, we’ll be starting in a few minutes.’”

Yet, she said, “I miss the in-person gestures — shaking hands, facial expressions and eye contact. Even on the screen, when it’s the best video situation, you can’t see people’s eyes and make a strong connection and that’s unfortunate.”

But she added, “We can’t be doing that now anyway, even if we were in person,” due to the coronavirus pandemic

The Rev. Canon Kelli Grace Kurtz told The News via email that All Saints Church in Riverside has four “virtual ushers who are attentive to what’s going on as people log on to Facebook or Zoom.

“They’ll point people to the PDF of the bulletin, respond to chat/comment posts, and do some greeting.  It’s been so helpful for me to not have to have those balls to juggle,” said Kurtz, All Saints’ rector.  “It’s happened organically; the four just found themselves tending to the needs of folks as they started navigating over to virtual worship.  Now, it’s a dependable part of the new way we’re doing corporate worship.”

Similarly, when Dan McCarrel logs into Zoom webinar as a member of the Sunday morning greeter team at All Saints Church, Pasadena, he enters an initial greeting in the chat function: “If you’re new to All Saints, please fill out welcome card at this link and let us know who you are — then scroll down and explore our virtual welcome bag with lots of information about the mission and ministry of All Saints Church.”

He and other V-greeters repeat that message several times throughout worship and the rector’s forum to include late arrivals. They also preview upcoming worship times, special events and other announcements, as well as guide participants to the bulletins.

All Saints’ Director of Congregational Development Nancy Naecker said that the church had already begun to develop online tools for their welcome ministry prior to COVID-19.

“A few months before the pandemic hit, we were having people turn down the physical welcome bag. They didn’t want that much paper,” she said. “Instead, they were asking, ‘Can I get this online?’”

Now, they can access the same information — a welcome card, as well as information about the church staff, ministries and spiritual care — virtually, she said.

For McCarrel, the greeter ministry has shifted from being more visible previously to behind-the-scenes support. It requires listening, anticipating, and cutting and pasting information, as well as monitoring and finding answers to participant questions from the chat feature, he said.

For example, during a recent service, the Rev. Mike Kinman, All Saints’ rector, asked worshipers to type prayer concerns into the chat feature. “He asked the V-greeters to copy and paste those back so those who were viewing could see the concerns. He said he would read some back. We did that, this past Sunday.”

Hannah Riley, director of communications and Church of Our Saviour, San Gabriel, parish administrator jokes that since COVID-19 and the resultant online worship she has added “concierge, IT trainer, and unintentional Zoom overlord” to her responsibilities.

Monitoring online worship can be both chaotic and unpredictable, she said, citing a recent Saturday Night Live skit about the struggles to get worshippers to mute themselves during online services.

For Gabriel Vazquez-Reyes, youth and family minister and a digital coordinator at Church of Our Saviour, navigating the online world has felt at times like “we’re building the airplane while we’re flying it.”

Since the March 19 stay-at-home order, the church has experimented with Zoom, You Tube and other platforms to discover what works, and “to create something authentic that meets the needs of our community in this digital platform.”

A welcome card on the church website connects newcomers with the staff, and a silent host facilitates coffee hours.

Riley said that often, during the week, she trains parishioners who are Zoom novices. “I work to onboard parishioners so that come Sunday for forum or any of the other Zoom offerings people are comfortable enough to log on,” she said.

And then, “on the actual day, Sunday, I make sure I open the meeting early for people who want to get in and make sure they know how to unmute and to get the correct view. In a pinch I show them how to call in, because there’s always that option.”

She added: “There is a way to make sure that everyone feels included. We want everybody to feel a part of this, in a time when it’s so easy to feel not a part of.”

While Riley was facilitating a May 10 adult forum, the unpredictable happened: guest speaker Bishop John Harvey Taylor’s “bandwidth disappeared and he [his screen] froze.”

“We hopped on and used the opportunity to talk about next week’s forum … until we got him back,” she recalled.

“Things happen. Calls drop. People disappear, but we just roll with it,” she said. “He was so gracious about it.”

While sometimes chaotic and challenging it also offers opportunities for patience and kindness. “My goal is to do this with grace and a good attitude,” Riley said. “And, if something goes haywire, it’s okay.”