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How to host online meetings with Christian hospitality

Words from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians have been on my mind lately. Most days and evenings, my husband and I, along with our two working-from-home sons, move from Zoom to Zoom.

“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (I Corinthians 13:12).

The truth is, I lean into the screen and see only dimly. Yes, I love seeing dear faces, but I long for the days when we will meet in person as colleagues, church, family and friends. Then we will all be more fully known.

Meanwhile, I am resigning myself to Zooming for the long haul.

If we must Zoom, how do we do it well and graciously? As someone who loves to think about in-person hospitality, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions lately about what good online hospitality looks like.

While I’m still in beginner’s mind, I’ve noticed that good online hospitality is not magic. Nor is there one single formula for success. And while doing our technical best for any online gathering is an important sign of respect for our audiences — an important part of hospitality — technology is not the heart of hospitality. You don’t need a computer science degree or fancy equipment to provide it well.

Instead, online hospitality is the dedicated effort to create the same ethos as in-person hospitality — but in a new land. For Christian hospitality to work — in person or online — it needs to be grounded in setting a place for God, paying attention, honoring participants and expecting transformation.

First, warmly welcoming participants to a Zoom gathering reflects that the love of God is present. Three tiny ants crawled out of the crevices of my son’s laptop the other day. Where ants can go, my guess is the Holy Spirit can go as well! God is with us, even in virtual settings.

Though not the same as the gathered-in-the-same-room body of Christ, the gathered-over-Zoom body can still experience an embodied welcome through the host’s facial expressions, laughter and gestures. You don’t want participants to mistake your expressionless face for a frozen screen.

As a virtual host, be clear about what will occur in the meeting, how participants can access what they need, and who will help them with technical glitches. This information, set out at the start, helps participants feel safe and cared for, and less anxious about their technical skills.

Consider offering social time 15 minutes before your meeting starts. The energy and warmth generated by this experience of informal chatter and fellowship will set the mood for the meeting that follows.

I watched a worship service last week where different segments were set in the homes of various pastors on the church’s staff. Each had carefully set the stage behind him or her — a vase of flowers next to a cross, a special cloth laid carefully on a small table, a set of candles beside a bowl of water. These details conveyed hospitality; they expressed a personal welcome that said, “You are in my home, and this too is sacred space!”

Second, good hospitality is about paying attention. How are others experiencing the format? One participant in a church formation group stopped coming because she saw only couples in each Zoom box and it reminded her painfully that she was the only “singles” face in a box. She had to see her singleness the entire time. How might you change her experience?

Pay attention to power dynamics and ways to flatten that curve. For those whom society has often silenced, how might it feel to know that the host can mute you? The chat function helps mitigate this by giving everyone an always-open avenue of expression. The host can also invite everyone to speak and make sure that no one voice is dominating. Even if you’re good at this in person, facilitating over Zoom takes practice.

Likewise, after you’ve placed participants in a breakout room, don’t automatically cut them off after the designated time. Instead, as host, visit each room and remind participants of the time limits or send a group message. This is more hospitable and more like what a host would do if participants were in a room together physically.

Pay attention to the ways in which tangible elements can unify us and bridge the gap of physical absence. One of my colleagues sent a piece of cloth in the mail to each participant so that everyone’s laptop would be resting on the same fabric. Similarly, you might have everyone light a candle for worship or as a symbol of a unified space. Each person could share a personal object and describe why it is meaningful. Even a bark from a neighborly dog in the background can root us to reality and be grounding and humanizing in a virtual world.

Third, good online hospitality honors participants. For longer Zoom events, consider sending a gift box ahead of time, with nice paper for note taking, a coffee mug, a bag of trail mix or some other small gift. The boxes need not be expensive; rather, they are a signal that you honor the participants and recognize that life and gatherings are more difficult for everyone these days. A pastor friend of mine drives through her town and places bags of pre-Zoom activities on the front porches of her congregation’s youth.

A sense of timing is also important for honoring bodies in virtual gatherings. We can’t simply roll over onto Zoom what we would normally do in a room. Zooming all day is exhausting. Zooming for half the day is exhausting. Keep whatever you do as short as possible and add stretch breaks, polls, screen-sharing times, music, play breaks, small groups or silence. Teach people to do the wave!

Set up trust with your audience. Those with social anxieties have a double burden to bear in these times. Honor all participants though your kindness and patience, especially those who may need to step away from being looked at for the entire meeting. Be kind as internet connections go out, cats jump onto shoulders, and children decide they need mom or dad NOW.

Finally, good online hospitality affirms that whenever and wherever God is welcomed in, God provides transformation. God’s work is still being accomplished even with so many of us confined at home.

