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How to cultivate relationships in online groups

Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels
Photo by Marcus Aurelius from Pexels

2020 is the year of virtual…well, everything. Church is no exception.

More than ever, members need their pastors and one another, but most are still practicing social distancing to some degree. Online meetings will likely continue as part of church ministry. While the internet, social media and online services such as Zoom, Facebook, WebEx and Google have made virtual meetings possible, church leaders face the challenge of building meaningful relationships in a virtual world.

If you’re facing that struggle, here are a few ideas to consider:


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Know what you’re doing

Chances are good that at least some of the people in your congregation never Zoomed with anyone before 2020. Now, people of all ages and technical abilities are learning how to participate in or host online Sunday school and small groups.

If you’re a newbie, start by educating yourself on options for online meetings or online platforms for churches and what it takes to run a great virtual meeting. Then, don’t just assume that everyone else already knows what they're doing. Consider offering a virtual class for your Sunday school, small group and ministry leaders to share tips for starting an online group.

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When you’re ready to invite guests to your meeting, be specific about how and when to join and what will take place. People find comfort in rituals, and having a consistent routine helps to build community. You may want to email an electronic program with the details of your event or at least tell your guests the anticipated topic of discussion.

Finally, just like “real life,” virtual life has its own brand of manners. Unfortunately, many people aren’t as familiar with social media etiquette or online meeting manners. Establish the rules before you begin. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Make sure everyone knows who will be the leader/moderator and what that means.
  • Determine what measures you will take to help avoid talking over or interrupting one another. Do you want everyone to keep their mics muted unless they are called upon? Would you prefer that guests raise their hand (literally or by clicking a button) before speaking?
  • Note if you want everyone to be visually present via video, or can they simply listen in without video?
  • Likewise, for those choosing to use video, establish environmental and attire guidelines to ensure that participants are able to stay focused on the meeting’s topic. (i.e, avoid wearing revealing clothing, having a messy open closet, political signage, etc. as they can be distracting to some.)
  • State whether your time together will be a traditional time of teaching/listening, or if it will be an open discussion. Be certain to share whether you will receive questions orally or via chat messaging and whether you will answer them throughout the meeting, or if questions will be addressed at the end as time allows.
  • Is it a problem for non-group members to be in the room when the group is in session? What about a screaming toddler? Or a barking dog?
  • How do you feel about members eating during class?
  • How will you handle confidentiality issues?

Think about these things, and any other potential problems.  Then distribute your list of rules to your group via email and review them as necessary together.

Get to know one another

There is power in knowing a person’s name. Allow everyone to introduce themselves, and then use each person’s name when addressing them. In this way, you'll help everyone get to know one another.

Once you know their names, it’s time to focus on learning more about them as individuals, who they are and what they need. Depending on the size of the group and the time you spend together, you may want to devote a portion of your meeting getting to know one another.

  • Start your time together with a meeting check-in or icebreaker question.
  • If you're meeting with an already established group, you may want to discuss prayer requests. Just make sure that everyone understands the expectation of confidentiality.
  • Arrange for one person each week to showcase their “world,” giving the group a tour of their home or garden or introducing the group to their family members or pets.
  • Host an old fashioned “show and tell.” Ask members to show and talk about an item of significance to them.
  • Share learning experiences. Ask members who have special hobbies, talents or interests to demonstrate their skill for the group. For instance, someone who loves cooking might demonstrate how to make a favorite recipe. A member who enjoys reading might share a special passage with the group.

Encourage participation

One of the most important parts of creating community online is participation. Whether through comments and posts on social media or in a face-to-face video chat, it’s vital that you and your members become and stay actively engaged to build online relationships.

Obviously, not everyone has the same personality type, and some people may be more comfortable voicing their opinions, sharing their dreams or appearing onscreen than others. Still, as much as possible, try to encourage all of your members to participate in some way. Here are a few ideas:

  • Assign jobs to individuals who may be more reticent. Jobs might include taking attendance, sending out an email agenda, mailing cards to members or committing to private prayer for all the members and requests. Having a task to perform can help individuals feel connected to the group even if they aren’t comfortable speaking up.
  • Assign oral reading. Instead of reading all the Bible story or scripture passages, divide the material and allow several members to share the responsibility. Some people who aren’t comfortable speaking “off the cuff” may enjoy reading out loud.
  • Don’t dominate the time together. Try using the jigsaw method to divide the lesson among several members.
  • Get creative. Just like a classroom setting, variety is the spice of life — even for adults. Take a cue from school teachers who are learning to teach remotely. Incorporate games and activities into your time together. Host a video scavenger hunt, an online talent show or pretend to be a gameshow host and have “contestants” answer questions. Explore options such as Quizlet Live, EdPuzzle or PollEverywhere and other resources for teaching online.
  • Worship and pray together. While it may feel awkward at first, worshiping online together can be an important way to form a spiritual bond. Ask for volunteers to open and close your time in prayer, or do a “circle” prayer time where everyone in the group contributes a line. Then, sing a song together. Maybe even stand up while you’re singing, and if someone happens to play an instrument, encourage them to join in.
  • Team members for special assignments. Ask individuals to team up with a partner to memorize scriptures or to pray together via phone, text or social media during the week. You can also use online “waiting rooms” or “breakout rooms” to facilitate smaller group sessions during your main meeting. Discussion threads and chat features may also help members communicate with each other during their time together.
  • Find ways to give back. You can still minister together even when you can’t be together physically. Establish ministry goals that can be accomplished individually but measured collectively. Small groups can host greeting card campaigns, purchase and send art supplies to children stuck at home, drop off food at the local food shelter, order a contactless meal to be delivered to an elderly person, contribute financially to help someone who is struggling, etc.
  • Create an exciting virtual event by hosting your meeting in a different way or from a different place.
  • Use a survey or ask for regular feedback and suggestions from your group.

Connect elsewhere

Relationships need time and consistency to grow. To develop friendships, people have to spend time together. If you want the members of your group to “do” church without losing community, encourage communication throughout the week in different ways and settings.

  • Encourage members to connect on social networks.
  • Personally communicate with members during the week. Offer to meet (virtually or in person observing social distancing) one-on-one with members who need counseling or prayer.
  • Find fun things to do together outside of your meeting: Play online games together, attend the same virtual conference or concert, personally meet in pairs or in a socially distanced environment.
  • Regularly send out inspirational or informative texts or emails.
  • Offer additional felt-needs courses such as marriage improvement, balancing a budget, living the single life, parenting, etc. or provide resources that your members can explore.

While the “gallery view” can help you see everyone, virtual meetings do limit the ability to read facial expressions or body language and other nonverbal clues. Without the benefit of personal connections, online meetings can seem forced and unproductive.

While COVID-19 may limit your ability to meet in person, it does not have to limit your ability to connect. Virtual relationships can be meaningful; you just have to work a little harder.


Tricia Brown

Tricia K. Brown is a writer, editor, keynote speaker and Bible teacher. In addition to being a wife and mother of four sons, she is the sole proprietor of The Girls Get Together, where she and her team provide women's event programs for churches and other organizations.


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