ST. PETERSBURG — It would seem that friends Hannah Siegmund, Jarrett Haas and Bri Mitchell chose an inopportune time to launch their new church. The grand opening was March 1.
With only three services behind them and the coronavirus demanding social distancing, the fledgling congregation of mostly 20- and 30-somethings moved nimbly into virtual worship.
For now, Different Church — yes, that’s its name — has stopped meeting in the space it rents from the St. Petersburg Opera Co. And they’ve had to stop enjoying a before-worship coffee social, singing a blend of church music and secular songs about hope and togetherness and listening to Siegmund’s sermons before heading out for lunch at a nearby restaurant or craft brewery.
Last Sunday, the new nondenominational church, founded with the mission of creating an inclusive community that welcomes LGBTQ+ members, invited the congregation to follow Siegmund’s sermon at 10:30 a.m. on Facebook. At other times, it can also be seen on YouTube and heard on podcasts.
"When we started, we had no idea that this was coming,” Siegmund, 30, an ordained minister with two master's degrees in theology, said of the change brought about by the coronavirus.
The move online means prerecorded messages and “watch parties” on Facebook so people “can watch it from their own space and on their own time," she said.
“The structure is already there," said Haas, 38, the church's creative director, who handles the music, website and social media. "We are already very connected through social media.”
While most churches livestream, Haas said Different Church’s use of Facebook allows people to watch and interact with each other and the pastor in real time.
“We wanted to put an emphasis on being together,” the freelance videographer said. Haas has been making the trek to St. Petersburg from his home in Tampa Heights, where he lives with his wife and two-year-old son.
Haas said it was his idea to start a new church. He had seen a need that his and Siegmund’s previous church was not filling. “I just got tired of everything being the same and secondarily, there are a lot of churches who are very sneaky about how they feel about their LGBTQ community. At their core, they feel it is wrong. Our church, we don’t think it is wrong at all,” said Haas.
“We are a lot less traditional than most affirming churches," Siegmund said. “We are looking for people who haven’t been to church, for recovering evangelicals. That’s our target. ... We’ve done a very small amount of Facebook advertising. Everything has been word of mouth and putting ourselves out on social media.”
Last fall, after midnight in downtown St. Petersburg, they handed out “hangover kits” that included bottles of water, granola bars and ibuprofen.
Mitchell, 30, is the church's director of operations and a Realtor. She grew up in Virginia and moved from Tampa to St. Petersburg in 2017. Her St. Petersburg home was the meeting and planning space for the new church. Mitchell, who grew up as a Southern Baptist, said she hadn’t planned to help start a church, but “felt the tug to get involved and make a difference.”
Her role is finding service opportunities for the church, organizing social groups, “anything that helps build community.” Before the coronavirus pandemic, she also organized setting up and tearing down the space the church uses at the St. Petersburg Opera Co., at 2145 1st Ave. S. During normal times, doors open at 10 a.m. for the coffee social. The service starts at 10:30.
Mitchell said she too was eager to be part of an inclusive community. “I will say, growing up Southern Baptist, part of the reason I stopped going for a while was I was married young and I was divorced and as part of that divorce process, I felt looked down on and shunned,” she said, adding that she imagines that LGBTQ+ people can feel the same way, "if not worse."
Rich Ellis, who travels from Tampa to be part of the new St. Petersburg congregation with his husband, said he left his previous church when he found out that the new one was “going to be 100 percent inclusive." He added, "That really spoke to my heart.”
Ellis said he grew up as a Southern Baptist and spent two years in the mission field in Poland. He and his husband were never treated poorly or differently at his last church, but that they never “felt comfortable holding hands." He added that he also likes that Different Church is transparent with their finances.
Siegmund said that she felt that God was telling her to form a church. ”I felt that being inclusive is very important and not only inclusive, but affirming," she said. "The church I was a part of took a strong stand against the LGBTQ+ community.”
Her husband, Josiah, “had been nothing but supportive" and "was actually the final tipping point" for her decision.
As for her church’s name, the legal assistant who grew up in the Pentecostal tradition said she and her fellow church founders "didn’t feel that the world needs another church that is the same.”
“We are affirming of the LGBTQ+ community and very few churches are. We are financially transparent and responsible. Anyone can ask us about the money. We also take 10 percent of anything that comes in and put it into a separate account to donate back to our local community." No one takes a salary, she said.
For their inaugural service, 85 people showed up to support Different Church. The two Sundays after averaged 25 to 30 people. Then came social distancing. “Maybe we will have a grand reopening when this is over,” Siegmund said.