A Message from Senior Pastor Scott Black Johnston
June 13, 2023
Dear Friends in Christ:
I have three announcements to share today, each of them brimming with promise for the future of Christ’s church.
First, we will enter the program year this fall with a new joint committee of the Session and Trustees. The Hybrid Church Council will be charged with helping us think through the challenges and historic opportunities coming our way as we more fully embrace a hybrid church model.
Second, the Personnel Committee has enthusiastically approved a new, pilot position on our senior staff, the Director of Ministry to the Online Campus. This individual will lead our evolving online ministry, engage directly with our growing membership outside the New York area, and work with our staff and officers to imagine, innovate and elevate hybrid church to the next level at Fifth Avenue.
Finally, we have already filled this important new position! I am delighted to introduce you to Natalie Owens-Pike, who will join our staff full time starting Aug. 1.
This is a lot to digest, I know! So let me share some background with you.
What Is ‘Hybrid Church?’
“Hybrid church” describes a congregation with two campuses—a physical, in-person campus, and an online campus. The online campus refers to livestream and on-demand playback of Sunday worship, as well as Zoom Bible study, webinars, livestream concerts and other church ministries (including pastoral care) delivered online.
Many churches, Fifth Avenue included, became hybrid churches in 2021, as pandemic restrictions began to relax and worshipers returned for in-person services. We not only affirmed that we would continue to livestream (there was never a question about that), but we also made a strategic decision to invest in the development of our online campus.
We made remarkable progress over the past year. Half of our Adult Education classes were offered online. One in five of our new members came to us from well outside the tri-state area—and 20% of our pledge revenues as well. We elected our first officer from the online campus, Tom Wesley from Providence, Rhode Island, who will serve on the Board of Trustees. All of this progress culminated last month as we hosted our first Beyond the Walls event, with 19 members from across the country joining us in New York for a weekend of service, worship and fellowship.
I have asked every ministry and department on staff to consider how we can best serve both our physical and our online campuses in the year ahead. The Hybrid Church Council—which will include not only Elders and Trustees but pastors, senior staff and at least two representatives of the online campus as well—will be invaluable partners in this work.
An important learning from the last year is that the online campus requires substantial staff support, particularly pastoral support. Hybrid ministry became everyone’s job this year, but we had no dedicated leader, no one focused full time on the online campus. Now we do.
Natalie Owens-Pike joins us from Yale Divinity School, where she has just completed her master of divinity degree. Natalie may be a recent graduate, but she is no newcomer to ministry, or to nonprofit leadership.
For six years Natalie was the executive director of Breakthrough Minneapolis, a unique partnership between The Blake School, a private, college preparatory school, and the Minneapolis public schools. In that role she did just about everything, from programming and communications strategy to fundraising and staff management.
Later, as she pursued her call to ministry, Natalie served congregations in Westport and New Haven, Connecticut, including a three-month stint as Sabbatical Pastor & Minister of Fun (yes, that was her title!) at Saugatuck Congregational Church in Westport.
Natalie has lived in different regions of the U.S. and internationally. She grew up Unitarian, is on the path to ordination with the United Church of Christ, and is quickly learning all she can about the Presbyterian tradition. She says the diverse lenses through which she sees the world are one of the strengths she brings to her new role at Fifth Avenue. I couldn’t agree more.
As I mentioned, Natalie’s is a pilot position. Before her 10-month contract concludes, we will assess whether, and where, changes need to made.
My friends, we are in a time of innovation and experimentation. We plan to learn from Natalie’s ministry with our far-flung family of faith and from the experience of other churches. We are going to be nimble as we listen to where the Spirit is calling us.
We will introduce Natalie to the congregation, both in person and online, later this summer. The fall issue of The Voice will have more to say about our hybrid church strategy as well. For now, we welcome your ideas, and we welcome your prayers.
Saddle up, my friends! It looks like the Spirit is going to take us on a fascinating ride.
Scott Black Johnston