best practices

Lessons from Hybrid Youth Ministry

Maybe you’ve heard the buzzwords from our colleagues in education (or the talking heads talking about education) this past year: hybrid scheduling, synchronous/asynchronous teaching, flipped classrooms, blended learning.

Maybe you jumped in and tried ALL THE THINGS. Maybe you heeded my advice from earlier in 2020 to Keep It Simple. Or maybe you’re still feeling overwhelmed with the mechanics of Zoom or Google Meet.

After (quite frankly) too much deliberation on my part, this fall, we rolled out our teen faith formation/youth ministry/Confirmation prep calendar using what I’ve learned is technically a “concurrent” model: families would opt to have their teens participate in the appropriate gathering either in person or virtually, but both in-person and virtual participants met at the same time.

How did it go? Well, here are my big takeaways:

Simultaneous scheduling has big pros AND big cons.

One of the reasons I decided to have in-person and virtual groups participate simultaneously was that it provided what seemed to be the simplest fix to the problem that most vexed me: what happens when (not if) a participant has to quarantine due to Covid-19 symptoms or exposure? And what happens if we have to pivot (again) to all-virtual ministry quickly?

Like the engine in a hybrid vehicle, having two ministry modes allows instant “plan B.” If a teen (or our state) suddenly needs to participate virtually, we make the shift. No one skips a beat because virtual participation in the Sunday evening gathering (for example) is already a normal option, even if the same faces show up differently sometimes.

Inevitably, though, having multiple groups meeting in different “places” means divided attention. You literally can’t be fully present to those in person and those online, which presents a serious problem because…

Virtual participants can’t be second class citizens.

While you could, technically, run a Zoom meeting and an in-person meeting simultaneously, both groups will suffer. The participants receive less than half your attention, and virtual participants will always receive the lesser share because of in-person communication’s immediacy (one of the reasons that the Incarnation is such a big deal!).

Your virtual participants are likely to be living a nearly all-virtual existence. The gift of connecting online is wonderful, but in my experience, many of my virtual participants are struggling. They feel unseen. They need a genuine connection, not just another screen.

So how do you manage to honor the presence of Christ in your virtual “least of these”? It’s simple: just like in pre-covid ministry, you are not enough.

Without a doubt, the most successful virtual elements of our ministry this fall were the virtual groups who had dedicated, creative, and skilled adult leaders leading virtually — in other words, leaders leading from home.

The least successful were those virtual elements that had minimal adult leadership actually participating within the videoconferencing system. I always had enough leadership for “coverage,” but one of the ways I know I need to improve for 2021 is to pour even more of my best (human) resources–my volunteers–into the places where they can do the best.

When virtual participants feel more like they are watching a live stream than like they are full participants who happen to be sitting in a different “spot” in the room, concurrent scheduling loses a lot of its power. Make a videoconference feel more like a small group meeting, and you’re getting somewhere!

Flexibility is key, but you’ve got to know WHERE to flex.

The choice to have virtual and in-person meet concurrently allowed participants to have an opportunity to participate in the same formation, regardless of health status, exposure, or family comfort level.

But to effectively plan, I asked families to commit to a “mode” (either in-person or virtual) for the fall duration. They needed to ask me before making any change in mode (whether temporarily due to quarantine or some other reason, or more permanently). That meant that I only had a handful of teens who might shift from one to the other for any given gathering – not enough flux to warrant any major changes in setup, leadership, or supplies.

In addition to the appropriate paperwork and attendance logs, I kept a running list of which teens were supposed to “show up” were, which my volunteers could access as well as the families themselves (in case they’d forgotten their “mode”).

One of the things that made all this possible for us was the decision to…

Use living (rather than static) documents whenever possible.

The Holy Spirit taught me this one. As we were preparing for a concurrent, offsite Confirmation day retreat in September, I was about to email the meeting login information to families when it occurred to me that I could put the information into a Google Doc instead. Lo and behold – the moment after I pressed “send,” the meeting login information had to be changed. Rather than having to send a second email apologetically, I changed the information in the Google document!

That running list of which teens were participating in which “mode” worked similarly. And our “curriculum” materials were also housed online, allowing for last-minute adjustments to outlines if needed. By making it possible to tweak our plans without redistributing information, we were free to “build the ship while we sailed” when necessary.

The tech is important, but it’s a means, not an end.

If you’re going to do concurrent scheduling work, you need to set up the tech so that virtual participants can not only see and hear what’s happening on-site but so that those on-site can see and hear your virtual participants. 

We tried so many configurations of laptops, microphones, projectors, speakers, and other devices before hitting the sweet spot. The only advice I have here is to do as much trial and error as possible before “showtime,” and ultimately to fall back on some foundational principles which we used to define our ministry’s goals this fall:

  • Do the teens feel safe here?
  • Do the teens know that it matters that they are here?
  • Do the teens know that God is in their story right now?

If the technology you are using helps you and your team accomplish those goals, it’s working correctly. If it gets the way, ditch it and try something else. Keep trying, and eventually, you’ll find something that works for your community!

What do you find works in your ministry?

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