Two years ago, I thought of “hybrid ministry” as something that cutting-edge, super- hip formation leaders were doing—not my intergenerational parish formation program led by a 30-something, cis-gendered, self-proclaimed church lady. “Hybrid” sounded amorphous, mysterious, and very tech-heavy. But, things have changed. COVID-19 has pushed all of us into using technology to seek and serve all of God’s people. There has been heartbreak as we leave some ministry offerings behind, as well as elation when some ministry offerings blossom with the support of technology. Through all of the trial and error, we strive to hold up the very important vocation of creating space for people to know God.
Meeting People Where They Are
We are now in (yet another phase of) an unprecedented time. Households are discerning what level of onsite activity is right for them. During this ongoing discernment, part of our calling as formation leaders is to continue to present offerings that meet people where they are, even when the starting point changes from day to day.
One way of meeting people where they are is by offering hybrid events, which are synchronous events that people attend either onsite or online. (I prefer to use “onsite” as opposed to “in-person.” Attending a synchronous event in either mode feels very “personal” to me.)
In leading in this hybrid model, we strive to show radical hospitality to those who come through the doors and to those who are online. The way we do this is different between the two groups. As in my previous post on digital faith formation, my most important advice is to be intentional about designing the experience. In particular, you don’t ever want an online participant to feel as though they were an afterthought.
How can we create that sense of hospitality for all participants? Below are some of my best practices for synchronous hybrid events.
- Do your best to create a designated location where onsite participants can see the online participants. This could be via projector or smaller screen showing the people connecting via Zoom or other tool.
- Do your best to make sure that each group can hear, or at least “hear from” each other. You may need external speakers, and you’ll almost surely need to encourage in-person participants to speak up. Be sure to test your sound—and your plan for muting participants and/or audio speakers in the case of feedback.
- Plan for an extra online facilitator. While the main facilitator may be onsite, assign an online facilitator as well to keep track of the chat box and share any directions in writing. This person should be separate from whomever is running the technology; their job is to amplify content.
- If your technology situation doesn’t allow you to project online participants’ video or audio into the room, then an onsite participant connected via laptop or smartphone can serve as a proxy to share questions and contributions from online.
- Find significant ways for the online participants to contribute. This could be reading the chat aloud or asking one of the online participants to lead a reading or question if your technology allows.
- Start any audience participation (Q&A, report out, etc.) with a member from the online community.
- Incorporate low-stakes tech tools for real-time feedback. Tools like Mentimeter or even Twitter with a designated hashtag can provide ways for both audiences to give feedback or interact in the same digital space.
- Include more breakout groups. Both onsite and online participants can be put in small groups for discussion. Make sure online breakout groups have the same amount of “pop-ins” from the leaders as the onsite breakout groups.
- Don’t be afraid to adapt or substitute segments for the online audience. While you want both audiences to have similar experiences, it is ok if the delivery is different. For example, during a worship service, online participants might share a “spiritual communion” prayer together instead of simply watching the onsite audience take communion. Or if music is involved in your experience but doesn’t sound good over the connection, pick a piece of media-based music to play for the online audience at the same time. (Don’t forget to mute!)
- Include greetings and hellos to the online audience in announcement scripts and other rituals.
- Hold social time before or after the gathering for the online participants. Make sure that you have a facilitator to greet them.
- Consider an “online receiving line” where one of the leaders goes directly to a computer to connect with the online audience when the session finishes instead of defaulting to speaking with the onsite audience only. If only one leader is available, have them alternate which group gets attention first and make sure both audiences understand why.
For nearly 15 years, Hannah has served Episcopal parish communities in a variety of Christian Formation roles. Hannah is a trainer for the Education for Ministry Program and regularly contributes to Diocesan events, camps, retreats, and committee work. She is recognized for her innovative use of technology to integrate liturgical seasons, parish programs, music, faith-at-home activities, and outreach. As the Associate for Congregational Learning at Learning Forte, Hannah develops hybrid ministry learning opportunities and resources for parish and higher education leaders.