By Tania Schramm, Associate for Community Design
Since March 2020, pastors, congregations, and people of faith have experienced enormous changes and challenges to the way we’ve always practiced our faith. We haven’t been able to worship in the usual ways. We haven’t been able to care for each other – to share in our joys and hardships – in the usual ways. We haven’t been able to serve our communities in the usual ways. Gathering together as people of God has been put on hold for so many of us, in so many places. And yet, the church is still the church – people who are loving and serving our neighbors, trusting Jesus, adapting to the current context, and living out our callings in many scattered places.
It’s not just churches. Our entire world has experienced tremendous challenge and change to the way we have always gathered together. From work meetings to book clubs to sporting events to schools to social outings to political events, our getting together has dramatically shifted, no matter the reason we gathered. We improvised and adapted, moving in-person time to gathering online in digital spaces. For some of us, the transitions may have felt easy, if we had worked remotely before or were used to “Zooming.” But for many people, the shift wasn’t a slight bobble – it was a seismic, world-rocking, rug-pulled-out-from-under-you, earth-quaking upheaval.
In the months since then, we have gathered online – in digital meetings, with video thumbnails that peek into our personal and private spaces, and over internet connections that we pray will hold. It’s an adaptation none of us anticipated, when the world changed, seemingly overnight! We find ourselves in new and unfamiliar spaces, wondering how to connect with each other, not only to get the work done, but also how to welcome each other and extend hospitality in these strange times and in online places.
Radical hospitality in the digital space means creating a place where everyone is welcomed, SEEN, and affirmed in an online meeting or discussion forum. Although social media is full of examples of the opposite of hospitality and welcome, it is possible to create and build community in a digital space.
During seminary and after graduating in 2019, I worked with Wartburg Theological Seminary on their online learning platform – as a student, teaching assistant, and in digital learning technical support. Beginning in April, I began working with Learning ForTE as we have expanded to meet our clients’ needs as they transition into and expand their capacities with digital and hybrid learning using various platforms. My focus is on community design, online teaching and learning, and content delivery.
One aspect of this ministry with Learning ForTE is accompanying clients as they develop an ethos of digital hospitality for online meetings. In this new online way of gathering, we are learning new ways to offer radical hospitality in the digital space – to extend the welcome when we are separated physically. Hosts and facilitators may have anxiety about the technology working, nerves may cause us to talk faster, the technology might really glitch and freeze, and it might be hard to adapt to the pace of a digital meeting. Plus, we don’t easily have the “cues” of body language, especially when we are sharing a screen to show content and we can’t see people. Participants may be distracted by whatever is happening in their physical space, there might be anxiety, boredom, or grief over not gathering in person.
At the same time, offering hospitality and creating a welcome space is an important part of effective teaching and learning online – and ministry – so that participants feel seen, affirmed, and cared for so that we can receive, share, and collaborate. Joy Walker Miller puts it this way: “So many of our in-person skills fall away when we’re online, we must remember that we (and others) have the same needs. The giving and receiving of hospitality, respect, knowing what’s coming next, managing expectations and clear tasks to complete going forward.”
Here are some suggestions for offering radical hospitality in the digital space as ministry.
Opening and Welcome
Begin the meeting gently. Enter the conversation intentionally with a clear start. Remember to speak slightly more slowly. Welcome everyone. Introduce any hosts, facilitators, or presenters. Spend a little extra time on introductions or checking in if everyone already knows each other.
Frame the purpose, content, and platform. Because this is digital space, name this reality up front and that it will offer a different way to engage the content. Acknowledge the grief of not gathering in-person. At the same time, remember that digital gathering may allow people to be present who may not have been able to gather in person for any number of reasons.
Orientation to Digital Environment
At the beginning of the meeting, spend a little time orienting participants to the digital meeting environment and how they can engage. Your participants may have different comfort levels with using the technology. Helping with anxiety by clearly explaining the environment, and how they can participate, is an important part of welcoming people.
Clarify expectations for audio and video. Explain who will be muted/unmuted and the process for that. Be aware that participants may choose to leave their video off for any number of reasons.
Recommend that participants use a gallery view to see all participants.
If you are recording the meeting, communicate that.
Invite Participants to Share
Describe how you want participants to indicate when they would like to share – icons, a raised hand in their webcam, or just unmute and start talking. Before your meeting, think about how to address participants who monopolize the conversation or who are not appropriate so that you can honor the experience of everyone else.
Talk about the chat feature and if you want them to post their questions in chat. If you have a co-host for the workshop, they can help manage some of that facilitation.
Whatever your plan for content, be aware that some of us – many of us – may be experiencing “Zoom fatigue” so focusing on connection and community might take precedence over content.
Offering radical hospitality means asking: Who is welcome in your digital space? Who is present? Who is not at the table? How can you make a place for those voices? Offering radical hospitality in the digital space shows all participants that they are welcome, valued, cared for, and celebrated!
Joy Walker Miller, “Leading An Effective Meeting Online,” August 17, 2020. https://buildfaith.org/leading-an-effective-meeting-online/?fbclid=IwAR2rTRDsriQzm8Z9r1b1AZ3xdLF3lAekZxFNNsWteomxWTGmg71S_zWrsrc (accessed August 21, 2020).