Church hires digital pastor for online community

Headshot of Michael Buttrey in the chancel of St. Clement, Eglinton.
Michael Buttrey in the chancel of St. Clement, Eglinton.
 on February 29, 2024
Michael Hudson

Four years after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the parish of St. Clement, Eglinton is taking a next step in its exploration of online community with a new staff position, the first of its kind in the diocese.

In January, the parish announced that Michael Buttrey would become its first digital pastor, dedicated to meeting the increasing needs of the online community at St. Clement’s. He will be responsible for researching, implementing, facilitating and shaping interactive opportunities for those who connect with the parish online.

Serving as theologian-in-residence at St. Clement’s since 2017, Mr. Buttrey is also a doctoral candidate in Christian ethics at Regis College and program secretary for the Canadian Council of Churches.

“Michael’s a brilliant teacher, he’s a great preacher, and over the course of the seven years of his ministry in different capacities as theologian-in-residence, he’s built up a huge pocket of trust with people,” says the Rev. Canon Andrew Federle, incumbent of St. Clement’s.

The position will be funded by a $30,000 Cast and Learn grant from the diocese. Launched in 2023 as part of the Cast the Net visioning process, Cast and Learn provides one-time grants to parishes wanting to innovate, learn and grow as they reach out to people who aren’t currently connected to the church.

The need for a staff person dedicated to St. Clement’s online community was spurred by the shift to virtual ministry during the pandemic. The leadership team had been engaged in a strategic planning process, launching its new strategic plan just three weeks before in-person worship was suspended in 2020. But the pandemic didn’t derail the parish’s new direction; instead, that vision guided the community through a time of disruption.

“The ‘how,’ of necessity, needed to change pretty radically – online versus in-person – but the ‘what’ and the ‘who’ were really strong,” says Canon Federle. “We weren’t scrambling about who we are or what we were up to. What had crystallized for us was that our mission was learning to follow Jesus Christ.”

The focus on learning, he says, was a deliberate choice. The parish leadership intended to adopt a posture of experimentation and failure, which proved to be well suited for pandemic ministry. “I would say for just about three years straight, we were trying something new every week,” says Canon Federle.

The team at St. Clement’s decided to use Zoom to create an interactive worship experience, dubbed Church at Home, rather than live streaming a worship service for participants to watch. When lockdown was lifted and people started to return to in-person worship, the team shifted to a live stream model, but they soon realized it was becoming more difficult to maintain the person-to-person connection beyond the church walls.

“We had whetted people’s appetite that this wasn’t just watching something; they could participate,” says Canon Federle. “People knew that this could be more than just watching something on the screen.”

With many competing demands on the clergy team, its members found that they couldn’t devote the time they once had to cultivating relationships with the people participating online.

“We were bumping up against the frustration of knowing how important this was and just not having the time and people power to be able to do that,” says the Rev. Pamela Rayment. As an associate priest at the parish, Ms. Rayment is the creative strategist behind its worship experiences and communications.

“We recognized that not having a specific person in a role dedicated to that kind of work was a detriment, and we were missing an opportunity with one of the growing edges of this community,” she says.

The team knew how deep these online relationships could be, having seen many examples during the pandemic of people from all locations and walks of life engaging with the St. Clement’s community without ever stepping foot inside the building.

“We had a family from a small community out west – the mom grew up in Toronto. They had their son during the pandemic and wanted to connect to an Anglican church. She remembered us, looked us up and started connecting with us online,” says Ms. Rayment.

An initial email exchange led to an eight-month conversation about having their son baptized at St. Clement’s. After meeting on Zoom and doing virtual baptismal prep, the family flew to Toronto and their son was baptized.

“That was one really concrete example of the connections that can be made through intentional connection with those who are online. And having someone interfacing regularly through that digital sphere was something that we began to see would be super beneficial moving forward,” says Ms. Rayment.

Now that Mr. Buttrey has started his work as digital pastor, he says his first task will be looking at the many options for engaging people online and prioritizing what the parish can achieve.

“I think we’re in the stage of planning to do a bunch of things and see if they stick, because we don’t necessarily know what will be the best set of tools, the best ways to engage with our online community,” he says.

He plans to learn more about the people who connect with St. Clement’s online, using surveys, focus groups and one-on-one communication. “And then we have to try different things and see is this right for this time and this place and these people,” he says.

While digital ministry presents unique opportunities and tools for fostering connection, Mr. Buttrey says the engagement they’ve seen online is a natural extension of what he’s experienced at St. Clement’s since he arrived as a parishioner 12 years ago.

“There’s people from very different backgrounds at St. Clement’s, different experiences with church, different knowledge of faith, and a lot of them are really excited to learn,” he says. “I think that variety or diversity provides a real opportunity for online offerings.”

He expects that he and the staff team will draw on experiences from the parish’s in-person ministries as they continue to explore opportunities for online engagement. “The skills are the same whenever you’re trying to engage with people and build their relationships, so that gives us a really good base,” he says.

The leadership team also recognizes the overlap between people who engage in-person and those who choose to connect online, and that all members are vital to the parish community.

“We’re really looking to explore the beginnings of a renewed ecclesiology and trying to understand the digital and the in-person as different expressions of a singular Body of Christ,” says Canon Federle.

Part of the parish’s Cast and Learn grant will be reporting back to the wider diocese on what the team tries and learns about digital ministry. Mr. Buttrey says he hopes their findings will help other churches discerning a way forward with online engagement. “There may be ideas that don’t work for St. Clement’s but could work well for another church,” he says.

The team also understands that they’re privileged to have a gifted group of clergy and staff, and they’re not simply expecting other churches to become more like St. Clement’s. Instead, they hope parishes will try to respond faithfully to their own contexts.

“Four years ago, we were all thrust into this global kind of experiment of how to do things online. We’re all continuing to experiment,” says Mr. Buttrey. “Every church community has different needs and different people, so I think some back and forth, tacking in and out of the wind to find the right course, is perfectly appropriate.”

“We’re all contributing to the work of God in the world, and each place is unique, so there is a lot we can learn from other churches,” Ms. Rayment adds. “The conversations that can happen around creative ministry moving forward are really exciting, and I believe it can only build up the Church.”

For his part, Mr. Buttrey is keen to have those conversations with anyone who’d like to have them. He can be reached by email at [email protected].


Keep on reading

Skip to content