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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.

My grandmother tells a story, entirely in Spanish, of a viejita, an old woman, who collects small logs on her way to her casita, her little home, and gets caught in an aguacero, a downpour. My grandmother sings this story to life, inching her fingers up my arm to the rhythm of the song in a scissor motion like a small pair of legs.

At the point when my grandmother sings that the rain has caught the old woman, her fingers ram into my armpit, giving me tickles of delight.

In an instant, any trouble or pain is vanquished by laughter.

I had always assumed that my grandmother made up that song just for me. But recently, I told it to a group at a women’s leadership and spirituality course. At the end, a young woman in the audience started crying. Her grandmother had sung her the same song.

Suddenly, we weren’t just speaker and audience. The two of us shared a moment — we connected through this story, and a shared history.

Jesus was a storyteller. Stories were the way he reached the people to convey the message he needed them to honor, claim and synthesize. We learn from the Bible that Jesus spoke to the people using story as the vehicle for connection because it fulfilled what God had said: “I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world” (Matthew 13:35 NLT). The people called it wisdom.

That is still true today. Often, people gravitate to stories with happy endings or tales about everyday people — but even unpleasant stories can be a powerful way to convey a message. Storytelling can be used as a mode of healing, because stories carry in them all the voices of those who have recounted the same story time and time again.

When the church employs storytelling in a way that can reshape people’s lives, reflecting who they are back to themselves, the church becomes a shared space where each person is a part of history.

My priest tells a beautiful story about the origins of our community. He ties our origins to the Christian creation story as well as to the Native Americans, reminding us of our interconnectedness. Speaking to a congregation of predominantly Latino/a, Mexican and Tejano/a families, the connection to our origins is vital; it’s important that we understand our South Texas history, which is one of violence and colonialism.

The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which marked the end of the Mexican-American War, named the Rio Grande as the border between the United States and Mexico. Our families were given the choice to uproot and relocate to Mexico from what is now California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas or to stay on their land and in their homes and receive citizenship in the United States.

The offer came with a promise of full civil rights, but that was far from the truth. Mexican Americans were lynched by the Texas Rangers and continue, nearly 200 years later, to be questioned about their citizenship.

Because our priest understands the complexity of the land and our people, he weaves our history into stories of strength and hope. He acknowledges our indigenous ancestry and is open to the church’s choice to keep our Blessed Mother of Guadalupe, a figure highly revered in our culture. As a congregation in service to our community, it’s important that we are not only seen by God but also seen by our church.

When I faced that class on women’s leadership and spirituality, I knew that in order to convey how storytelling had brought me to my vocation and why storytelling matters to their individual and collective learning, I had to know their stories.

I asked each young woman what she was passionate about. Some were passionate about mujerista theology; some were passionate about family; some were passionate about writing.

I asked the question not only to help my teaching but also to help those women hear themselves. The answer was their reminder that in a room full of leaders, they were heard and they were validated. They were seen.

The same goes for our congregations. While it may seem impossible to spend some or all of a service asking our members what they are passionate about, it is possible to gauge what they respond to.

A sermon rooted in the tradition of story, relevant to the needs and lives of our people, transcends a typical Sunday morning homily. A story has the potential to get carried throughout generations. The story becomes a thread between generations as an intergenerational healing method.

The key question is, do the people see themselves in the story?

My grandparents were master storytellers. They could take any myth, legend or spooky cultural tale and turn it into a lesson that I needed to hear. My grandma and grandpa used to tell me stories that were relevant to me — even when they might have been considered too scary for a child.

My priest has shown me how important it is to know the history of our people — even when it is difficult and violent. How does that history affect the congregation, and how can storytelling be the vehicle by which they begin to heal?

Stories take history and make it possible to believe. Stories give us hope and allow faith to work in the details. When we tell stories, we acknowledge the people who hear them, and we connect with them.

Whether they make us laugh or make us weep, stories give us the power to see ourselves.