Zoom videoconferencing is quickly becoming the standard way that groups throughout the Mountain Sky Area do their work together. Increasingly, it is among the ways United Methodists in Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming are also creating community and growing together spiritually.
During Lent, said Laurie Day, assistant director of mission and ministry for the Rocky Mountain Conference, using Zoom allows some 75 people across the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone conferences to "experience Wesleyan small groups, grow in their relationship with God and with new people in the area and experience positive ways to engage with one another electronically."
The Rev. Jeremy Scott, vital congregations developer for Mountain Sky, is also supporting people's Lenten journey with a daily text message.
Zoom has become the videoconferencing platform of choice in Mountain Sky, Day explains, as users can access it by internet with a computer, tablet or mobile phone or by telephone alone. There is no cost to participants, and they need neither username nor password — simply a link or a 10-digit number. While a high-speed connection is best for accessing the video components, users also have the option of an audio-only connection for slower internet service.
Fulfilling a yearning
"People yearn for community and spiritual growth and in the 21st century, that yearning can be fulfilled even online," said Mountain Sky Bishop Karen Oliveto. "Our Wesleyan Small Groups provide participants with the opportunity to connect more deeply with each other during the season of Lent. We are looking forward to the ways the Holy Spirit will be present in people's lives through these small group experiences."
The current experiment with digital small groups also continues Mountain Sky's commitment to "experimenting and taking risks through trying new things," Day said. "Physically meeting together can be a challenge; digital small groups meet the challenge of people wanting to connect and having time in their schedules to do so."
"When we launch an experiment, we don't know if it is going to work," she added. "If at some point you are not failing, you're not testing the limits to see how great it can be."
This season's small-group ministry is a successor to the morning devotion times Mountain Sky leaders offered weekly at 6:30 a.m. for four- to eight-week periods in 2017 during Lent, Pentecost, Advent and Christmas. The weekly 20-minute sessions were worship-centered and presenter-led with little participant interaction. "They didn't really allow time for conversation and everyone meeting together," Day explains. Participation ranged from 40 to 60 people.
Planning by Mountain Sky area leaders for the digital Wesleyan small groups began in late 2017. Day developed the curriculum from a variety of Lent and small group resources and began recruitment of participants in mid-January.
Multiple meeting times eliminated a time barrier for participants, while Zoom overcame distance challenges in the area that stretches more than 1,300 miles from the northwest corner of Montana to the southeastern corner of Colorado.
Each of 10 small groups of five to 10 people is meeting weekly for six weeks at different times – early morning, mid-day, evening and late night — on different days of the week. Coming from the nine districts in the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone conferences, participants range in age from young adults in their 20s to seniors in their 70s and 80s.
"People selected the time that worked with their schedule for this first-time experiment to gather people together to talk about Lent and their experiences going through that, to share who they are and get to know each other," she said.
Prior to the groups' first meetings, Day trained the facilitators via Zoom to use the curriculum and reviewed the basics of small group facilitation. Each session includes an opening prayer, discussion of three or four reflection questions, sharing joys and concerns and closing with The Lord's Prayer. "Within the weekly sessions, the scripture and theme is always from the lectionary Gospel readings," Day said.
She invited people familiar with Zoom to be facilitators. Most are laity. By bringing "newer people to be in leadership of this kind," she says, "we were not tapping into that 'usual suspects' pool." Day provided the format, opening prayer and reflection questions for each of the six sessions. "Because we intentionally made this easy on our facilitators, it greatly expanded the pool," she said
She planned to login before the beginning of the first meeting of each group and then leave with the anticipation that "this will be an easy and positive experience."
At the end of six weeks, Day said, "We will evaluate and see how it went. It is very possible we will want to do it again. People may want to stay in same group or may want new groups. We have a structured format — and we'll evaluate that, too."
Day offers several tips to those considering technology-based ministries in their areas or annual conferences:
- Experiment and take risks.
- Be creative in understanding what the needs are in your area or conference and how you might address those.
- Always work with a team of clergy and laity.
- Go beyond the usual suspects for leaders, making sure to recruit local church leadership.
"Be as prepared as you can feasibly," Day said. "Realize we are humans, things don't always go as planned, but the Holy Spirit will show up and things will be OK."