Many of us have spent the last two years living from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting. While others of us have already been meeting in-person, overall I am noticing that as our patterns shift, a question commonly emerges: “to zoom, or not to Zoom?” “Should we have all committee/team/workgroup/session meetings in-person now?” Except when it is hurtful, I do not think it is always helpful to see ways of doing this as right or wrong, good or bad, but rather as having different strengths and vulnerabilities. It is good to be mindful of the strengths and vulnerabilities of both Zoom and in-person gatherings as we decide how to meet. Here are some considerations:

 

1. A vulnerability or a strength, depending on how safe it is to gather at this point in the pandemic: Let’s remember the reason we made the shift to electronic gatherings. While we are still testing the waters, people are still dying of COVID-19. If meeting puts any of us in danger, this first consideration should remain a priority. This includes giving each other permission to not attend if carrying or exposed to COVID, ongoing conversation about the immunocompromised in our midst, and access to vaccines and vaccine boosters. If, we find, that we are fully vaccinated, and feel safe to gather, then we can move to seek consensus from the group on what an in-person gathering should look like. Are we requiring masks? Is it better to meet outdoors in an open air space? Are we requiring distancing? Let us give ourselves permission to express our needs, and not shame or ostracize anyone for having them. We are long overdue for conversations about able-bodiedness in the church anyway.

 

2. A vulnerability or a strength, depending on whether you’ve actually met each other before: Many of our meetings have been on Zoom so long that anyone onboarded in the last two years may not have actually met each other! It can be difficult to speak up in a space where may feel we are strangers, especially when we don’t want our contributions to be rejected or to risk being misunderstood. Because we are used to churches where many people have grown up around each other, it does not always occur to us to simply introduce ourselves. This need is often more evident in in-person meetings, but not always.

 

3. A vulnerability or a strength, depending on your agenda/items of business: There are many reasons to meet: routine maintenance of an institution and exercise of our oversight responsibilities, being a communication hub for ideas, brainstorming and strategizing, solidarity and accompaniment, addressing an issue, orientation training and relationship, etc. Some of these are well-suited for Zoom, others are not. Asking the purpose of our gathering is a great start to consider to Zoom or not to Zoom (also book recommendation: “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why We Gather” By Priya Parker). I remember in pre-pandemic world a common grumble about the frivolousness of meetings—”couldn’t this have been an email?” I am wondering whether on this side of the worst of the pandemic that we might hear something similar: “couldn’t this have been a Zoom?” What does your agenda look like? Is it just quick check-ins and routine decisions where you can anticipate an easy consensus? An hour on the road for 45 minutes of business (or 23 minutes of business) may not feel very energizing. However, a contentious decision moment isn’t helped by having the additional tension of disagreeing with people we don’t know very well or can’t read body language effectively.

 

4. A vulnerability or a strength, depending on how your agenda balances business with community: Above all, we work together as a community, which always means a balance between doing and being. We want to get things done, so we move things along, sometimes at the expense of tending the humanity in our midst. Sometimes, Roberts Rules doesn’t always help this. While it was original conceived as an arbitration tool to effectively seize control in a chaotic spaces, it has somehow become the main way of operating Presbyterian meeting spaces. While expediency is great and understands time as a resource to steward, it can also incentivize people to be quiet and only speak when there is “debate,” which can encourage silence. All of which is amplified on Zoom. Zoom meetings may not always make space for each of us to be fully engaged, or even require us to be fully present. How might we practice presence with each other to address this vulnerability on Zoom? Part of the blessing of in-person meetings is the in-between moments when we can be present with each other. Seeing each other in our fullness helps us to appreciate our fully embodied selves, which helps us discern more closely what we are hearing and what we are saying. Since the pandemic, I have really appreciated what we can learn from each other in the small talk before and the follow-up check-in questions after a meeting. One of the things that has caused me the most disequilibrium after preaching on Zoom is the sudden disconnect when “the host has ended the meeting”: it can be very difficult to assess how your presence impacted others in the space as there is very little feedback about how everyone is leaving the meeting. This makes it hard to tell where there is unfinished business, or what threads still need to be picked up while they are fresh. When serving on the Special Committee on Racism Truth and Reconciliation on Zoom, we would occasionally end meetings by going around and answer the question of how we are leaving the space by finishing one of three questions: “I think…”, “I feel…”, or “I am” that best represents how we are leaving the space. If we are meeting in person, we need to find ways to expediate business so we can stay focused. If we are in Zoom, we need to find ways to make space for relationship-building so we can stay human.

 

5. A vulnerability or a strength, depending on whether you need to build on each other’s creative energy: As someone who loves to explore, experiment, brainstorm, and dream, I have come to appreciate the way that energy builds. Very often, it’s not the “first good idea” that comes out of a ground that delivers, but the building on it as people add their contributions and it begins to belong to the group. You can usually feel this collaborative spirit as people’s passions are feeding off each other. This kind of energy is very hard to get momentum going in Zoom spaces. To keep this strength from turning into a vulnerability, I have seen groups that put down the agenda to brainstorm, so it’s not burdened with the pressure of making decisions.