For example, I’ve discovered that online meetings in a quarantine provide the blessing of multiplied hospitality — the hospitality of the host and that of all the households into which we are welcomed. As host, you may receive joy and blessing through all the other hosts who welcome you into their homes for the hour. Let them describe the history of the quilt on the chair, that plaque on the wall or the garden shed into which they are scrunched, seeking quiet space!

Online meetings are here to stay. Post-pandemic, we’ll continue to have options to work at home, because it’s cost-effective. We’ll continue to have online church committee meetings, because attendance is up. We’ll continue to meet as friends on Zoom, because some are unable to drive, travel or be away from home. So we might as well get it right.

Meeting virtually can be more than “see[ing] in a mirror, dimly,” if we offer good online hospitality and understand it as sacred space.

On a cold winter day, I was talking on the phone with a colleague about the church where I serve as pastor. I was feeling frustrated. I told him I didn’t know how to move the church where God wanted it to go.

I had lots of questions: Where’s the infrastructure? Who’s in control? How do the bylaws function? What happened in the past?

“I wish I could find the ‘letter’ from the previous pastor,” I said. I was talking about the tradition of the outgoing U.S. president leaving a letter of advice and encouragement for the incoming president.

Needless to say, like many pastors and leaders across the nation, I didn’t receive the letter I so longed for.

The previous pastor led my church for at least 25 years, then fell ill and died. The church continued to worship together for four years without a shepherd. The diaconate did their best to keep the church churning along. Some would suggest that this is the Baptist way — there was no interim pastor or minister.

When I was elected to lead the church, I wondered what it had been like under my predecessor. Of course, I got 15 or more versions of what had happened — but these were just opinions. As I sat at my desk, I wished there were a letter — or even just a memo — on how the previous person had led the church.

I believe that the way we plan for leadership transitions helps prepare the way for future success. My experience makes me wonder what would happen if a leader could pass the baton to the next person with a moment of shared effort between the two.

My favorite race is the relay. The team of racers has to be in sync. They have to comprehend that the goal is to get the baton across the finish line — and work together to make sure it’s not dropped. A runner can have a personal best but still lose the race if the baton does not cross the line.

If our goal as pastors and leaders is to bring God’s kingdom on earth, then we are always looking to pass the baton until God’s vision is brought to fruition. The mission and vision of the organization should always be at the forefront of leaders’ minds as they each play their roles in the relay.

Maybe your job is to be a good leadoff person. Or the second or third runner, covering the greatest distance. It could be that God called you to be the anchor and to finish strong.

The position or role doesn’t define who you are personally. But it should help you recognize that you’re a part of a bigger team goal. That goal is to fulfill the vision and mission for which God assembled the organization.

Last year, the Black church witnessed a monumental transition at a powerful church in Chicago called Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church. The Rev. Charles Jenkins announced his retirement and his successor almost simultaneously. According to reports, Jenkins worked directly with the new pastor, the Rev. Reginald Sharpe, to ensure a good handoff.

Jenkins (now pastor emeritus) has said publicly that it was time for a young man to take the reins. After the transfer, Fellowship Chicago has continued to grow and thrive, serving the community through pop-up food giveaways, drive-up and walk-up food boxes, and more.

Sharpe, like many pastors across the country, is now transitioning his church to a virtual world; recently, one of the online services received more than 17,000 views.

Fellowship Chicago’s process of leadership transition was highly unusual. The current norm in many denominations is to allow pastors and leaders to stay in position until they decline or even pass away — as happened in my church.

According to a 2017 survey by Barna Group, only 1 in 7 pastors is under 40. This gap in developing leadership causes churches, nonprofits and other organizations to drop the baton in managing succession. I’d suggest that an apprenticeship model would improve leadership transitions.

Can you imagine working alongside the leader who would eventually turn the controls over to you? What would our churches, nonprofits and other organizations be like if we created such a model?

I see the apprenticeship idea supported by 2019 Barna research, which says that planned transitions “tend to produce positive outcomes” — yet reports that 51% of incoming pastors said there was no plan in place when they arrived, and 33% said the lack of planning caused problems as they took the helm.

An apprenticeship model would allow the established leader to shape and mold the new leader, or at least work with that leader before stepping down. Institutions are well served when such a model is put into action.

For example, Bishop Paul S. Morton, the legendary gospel singer and pastor who founded the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship, stated publicly how he would transition the fellowship to new leadership — noting that he did not want to die in office — and then worked directly to apprentice now-presiding prelate Bishop Joseph Walker III, ensuring a smooth, successful transition.

Biblically, Moses trained Joshua to lead the Israelites into their next season. Elijah trained Elisha, and Jesus trained the 12 disciples for at least three years to spread the good news around the globe. If we take this model seriously, our churches, nonprofits and institutions will benefit.

In each leg of a relay race, there is a brief moment when two runners hold the baton together, making sure the new runner is holding its weight securely. This is the transition — a brief handoff that allows the successor to be prepared and comfortable to run with the baton.

