By Eddie Pipkin

As we have shifted from in-person to virtual interactions in the last six months, we have had to make all manner of style adjustments, and we have stumbled into all sorts of penetrating pandemic perceptions.  For instance, what works face to face may not work screen to screen.  The skills that make a great leader when everybody is in the room together are not necessarily the same skills that work best when wrangling a Zoom call.  It’s a great time to take stock and think about what lessons we’ve learned for ourselves and what humility we’ve developed for letting others take the helm when they can be more effective.  Because, guess what kids, this remote work and technologically supplemented ministry is not every going away, plague or no plague.

We have all been exposed to the power of virtual gatherings to connect people who might otherwise not be able to connect on a regular basis:

  • Geographic separation is not a limiting factor. People spread across vast distances can gather together to pursue shared interests and passions.  Never before has it been easier to move (literally and metaphorically) beyond the physical walls of the church.
  • Disability, shut-in status, or transportation struggles are not limiting factors. Never before has it been easier to help people in these categories get connected (and not just passively, as in watching the old TV broadcasts that my father-in-law called “going to church” on Sunday mornings, but actively, with opportunities for engagement and participation from the living room couch thanks to technology).
  • Meetings and planning sessions don’t require logistical sacrifices of traveling across town and fighting traffic in order for good, competent, creative people to participate. While it’s great to get people together in person at least once every so often, much of the work of committees and brainstorming sessions can be done remotely, and doing them remotely expands the pool of people who may be willing to participate (without requiring them to make sacrifices to family time that require losing a whole evening away from home).
  • Studies and workshops that are conducted in live virtual formats can be automatically recorded and archived so that they become a permanent part of the spiritual growth offerings for a church. Over time, we can build libraries of discipleship opportunities that can be accessed anytime from anywhere.

These are exciting developments.  As the world gradually returns to some form of normal, we should keep them, layered over our in-person gatherings, as a new form of expanding engagement, connection, and growth.

To be successful in adapting to this exciting version of the new-normal, we have to move beyond simply providing the technical solutions that make these offerings possible, and focus on two areas that will help us leverage these technical solutions most effectively:

  • Robust training for those who lead virtual sessions so that leaders understand what works and doesn’t work and how they can best use their own skills to provide the strongest possible virtual leadership.
  • Robust engagement with people on the “user” end so that they are equipped and informed as to how to interact with the technology. This has become a whole new area for ministry: “technology engagement teams.”  And hallelujah, the nerds are ascendant as we celebrate their unique gifts for keeping us all connected.  If you have a dedicated technology engagement team, you have a go-to resource for people who contact the church office who want to be more engaged but are struggling to understand the technology.  You have a “geek squad” for evangelism that can troubleshoot and offer reputable advice for those who are technology averse.  You have a proactive band of digital disciples who can help people move beyond “finally getting the live stream to work” to understanding how they can actively interact and participate.  [A personal side note here:  One of my proudest accomplishments during the pandemic has been helping a few technologically averse church folk figure out how to plug in and get involved in virtual small groups I have been leading.  It’s a new kind of essential literacy that opens up a world of possibilities to those who cross the divide.  It feels like noble work, suitable for churches to be a part of.]

On the leadership front, you have long since discovered that many of the skills that make us artful presenters on a spotlight-drenched stage do not carry over so effectively on the small screen.  For one thing, there is a kind of loose and unfiltered democracy that defines a virtual gathering that is fundamentally difference from the authority of physical presence that generally helps us control and lead an in-person get-together.  Here are two foundational principles that should regularly guide our virtual leadership:

  1. Thoughtful Preparation. Many of us have years – if not decades – of experience leading in-person gatherings, so it feels natural that we would just translate that leadership wisdom to a virtual setting, and this is largely true.  But it’s not enough.  The virtual gig requires an extra level of attention, and if we are not taking time to prepare and adjust, we are selling our virtual participants short.  Preparation is a big, hairy deal.  We have to think carefully about our goals for any virtual venue, what we hope to accomplish and what specific approaches will help the people who join get to the destination we have in mind.  Preparation also helps us pivot when a pivot is necessary.
  2. Regular Feedback. We should solicit regular, honest feedback from participants about what is working and not working within the virtual gathering.  Because there are some personalities who weigh in regularly (often vocally, sometimes dramatically) with their opinions, we tend to think we have the feedback box checked off, but if we don’t solicit feedback (by asking for it and encouraging it actively and celebrating it and responding to it), we are only getting part of the picture.  Often, the quietest person in the group can provide some of the very best, unanticipated insights.

There are many resources available online to up our game in terms of our virtual leadership.  All of the most popular hosting platforms offer their own tutorials and Q & A sections for best techniques for hosting.  Zoom, for instance, provides an entire page of suggested links to use their platform more effectively.  It is a good use of time to scan through articles like these.  They not only provide answers to commonly faced challenges, but they can also alert you to features of the platform that you might not even realize exist.  On the Zoom page, I was excited to find – and don’t laugh at me if this is a function that you already knew about and use on a regular basis – that there is a feature by which you can offer polls to participants in the your virtual group.  You can poll them for fun, as an icebreaker, for legitimate feedback, or to get an assessment of opinions about a topic you are discussing.  That’s cool!  Meanwhile, many of us could use some easy tutorials about simple logistical tasks like sharing our screens or how to mute people in the group or deal with “Zoom crashers.”

Here’s a great (and extensive) overview of effective meeting design from Medium.

In terms of using virtual gatherings to conduct meetings and get work done, there has been some exciting evidence that this ends up being a great way to help wallflowers shine.  The gist of this article from the BBC’s always excellent WorkLife site, “The Surprising Traits of Good Remote Leaders,” focuses on the differences of who gets deference in virtual versus in-person meetings.  In face-to-face settings, the most vocal, high-energy, articulate person tends to suck up the oxygen in the room, get the assignment, and control the dialogue.  In a virtual conference room, the playing field is leveled, and more people get heard.  In fact, virtual working groups tend to defer to the person who is actually the strongest at getting work done!

Of course, I would be remiss in my mandated responsibility as a blogger if I didn’t include a short but knowing video on Zoom call struggles.  Enjoy it HERE.

Next week, I’ll do a follow-up blog about strategies for actually navigating virtual group leadership issues.  Tips for how to lead, how not to lead, and what to do when problems arise.  Have you taken time to explore best practices in virtual hosting?  Have you shared what you learned with other leaders, including the independent small group leaders who are providing the backbone of Christian fellowship in socially distanced times?  Have you provided a forum for letting such leaders share their acquired wisdom with one another?  Maybe it’s time to get them together for their own meta-gathering: the forum of faraway facilitators.  Many of us have just been ASSUMING that the folks leading our virtual small groups have figured it out or been trained how to do it at their regular jobs.  Assumptions very rarely lead to success – we should, as always, confirm and equip.  I know, I know . . . this takes time . . but someone on your team would love to take this job on, and the long-term results will be well worth the effort.

In the meantime, feel free to share some of your virtual gathering war tales!  What have you learned about effective leadership of virtual groups, what has gone laughably wrong, and what has excited you about this new way of being together?