Like most national conferences since March, the annual Moderators’ Conference is being held via Zoom this year. During the second day of the digital gathering, attendees heard from a former Moderator and staff from the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) and the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) about the do’s and don’ts of running digital meetings and what the future might hold.

The Rev. Jihyun Oh, director of Mid Council Ministries with OGA, moderated a panel discussion with the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, Moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008); the Rev. Molly Casteel, manager of equity and representation with OGA; and the Rev. David Gambrell, associate for worship in the Office of Theology and Worship in the PMA.

The panelists shared their thoughts about what moderators can do to not only conduct virtual meetings but make them impactful. Reyes-Chow says he advises moderators to create a virtual space that is generous, meaningful and expansive.

“We need to encourage people to not replicate what they do in person but imagine what can be done in digital space. Reimagining what we do takes more work,” he said. “We rush into using technology thinking we have the same ease and capacity as we do in a physical space.”

Reyes-Chow says many churches and presbyteries may have the capacity to utilize digital communication, but he advises them to be reflective to see if they have the skills to do it well. In other words, practice, practice, practice.

“We still do run-throughs and practice webinars before we go live,” he said. “No matter how natural it comes to you, practice.”

Gambrell emphasized three things when dealing with digital worship and meetings: think theologically, remember the body of Christ and consider the shaping of worship.

“We are often thinking about technical issues, copyright licenses, social media platforms and CDC guidelines,” he said. “But don’t forget to think theologically. It’s easy to neglect the less urgent but important work.”

Gambrell says planning worship should be a communal activity.

“Be mindful of diversity of cultures, identities and experiences. Empower people to participate with heart, mind, soul and strength,” he said. “In times of quarantine, it’s easy to become more isolated and individualistic. Online services can highlight some aspects of our experiences and yet hide others. All of those are important to think about when remembering the body.”

Gambrell adds that how people worship can help reform and transform the church for ministry. Be careful and intentional, he said, about orders and elements of worship.

Casteel says the church is enriched by new geographies and expressions. To build unity in the digital age, it is important to be diverse.

“We should not gather together to raise one particular group or set of particular groups, centering their values, needs, and concerns,” she said. “We should share a table with different foods, tastes, needs, times, and orientation to the world. We should expand our access points to what Christ is wanting to say to us and through us.”

As the world moves closer to a possible vaccine for COVID-19, churches are beginning to consider what worship and meetings will look like post-pandemic. All three panelists believe digital access to church will continue and could possibly open new opportunities.

“Virtual space requires more hands-on work, more intelligence and energy to create a meaningful virtual setting,” said Casteel. “Factor in access to bandwidth and Wi-Fi and how they will be presented on everything from a computer screen to a cell phone or iPad.”

“I talk a lot with folks about a hybrid church, a mix of virtual and in-person worship, but I caution to say it is the next big thing. We need to keep communal nature–focused,” said Reyes-Chow. “We need to put a lens on what we do next. Hybrid worship is going to be difficult. I’m pushing churches not to go hybrid but think of multiple services. We may hold a Zoom service in the morning, followed by an in-person service. We need to discern and be thoughtful about the decisions we make so it honors the space we are trying to create.”

Gambrell says live streaming a service will not be the same as an interactive participatory experience.

“If your platform is YouTube, you will likely focus on the production values of worship, packaging, and making it work,” he said. “If your platform is social media, you have the opportunity for outreach, people joining a church they might otherwise not join. If you use Zoom or another video conferencing platform, the strength is intimacy because we can see each other and react in real time.”

As moderators get a feel for conducting online meetings, the panel suggests mixing the right amount of personal connection with the need for conducting business and being sensitive to everyone’s time commitment.

“Don’t do check-in sessions that last forever. Try to honor people’s time. The greatest gift Zoom gives us is the ability to move things along,” said Reyes-Chow. “Step in when you need to. Save personal conversations for chat.”

Reyes-Chow added that moderators should create space where people feel welcome. Casteel agreed and said, “Help the attendees understand the ways they can be recognized to speak. Make that very clear if you have time limits. Be open to receive feedback and don’t argue about someone’s experience. Learn how to acknowledge wrong and repair in the moment.”

The panelists were asked to identify the challenges and opportunities they face in virtual meetings.

“One of the pastoral challenges is exhaustion. We are using muscles we are not used to and are having to be flexible in different ways,” said Gambrell.

“I find myself going from meeting to meeting and developing Zoom exhaustion. The idea that because it’s virtual and we can add more is a response to the anxiety of purpose and meaning,” said Casteel. “We are living through a crisis and losing people daily. That accumulative grief of not being with your people who are dealing with loss is tough.”

Casteel recommends leaders find ways to take breaths and remember what Sabbath really means.

Reyes-Chow said, “Exhaustion is real, but the core is being overextended. Sometimes it’s hard to give up control. Things can go wrong, and you feel the weight of the world to make sure everything goes right.”

In the age of digital communication, the panel suggests utilizing outside speakers to take part in meetings and worship, not only to offer a different perspective but to give leaders a break from having to come up with content and a program each week.

Other suggestions include:

  • Offering personal time or coffee breaks, but keeping them short
  • Pre-recording reports to the presbytery so they can be viewed prior to a meeting
  • Interrupting when microaggressions occur during a meeting

The Moderators’ Conference concludes Saturday afternoon.