Passing the baton in pastoral transitions gives leaders the support and confidence they need to fulfill their individual roles in reaching the goal for which God assembled the team.

Report after report reveals this difficult truth: church attendance is going down.

Many leaders are considering what to do with congregations that are in the midst of dramatic decline.

While church planting offers hope, is starting new churches really the only answer? Is congregational rejuvenation possible?

As someone who has both planted a new church and entered into the rejuvenation of another, experience has taught me that disruption, though difficult, can be the key to breathing new life into a stagnant system.

Ultimately, a church is a group of people who have come together to form a worshipping community, and this community inevitably (and properly so) creates a system to maintain their communal and missional lives together.

This system is maintained through a complex microculture of language, values, beliefs and habits.

When a system is not thriving, most of the time it is because the system has accumulated an excess of bad habits that weigh it down and work to reform its culture in a negative direction.

This usually happens in a church when a congregation gets tired and doesn’t have enough positive outcomes to release the energy of communal endorphins. Just as in our everyday life, when we get tired and are stuck in a “grind,” we seek convenience and self-preservation instead of generous self-giving.

The problem with a system that is not flourishing is not the people within the system but the habits of those people.

Habits that began as positive actions may over time in fact inhibit the desired outcomes of a congregation. “Old habits die hard,” not because of laziness or weakness, but because we often unconsciously attach our identities to the habits we engage in.

If we build our central identities around what we do, then to stop doing those things is to lose our self-meaning — and ultimately, to feel as though we are losing ourselves.

When I walked into Trinity United Methodist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, two years ago, this was exactly the case.

Founded in 1942, Trinity had seen years of incredible, thriving ministry but over the last two decades or so had experienced steady decline. The mostly older congregation began to see clearly that drastic action was needed to turn their church around. In partnership with the North Carolina Conference of the UMC, I was brought in to do just this — turn the system around.

From the beginning, it was clear that this church of 50 or so folks was full of incredible people. Their stories of commitment to the church stood as a testimony to their faithfulness to Christ.

Even so, their church was dying, and they were tired.

In one of my first meetings with them, one of the older members said to me, “We’ve really tried everything here; I don’t know what you can do that will change anything.”

Very often, the work of turning a system around begins with disruption, because disruption is one of the few elements that can interrupt and expose habit. The congregation had tried many things, but they hadn’t tried disruption, because — well, who wants that?

For Trinity, disruption meant stopping everything they did, even the good things.

I had to be the villain for a season and stop Sunday school, the choir, the prayer groups, the women’s studies, the leadership teams — even worship.

In a culture driven by “doing” and “performance,” stopping can be countercultural and deeply disruptive. How do we even “do” church if we aren’t “doing something”? For Trinity, stopping meant death, in a way — death of the church they had known, death of their groups, death of their activity.

We entered into the biblical space of Sabbath.

We rested. We reflected.

We stopped.

And this stopping allowed us to ask some questions about ourselves, our present and our future. Disruption allowed us to stop doing the things that were probably preventing us from seeing ourselves and our future clearly. It opened a crack in the system for change and opened our minds to a reimagination.

When we let our fields of ministry lie fallow, when we take Sabbath seriously and enter into a space of quiet, we can begin to hear the cries of the community around us again. When we stop church activity, we may spend less time in Bible studies but more time getting to know our neighbors.

Through these new spaces and conversations that have been opened up, we can reimagine what a new future looks like and realize that maybe we need to plant completely different crops next season.

Disruption can lead to new ideas and new possibilities, and through conversations and prayer, it can lead to a community re-identifying the guiding values of their new future.

For Trinity, disruption led to the rediscovery of our desired value of generosity toward and unconditional embrace of the community around us. This would be the new crop we would sow to usher in our new future together.

For six months, we made a committed effort to renew our system through the process of disruption, reimagination, re-identification and re-habituation.

It was hard — harder than many thought it would be. Some members left. Giving went down. There were arguments and ultimatums.

After six months, we relaunched Trinity as Open Table United Methodist Church with a new name, a new imagination, new values, and new communal habits of interaction and activity that would guide our future.

We had stopped for long enough to realize that there were new ways of doing ministry that could open up our tables to the isolated and marginalized in our community.

Two years later, we have become a thriving and growing community of more than 250 incredibly diverse members.

Disruption was a difficult process, but one that has birthed the surprise of the kingdom right here in our midst.

My first job title out of seminary was “pastor of redevelopment.”

I was following a pastor of 18 years whose gifts for pastoral care and visitation were adored. My tenure began immediately after the congregation had fired its beloved organist (generating significant protest), a signal of its commitment to my role, to constructive change and to the goal of attracting new families.

