In-Person, Online or Both? Which Direction Will We Go?

By Evin Carvill Ziemer

A minister speaks during online worship on a home laptop.

Many congregations have been hoping to do a form of “hybrid” or "dual-platform" worship as a way of getting back together in person once we near the end of the pandemic. We are called to be inclusive. We will need to balance many different needs. We will have members and friends who will want to go back to “in person” worship just like it used to be as soon as cases are low. We will have members and friends for whom it won't be safe yet to meet “in person.” We will have members and friends who love being able to worship online, especially those who weren’t able to attend in person before the pandemic.

I have a cautionary tale that may aid in the planning:

Not so long ago, UUA Congregational Life Staff would “Zoom” into the monthly all UUA staff meetings. We have a great set up with multiple video cameras and good microphones and lighting in the 24 Farnsworth Chapel. We were able to see and hear the speakers at the podium and see the slides that were being projected. But, humans are humans, and the presence of the online viewers was frequently forgotten. People sometimes forgot to use the microphone, so those of us on Zoom couldn’t hear. When there was a lot of cross-talk, the sound was a garbled mess for us.

I think the times that bothered me most were when there was an announcement of cake or ice cream or some other sort of social event afterwards for the people in the room! No way to send that over Zoom. Of course, now, the All Staff meetings are 100% Zoom. And however we meet after the pandemic, I trust the existence of the online participants will no longer be an after-thought.

There will be a lot of guidance on the technology-end of hybrid worship coming out in the months ahead. What you can do to be ready for the technical implementation is to think about the different needs in your congregation, how you can be as inclusive as possible when designing a hybrid worship experience. Here are some questions to consider:

  • What groups will be ready for an in-person experience the soonest? And what are their greatest needs? Don’t assume that worship will be the first thing that you will bring back as an in-person format.
  • If it’s your children and youth, maybe those programs could happen at a time that’s not Sunday morning -- this will postpone the difficulties of hybrid worship.
  • If it’s certain groups of adults (e.g. adults who live alone), doing small group ministry--with choices of both online groups and all-in-person groups--may be the best next steps.

Unlike the UUA staff ice cream social, how can your in-person worship be something that doesn’t make folks at home feel unnecessarily left out? You might include:

  • Continuing your online coffee hour connections
  • Having the minister join the online coffee hour
  • Having lay leaders be able to help lead the service from home
  • Making sure folks at home can participate in any sharing portion of the service
  • And definitely, always using the microphone

What needs to be hybrid and what could stay online? Fully including both online participants and in person participants in a discussion-heavy meeting is hard.

  • Can committee meetings stay online for now?
  • Can any adult RE sessions be online? Or offer two sections?

One thing is certain, however we come back together it will be different than it was before the pandemic. Hopefully, it will be more inclusive! Humans, being human, are not always excited about change. Not having worship exactly as it was before the pandemic may feel like a loss to some, even as they recognize the benefits. One way to prepare people for change is to have some of these conversations about inclusion well before you’re actually implementing it.

If you’re starting to think about these things, we encourage attending the CER drop in calls where you can share your thinking with leaders from other congregations and hear what they’re thinking. We are also hosting two sessions for leaders of congregations in Central East we're calling "Conversations With Leaders: Dual-Platform Future 7-9pm March 11 and 10am-12pm March 13.

As we get a higher proportion of the population vaccinated, we will be coming out with technical advice and guidance on how--affordably--to make hybrid worship work for everyone’s needs. If your congregation is experimenting and has wisdom to share, as always, please share with us!

About the Author

Evin Carvill Ziemer

Evin serves as the Developmental Lead for the New England Region. Evin holds a Masters of Divinity from Earlham School of Religion and Bachelor of Arts from Carleton College.

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