January 25, 2022

How to Feel More Connected to the People You Serve

I’ve been thinking primarily about digital and hybrid ministry for the better part of a decade now. I can’t believe how much has changed.

In 2012, I started my vocational journey supporting ministry leaders as we learn to navigate the many ways the digital media landscape is changing the practice of ministry. In 2016, ECF’s Fellowship Partners Program supported this professional curiosity as I brought my ongoing questions to the educational media program at Columbia University.

In 2020, the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic helped my longtime collaborator Stacy Williams-Duncan and I rethink how we understood our research about Digital Literacy for Ministry. And in 2021 I joined the company Stacy founded to help organizations and their leaders embrace hybrid ministry with confidence.

Through it all, my many colleagues and I have learned a lot about the joys and frustrations of our fellow ministry leaders, especially those who teach and form new generations of disciples.

Some of the common themes of our countless Facebook posts and Twitter chats and Zoom discussions will probably sound familiar:

  • “With online tools, it feels like I’m always on. I never get to leave the digital church.”
  • “Facilitation tasks sneak up on me. Sometimes I realize it’s Thursday and I haven’t checked in with the groups I’m leading.”
  • “I have trouble getting participants to go deep in our discussions. It feels like their contributions are just checking boxes, when they post at all.”
  • “I feel uncertain about whether our people are learning and growing. It’s hard for me to know if they’re really ‘getting it.’”
  • “I don’t have time to be my parishioners’ tech support!”

While my colleagues and I address all of these concerns and more as part of our courses Faith Formation in a Hybrid World and Design + Deliver: Intensive on Teaching Online & Hybrid Courses, I want to focus in this post on what may be the most common and important concern we hear.

Leaders want to feel connected to the people they serve.

For many of us, the most rewarding aspects of ministry are the relationships we form at church, or in the soup kitchen, or in the classroom.

Sure, we feel passionate about the various topics of our ministry or teaching. But the moment we remember fondly at the end of a retreat, liturgical season, course, conference, or other experience is when we helped a community of distinct, flesh-and-blood human beings learn and grow.

To a person, our team of education and change experts at Learning Forte believe strongly that you can form connections that are just as deep and transformational when leading and teaching in online and hybrid settings.

St. Paul knew and leveraged this truth, with the technology and pastoral approaches available in his day. So have countless others through the centuries who have used the power of words, images, real-world experiences, and mutual engagement to nurture learning, growth, and faith among people with whom they were connected but not physically together.

One of the most important concepts in digital leadership and learning is role-appropriate presence. You probably have an intuitive and practiced sense of how to communicate your attentive engagement to your community when you’re with them on-site.

But it isn’t hard to learn the analogous techniques for demonstrating presence in online and hybrid spaces. It starts with configuring your tools so you have the right information about what your people are up to. This step allows you to respond in ways that help them feel acknowledged in a timely and specific manner. We’ll also discuss choosing the most effective tools and approaches for the various modes of engagement you want to cultivate.

Feeling connected to our communities—and helping them feel connected to us and each other—is a joyful outcome of the craft of hybrid ministry when well-executed. That joy is something we could all use a bit more of in this time of both acute and chronic social disconnection.

Perhaps I’ve put a finger on the longings of your heart or your experiences of wishing for more training relevant to our current ministry realities. If so, join Hannah Graham and Tania Schramm January 28 to February 25 (hybrid ministry) or Stacy Williams-Duncan and myself February 7 to March 21 (hybrid teaching) to reconnect with this life-giving aspect of your vocation—and so much more.

Note: A version of this post first appeared on the Learning Forte blog.