 

6. A vulnerability or a strength, depending how we understand time as a resource: Meetings can be open-ended, strictly limited in time, or a combination of the above. The more time-bound a meeting is the more focused we are on business, which can be good in the way it focuses our effort, but it will come at the expense of fully seeing each other. How is time understood in your space? If time is understood as a limited and valuable resource, it can heighten anxiety that may pour into and increase tension in a decision where there previously wasn’t any. Sometimes, meeting in person can help us get centered without having the urgency of the clock in front of us, while Zoom can help us be precise and swift in connecting when we otherwise wouldn’t be able to. How might we balance our urgency needs with being as present as possible?

 

7. A vulnerability or a strength, depending on how you embrace hospitality as a part of leading meetings: I have a theory that we have inherited a template of church that requires all “members” to come to an established center of a time and place. If that person cannot attend, the burden of responsibly falls to the person who cannot attend. What if we visited this notion? Does our monthly meeting actually create the best hospitality for each of our members to be fully present in mind, spirit, and body? Can everyone drive? Can everyone drive that far? Can everyone drive at night? As I’ve said to church members before, God will still be able to find us if we worship in another pew, or at another time! Because we can often take Zoom calls from home, office, or out of state, there is a lot of flexibility in finding a time were all can be present. Part of that hospitality is considering access: we still need to consider issues of bandwidth and access to wifi and technology that not all of us have. Are there any we are marginalizing if we agree to Zoom only meetings? As a community, we have the opportunity to accompany one another through these challenges in order to ensure all voices can be heard and all are valued.

 

8. A vulnerability or a strength, depending on whether the work of our meeting is technical or adaptive: I find the conversation around technical and adaptive to be an helpful conversation whether these terms are new or familiar. Technical challenges have clear right or wrong answers and need expertise: it’s important to come in with the right information ahead of time. Adaptive challenges require asking new questions, thinking outside the box, and listening to feedback. I have found that Zoom typically is better for addressing technical challenges, while in-person is better suited for adaptive work. But because of how fluidly we move between the technical and adaptive, we need to know when our space is helping us or not.

9. A vulnerability or a strength, depending on what kind of attention are we giving to our bodies: Bodies get tired, need breaks, need to stand up, walk around, each food. Screens are draining. I remember a fun fact I cannot find right now that the brain finds words are easier to read on the printed page than on the screen. I think reading people on Zoom is the same. It can be easy to get into our own heads, and become disconnected with our embodies selves. I have seen in my travels over all kinds of meetings over that last two years that people do tend to be snappier, grouchier, and less kind to each other by Zoom (even moreso by email), because of how we become distant from each other. One of my favorite closing exercises I’ve seen done in the middle of the pandemic was a kind of blessing activity with every person going around and just touching with your finger the forehead of the image of those in meeting as a way to express connection. It was a clever and spiritually-healing reminder that we each inhabit embodied selves. At the same time, I know I can put a meeting in my pocket and walk around the block with a Zoom meeting. I can also attend a Zoom meeting and walk on a treadmill, both of which can help me stay engaged when having long Zoom days.

10. A vulnerability or a strength, depending on how often you meet: Because Zoom and in-person offer different tools for helping us address our work together in community, I am in favor of keeping both as an option depending on the work. For spaces that meet monthly, perhaps a 3:1 ration of Zoom meetings that makes space to check-in in person. I like the idea of having the freedom to say, we might want to meet in person in few months so we can catch up on all the relationship building we haven’t been able to do on Zoom. Likewise, if the necessity of a rapid response helps us move to action quicker, than by all means, let’s choose Zoom.

BONUS CONSIDERATION: the strengths and vulnerabilities of hybrid meetings: Before the pandemic, I worked to phase hybrid meetings into all of our committee spaces as presbytery leader in another state. While people were at first resistant to it because it was new and scary for some, we noticed that participation in meetings that once struggled to have a quorum suddenly had 100% attendance. However, since we got used to the technology, I have noticed that the awareness of online attendees at hybrid meetings can kind of drift out of existence (especially when present by phone). I’ve seen a meeting space scare itself when they realized someone else speaking up by phone into the space who everyone had forgotten was there. How are we overcoming these challenges? Are we giving ourselves the opportunity to see who is all present in the space? Can online participants always hear us? Is there devoted attention on the camera so people online can see who is speaking and where the energy of the room is? I am aware of some anti-racism facilitators who work very hard to make sure that there is equitable access to each other’s presence in complex conversation, and simply will not offer a hybrid option for those kinds of meetings.

 

To Zoom or not to Zoom? That is the question….depending on the nature of our work, the dynamics of our team, the needs of our membership, our ability to be present with each other, and whether our current means of meeting is serving us.

Let us have the courage to name the strengths and vulnerabilities of our meeting spaces, and do all that we can to leverage our strengths!

 

Ryan Landino
Presbytery Leader
Presbytery of Giddings-Lovejoy
rlandino@glpby.org
314-409-9002

 

 

 

 

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