I was no organist, so I introduced popular contemporary choruses while sprinkling in beloved hymns from the past. Many admitted they didn’t particularly like this new approach to worship. Nonetheless, they begrudgingly supported this get-young-quick scheme — except for one elderly man who boldly remarked, “Hymns with bongo drums? Never!”

The congregation, under my leadership, wanted to be faithful to God’s call. So we went looking for something (anything!) we might do to keep up with the fast-changing world. But for all the new strategies we tried in worship, formation and mission, we overlooked a critical factor: the community’s well-established system of relating and behaving.

The nature of such systems and how we function within them is the interest of “family systems theory.” This theory was first developed by Murray Bowen and later applied to congregational settings by Edwin Friedman, Lawrence Matthews and many others.

Through the lens of family systems theory, the emotional inheritance of a congregation comprises a set of largely unseen forces and influences that congregants and leaders operate within. A church is not simply the people on the membership roll but also their unique way of functioning, which is inherited from past generations.

In Israel Galindo’s “Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context,” Matthews notes that a key contribution of family systems theory is “its awareness of the multi-generational nature of much of our anxiety. … This can be a source of despair as we find ourselves living out the reactive patterns of past generations, but it can also be a source of growth and change as we consciously face and rework those patterns.”

After years of dwindling membership and growing distance from the church’s increasingly diverse and young neighborhood, the congregation hoped that I (a young, energetic seminary grad with fresh ideas) would assist them in redeveloping their worship, formation, mission and connection to the wider community.

In my first year, I set out to aggressively address those goals.

We created teams to consider each of the major areas and propose a new pathway. I made the aforementioned changes in worship. I met with key leaders, started a small group ministry that met in people’s homes, began some missional experimentation, established an arts collective with congregation members and neighbors — and (as time allowed) visited people in their homes and at the hospital.

In my second year, I began to receive conflicting feedback on our progress. Many people were concerned that change was happening so quickly. And yet some involved in our redevelopment efforts were frustrated that change was taking so long. At the same time, there was a growing perception that I was unconcerned with pastoral care and visitation.

I was confused. Didn’t the church hire me to be a pastor of redevelopment? And wasn’t that the work that I was leading the congregation to focus on? Insights from systems theory have helped me — in retrospect — unpack what was going on.

A church’s emotional system involves everyone in the congregation. Over a span of two decades, the congregation had developed a system of functioning in which the pastor focused on pastoral care and visitation.

Though the church didn’t recognize it, this system was not just propped up by a few key people; the whole congregation participated in it. From the organist to the longtime members to the newcomers to the hiring committee that brought me in, they all participated in the same system. I failed to realize that transitioning the leadership from a few old-guard figures would do little to change the underlying realities we all shared.

Church emotional systems run deep and are resistant to change. Throwing the word “redevelopment” on a job title is easy. Moving a 100-year-old congregational system into a place of readiness to redevelop is not. This is a task that goes far beyond decrying those who say, “But we’ve always done it that way!” I mistakenly assumed that the redevelopment mandate I received in my job title represented the clear-cut focus of my work in the congregation. But actually, the congregational system had developed a substantial role for pastoral leadership that could not simply be brushed away with a new face or a new title.

I also learned that leadership requires both connection with and differentiation from. In my eagerness to join the congregation in redevelopment, I entered fully into its emotional system. While that created a sense of “us,” it also greatly hindered my ability to effect change. I needed to connect with people in the congregation without getting sucked into their emotional system.

My job description was calling me to redevelopment, while the system was calling me to fulfill the long-established role of chaplain-pastor — almost like a text and subtext. At the time, I couldn’t separate the two.

And if pastoral leadership weren’t complicated enough, it turns out that not only churches have inherited emotional systems. We all come from families, and those families have emotional systems, too, shaping the way we deal with stress, success, challenge, failure, friendship and resistance. Because of this universal reality, every pastor brings his or her own family system into a congregational setting. When the congregation presses the right buttons from a pastor’s family background, watch out — sparks will fly! If we lack awareness about our personal family systems, we will be apt to blame congregation members for conflict and miss valuable opportunities for growth.

More than three years have passed since my pastoral ministry wrapped up at this church. Some initiatives carry on there, while others have fallen away. New leadership and ideas have taken flight. But in the midst of it all, I can see that the congregation’s desire for redevelopment has shifted from the head to the heart. The congregational system has now moved through the emotional process of change and is ready to move forward with a renewed sense of self.

In my current work, I am reflecting deeply on my own family of origin and how my family patterns play into my role as a pastor. I’ve wondered: What are the patterns of success, failure, joy or grief that have marked this congregation in generations past? How has my family shaped my experience of leadership? Where do I see parallels between my role in my family and my role in the church?

Changes in society and the role of the church demand that the church adapt. But leading change requires that leaders understand their own family systems, as well as the systems that have guided their congregations for generations.