Iowa Religious Media Services Closed November 30, 2019
After more than 33 ½ years of service to mainline congregations in Iowa and the Upper Midwest, Iowa Religious Media Services closed its doors on November 30, 2019.
That sentence states what happened, but it does not explain the true significance of the organization. In the mid-1970s, a burst of ecumenical energy intersected with the burgeoning availability of accessible media. Visionary Don Mendenhall, then Communications Director for the Iowa Conference of the United Methodist Church, recognized the possible synthesis of these two forces and envisioned the potential for an expanded and ecumenically-shared media service. Through his imagination and impetus, a group of denominational leaders gathered in 1976 to explore that dream and to design a working institution, where Christian educators and pastors could find and share the best of the emerging video resources available to churches.
After more than years of dreaming and planning, each of eight mainline denomination body ratified support for the fledgling institution in the same year, forging a covenant between them and launching Iowa Religious Media Services. Those original covenanting denominations included the American Baptists; the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); Church of the Brethren, the Episcopal Diocese, Presbyterian Church (USA), the Roman Catholics, the United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church. On May 20, 1986, IRMS was incorporated.
Under the leadership of the first board of directors and Executive Director Sue Sonner, the fledgling organization built a budget, hired a staff, secured space in the new Inter-Church Forum building (formerly Zion Lutheran Church) at 3816 36th Street, Des Moines, and opened a video production studio there. [A sample of the IRMS studio work is available on this page. Where should this be, or do we need it?]
IRMS purchased the first AVID editor in the state of Iowa for the new studio. With this premier editing equipment, IRMS produced a number of small videos for the covenanting denominations, as well as three 30-minute teaching videos, including Understanding the Bible (1992), Understanding Christian Symbols (1993) and Understanding Pentecost (1996), which Cokesbury made available nationally. Local productions by Iowa Public Television were edited in the IRMS studio, and IRMS even worked with Steven Spielberg to edit portions of his groundbreaking holocaust film Shoah. In an effort to document Jewish history and its connections to state, national and international events, the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines used the IRMS studio to produce the video series Light One Candle. Likewise, the Catholic Diocese of Iowa filmed its weekly live interview show Iowa Church Today in the IRMS studio. The Acquisition of a CTNA dish from the national setting of the United Methodist Church opened up the possibility of teleconferencing through IRMS. While this was an auspicious start in the technology of producing media resources, by the end 2000 it was determined that the studio could not sustain itself financially. The IRMS video production studio closed by the end of 2001, though it took another year to complete projects already in the pipeline.
At this point, the focus of IRMS then turned exclusively to the vetting and distribution to local churches of Christian education materials, including documentaries and other resources reflecting the social issues of our day. As the IRMS collection evolved, its resource formats likewise changed. While the initial resources were almost exclusively film strips, the collection progressed forward through16 mm films, video tapes, DVDs and eventually some streaming resources, always with an eye on providing the best available resources, both in terms of production quality and the mainline theological perspective.
Even as IRMS was built into one of the largest and most relevant resource centers in the nation, the resource center also explored other areas where we might be of service. IRMS put on three full-day RE: Image Conferences, each featuring nationally known presenters, plus a host of additional workshop leaders. In 2006 theologian Tex Sample plus Len Wilson and Jason Moore of Midnight Oil who initiated the tech revolution that led to the use of media in the worship were the headliners. In 2008, youth ministry specialist Roger Nishioka keynoted the day. Finally, in 2011, Paul Nixon, author of I Refuse to Lead a Dying Church, headlined our event. While these were fabulous educational events, the board recognized that IRMS did not have enough staff to sustain programming at that level. In actuality, these three major events were mounted only because one board member and PR professional generously volunteered full-time to make each of them a reality.
For its final nine years, IRMS provided another unique service. In conjunction with the Boy Scouts of American, IRMS hosted the Peace Light from Bethlehem. Available to all who come, this living flame from the Grotto of the Nativity arrives each year to New York under the auspices of Austrian Airlines. From there it is carried circuit-rider style across North America by committed individuals who believe in the absolute necessity of peace. While not a “media” resource, this symbolic flame has had profound impact on those who come to IRMS to collect the light for their congregations, nursing homes, places of business and homes.
Though the IRMS board and staff have worked diligently to make IRMS the best resource center it can be, our supporting denominations face declining membership denomination-wide and an attendant decline in the number of churches. Reflecting national trends, the IRMS covenanting denominations lost a combined total of 400 churches between 2010 and 2018, and with very few exceptions, most of the churches that remain were getting smaller.
As the denominations found it harder to provide their covenanted support and ecumenical fire was doused in a fractious society, the IRMS board determined that IRMS could no longer continue. From that point on, the staff worked full-steam ahead until the financial resources were exhausted, and then began the shut-down phase for this unique resource ministry. With a unanimous board vote on November 13, Iowa Religious Media Services legally dissolved on November 30, 2019.
The bulk of the collection of resources was dispersed to resources centers on both coasts as well as in the Midwest.
While we are saddened by the demise of this special institution, we are proud of the differences we have made in the lives of countless clients. We know that those ripples of good will continue to expand into the communities we have served. We thank all those who supported us for 33 ½ years. It has been a remarkable ride!
Sharon E. Strohmaier
Iowa Religious Media Services
2400 86th Street – Suite 15
Urbandale, IA 50322