Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Using Video Conferencing for Church Work During Troubled Times

With the efforts to slow the spread of the virus, most churches are running up against meeting size limitations and ours is no exception. But we can’t just drop everything and wait for this thing to blow over. The work of the church must continue. One way of doing that is by holding staff, team, committee, etc. meetings online, rather than in person. Having recently conducted a committee meeting like that, I thought it might be beneficial to someone if I were to document what I did and why. Please, do not take this to be an expert opinion on how these things should be done. I went into this looking for a low cost solution that I could set up quickly. I did not evaluate all of the options and there may be a better solution out there.

Tool Selection

Going into this, my first thought was, “How can I do this with Skype?” We’ve been using Skype for Business at work for a long time, so I knew that was one possibility and it is one that would do what I needed it to do. Skype has better name recognition, but in the end, I chose to use Microsoft Teams (free). Microsoft owns both, but Teams it seems like they are trying to transition business type meetings from Skype to Teams. I chose to go with Teams, partly because I wanted to try it out and partly because there is a free version that has a lot of the functionality that you pay for when using Skype for Business. There are other tools out there that I’ve seen people use, such as Go To Meeting and Zoom. I don’t know how those compare, but the free version of Microsoft Teams will allow up to 300 users (as opposed to 50 users on Skype). Though I don’t anticipate us doing this, 300 users would be more than enough to have all of the people who attend our services in the user list.


The starting point is Microsoft will ask for your Microsoft user id and password. I pretty much just clicked through stuff until I figured out what seemed to work. I created a Team for the committee that I wanted to meet with and added them one by one. Since the free version of the tool doesn’t allow for scheduled meetings, I sent out an e-mail saying what they would need to do to join the meeting when it was time to meet, though it turns out that once a meeting is started I had some capability to add them to the meeting and to send a link they could use to join the meeting. If we were going to do this a lot, I would think that being able to schedule a meeting would be worth paying the fee, but we did alright with just the free version.

In the meeting room, we had three people, so I set up a video camera connected to a laptop via a video capture device. The others were connected via their phones or laptops. Some had their cameras turned on and some did not. I was able to join the meeting via my laptop and my phone at the same time. That allowed me to see what other people were seeing. One issue I didn’t figure out was that the video was reversed. This wasn’t a big deal because I wasn’t trying to show people anything through the video, but it was odd.

The Meeting

Most of what we did was discuss some documents that I made available by sharing a screen. If you have multiple screens, you can choose which screen you share, or you can share a particular application. Because people were viewing it through their phones, it was difficult for them to read. If everyone had been using desktops, laptops, or tablets, it probably would’ve been better. We did run into some issues with echoes and noise, but that seems to be the nature of the beast. Sometimes the sound would drop out while people were talking, making it hard to understand.

Our biggest problem wasn’t technology but lack of feedback. In a normal committee meeting, when reviewing a document, silence means people have nothing to say that they are intently looking a that document, trying to figure something out. Body language tells you which is which. On a video conference, it is much harder to pick up on those cues, even if you can see people’s faces, making it much harder to know when it is safe to move on. Move too slow and it takes forever. Move to fast and you end up with just one person talking and the others get overlooked.

I don’t want to say that these tools aren’t really designed for deliberative bodies because I would imagine that if the rule that Robert’s Rules of Order puts in place for meetings of more than 12 people then some of the issues would be resolved, since each person would have to be acknowledged by the chair prior to speaking. There would just need to be a way for them to inform the chair that they wished to speak. And a classroom setting sort of follows those same rules. It’s the small committee that has more of an issue because people tend to just speak and usually that is the best way to handle them. But the lag from when someone speaks and when their voice is heard online causes people to talk over other people.

Opportunities for These Tools

Committee meetings seem to be the closest things that churches have to the target group for a tool like Microsoft Teams, even though it isn’t ideal. I’m of the opinion that churches should make use of that. Given that a lot of other stuff has been canceled, this may be a good time for these committees to get more stuff done that scheduling conflicts may have hindered in the past. I’m very much of the opinion that it is in working groups that true church fellowship is developed.

Small groups and Sunday school classes are another place where these types of tools may be ideal. We might not have considered doing something like this when we weren’t required to limit gathering sizes, but now is a good time to try things that wouldn’t normally work.
Though probably better for normal Skype or Facetime than for a tool like Teams, video conferencing may be a good way to communicate with “shut-ins”. In fact, we’re kind of in a situation where we’re all supposed to be acting like shut-ins. There’s only so much Netflix you can watch before you get bored. Imagine it that were your life all the time.

For a church service, you probably want to stick with normal livestreaming. It would be great if we could all hear each other singing and worshiping together, but the lag would make that difficult. But want a church might do is have the pastor, the music director, and maybe a few others be on a meeting together and then livestream that meeting. They might each be in their own homes, but the music director might begin the service, someone else might have announcements (what’s church without announcements), the pastor would preach a sermon. And everyone else would participate from home without the disruption that random open mics would cause.

What about outreach? Well, there’s no reason you can’t lead a person to the Lord over a video conference. The big question is whether there is something we can do to get them on that video conference in the first place. As with all things related to outreach, that may require some creativity. Maybe we invite them to participate in a discussion of some kind. Maybe its something else. But yes, I think it is something that might work.