By Kana Goldsmith
Education for Ministry (EfM) is happening in the Zoom world. As churches across the country began shuttering their doors and scrambling to upload services, EfM mentors turned to Zoom-inars. Yes, it has been awkward. Yes, participants get knocked offline, and yes, the screen freezes up. But after speaking with five mentors from across the country it is abundantly apparent that the ministry version of “Hollywood Squares” is a success. There are no rooms to set up, no space to make ready—just a click of the mouse to welcome participants one by one. And they are present, at every seminar. Attendance is at an all-time high. Cell phones, iPads, and laptops are bringing participants to the sacred space of Education for Ministry. As one participant describes it, Zoom has provided a peaceful and meditative environment for her group to wade through the tidal currents of pandemic, social unrest, and political disruptions.
Long time mentors and co-authors with Karen Meridith of EfM’s four-volume Reading and Reflection Guide series, Rick Brewer and Angela Hock of Tulsa, Oklahoma, gladly offered their years of experience to the online platform. “Our group is spread across the country and scattered over two time zones,” explains Hock. While Brewer and Hock had a head-start as they signed on as online mentors in 2020, traditional in-person groups faced an immediate learning curve last spring. Education for Ministry published work-arounds and how-tos on its website, switched over to Zoom-based mentor training, and carted the glossy trifold brochures to storage.
Ethel Ware Carter of Atlanta, Georgia, pivoted to Zoom last March and never looked back. Having been involved with EFM for more than 40 years, she remembers her first 12 years of mentoring. “It was fabulous, and such a privilege to have a dozen people all doing the same year, and to watch how we grew.” But this past fall, with recruitment of a new group, Carter was faced with the issue of how to bring five people on board virtually. “I didn’t know any of them—one was young, another out of law school, and none of them knew each other.” Not having the opportunity for a person-to-person meet and greet posed a challenge for Carter. She credits humor and the “checking in” portion of the weekly Reading and Reflection Guide as a way to help her newcomers fit into her existing group. “Humor has been so important in group formation this year. The first week we had our five new group members they all looked so serious, almost as if they were on the witness stand!”
Liza Page Nelson of Manhattan, New York, was also concerned about newcomers that she had not met face-to-face transferring into an existing group. How would her group fall into a rhythm of speaking? How could she utilize mutual invitation though the screen? In the past, Nelson relied on meaningful glances to invite others into discussion, but in the Zoom format, you stare straight ahead.
Brewer also realized how much he depended on getting to know people through regular conversation or simple chit-chat before and after a seminar. “I had been drawing on ‘knowledge of a person’ through informal chats and that just is not possible in the situation we are in now.” However, Virginia Diocesan EfM Coordinator Jane Dowrick has found that her groups are experiencing a measure of intimacy through Zoom, something that was not present before. “Distractions are minimized because we are all looking into each other’s eyes.”
Carter agrees and adds that her group reads prayers written together from their theological reflection. “It is a lovely struggle, individual voices break in, phrases become emphasized for no reason and the slower reader finishes up.” Participant Mary White of Manhattan, New York, shares that she seems to feel safer closing her eyes during prayer or contemplation when she is in the comfort of her home. Likewise, her classmates have become more open about the intimacy of praying.
Hock applauds the many benefits that the online platform affords a group." I love the tech opportunities—we can watch videos, listen to music, and look things up,” Hock states. Nelson agrees and shares that a particular theological reflection really came to life with the ability to use screen sharing. The clumsiness of participants’ drawing ability is replaced with screen shares and videos of what one is trying to portray. While Nelson admits that she misses the ease of taking the Book of Common Prayer down from the shelf and passing it around, her New York group is able to screen share and scroll the texts of prayers, scripture, and lyrics. She shares that they are using music more often than when they met face to face.
But there are also challenges to using Zoom. Mentors agree that nothing can compensate for a hug or hand on the shoulder after a spiritual autobiography or theological reflection, but they have learned to use their eyes to express empathy and compassion. Nelson and Carter lament over the absence of “in unison” because with Zoom’s time lag it is cacophonous. But groups often say “Amen,” “Thanks be to God,” and other short phrases in a call and response litany together. Groups designate one person to be the audible responder. Another challenge has been the use of the white board. While Brewer believes that with a little research, it can be very effective, other mentors write in the chat column or have an open Word doc in screen share.
Prayer and theological reflection have been all the more important in a year of pandemic. In some ways, Brewer calls it the perfect storm. Witnessing “the rawness of human need nationally” is welling up a call to ministry from many participants. Because of the technological age in which we live, Hock believes that we are not only all aware of what is happening but are also sharing and “living in something that has touched every person in the world.” Carter shares, “People are retreating, feeling in danger and concerned with taking care of themselves but EfM can call us out of that nest of safety.” Dowrick sees EfM as being a real launching pad for ministry in this particular time and place.
Last year was a year of emotional and political turmoil, but politics have been a part of the conversations. Most groups are experiencing more diverse political viewpoints than commonalities and mentors hold groups together by speaking in the non-specific, using the methodology of EfM’s theological reflection model and the rules of the Kaleidoscope Institute’s mutual invitation process. This creates a safe space to be heard but more importantly, it enables participants to see each other as human beings with feelings, not just as people on a soap box. Dowrick describes how her group has come to rely on the theme for this year, “Living into the Journey with God.” “Our members are viewing their readings, discussions, and reflections as part of their daily activities. Using the lens of where God’s presence is felt has led to paying particular attention to the possibilities of God’s presence,” she states.
The “perfect storm” of the Covid-19 pandemic has caused so much sadness. But Zoom-inars have risen with the tides of frustration and separation, delivering mentors and participants to the hopeful shores of ministry. Zoom has made the sacred space look different, and as Nelson jokes, “If people don’t mute their mic it’s like Pentecost every week!” But when two or three gathered together, they repeat the words said by all, “I don’t know what I would have done without EfM this year.”