In response to the lockdown restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, and ongoing concern for people’s health, many churches have been holding their general meetings online – either amending their constitutions to allow for this, or (when it was in force from June 2020 to March 2021) making use of the Government’s emergency legislation.
Some churches will have struggled with online meetings, while others will have fared better and perhaps even preferred them to in-person meetings. As we look ahead to a reality where a mix of in-person and online meetings is likely to be the norm, we want to encourage church leaders to think biblically about such hybrid members’ meetings. We set out below a few issues to consider, with the aim of helping you to begin thinking through whether holding hybrid church meetings going forward aligns with your convictions on church governance.
Inclusive hybrid meetings
We know from Scripture that Jesus went out of his way to include the most marginalised and overlooked in his gospel mission. Following his example then, it is crucial to consider who we are including and excluding by the format of a meeting. For instance, online meetings may wonderfully enable people with disabilities who would struggle to attend in person – or even church family living abroad – to join in, but may exclude those who don’t have access to, or are unable to successfully navigate, the technology.
While the number of attendees may be a helpful indicator of how inclusive an online meeting is, it is also important to consider attendees’ willingness or ability to contribute in an online forum. Some people may struggle, for example, with the logistics of unmuting themselves, or feel unable to read social cues onscreen and so hesitate to share their thoughts. The number of active or contributing participants may therefore be much smaller in reality. You may find it helpful to speak to members of your congregation and find out about their experiences in this respect.
When holding an online meeting, it is also important to consider whether those who would be excluded (either from contributing or attending the meeting at all) are of a particular demographic and whether their views will be reliably represented by others in their absence. This is especially important if minority voices could be lost as a result of holding church meetings online.
A hybrid format may be a way to successfully overcome some of these barriers to inclusivity, where those unable to attend physically can nevertheless join online, while those who would struggle online can attend in-person. The reality of a hybrid meeting still brings challenges – thought needs to be given, for example, to how online participants will be ‘brought into the room’, i.e. how they will be able to hear discussions, see who is speaking, and be given the same chance to input as those who are physically present.
Effective hybrid meetings
As stewards of God’s local church, you will want your members’ meetings to be times of fellowship and being of one mind, and for the outcomes of meetings to be in the best interests of the local church – principles that are not only biblical but which also reflect the Charity Commission’s guidance for making decisions as a charity. Here are two important considerations for getting the best out of your hybrid members’ meetings.
First, think through whether online meetings help or hinder the decision-making process, both spiritually and practically. On a spiritual level, your theology and biblical convictions on church governance will be particularly important in responding to this question. By way of illustration, consider – how might online meetings impact church members’ willingness and ability to respond to the Holy Spirit’s leading when making decisions? If holding a hybrid meeting, are there things you can do or say at the start of the meeting to encourage online participants to expect the Holy Spirit’s prompting in the same way those ‘in the room’ might, and share such promptings with the wider meeting?
As for the practicalities of the decision-making process, you may have found that the convenience of online meetings meant you were able to hold meetings more frequently, and so garner the views of church members with less delay. Conversely, you may have found it more difficult to explain complex or pastorally sensitive issues at online meetings, resulting in votes being taken when issues had not been explained as fully or usefully as they could have been. It can be valuable to think ahead to the content of the meeting and match that to the most suitable format – if something particularly complex and pastorally sensitive needs to be addressed, for example, do you feel confident doing this online, or would an in-person meeting be better?
Second, evaluate the accuracy of your voting system. Is it reliable? Are you at risk of miscounting votes? If you allow non-voting members to attend these meetings, how effective is the voting system at ensuring that only those entitled to vote actually do so? If you are holding a hybrid meeting, how will you ensure voting information is shared, voting carried out, and votes counted in as like-for-like a way as possible?
Hybrid meetings and your church culture
Finally, consider the impact of hybrid/online meetings on your church’s culture. Our goal as a church family is to equip one another for ministry and build each other up as the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12) – is your members’ meeting format enabling or hindering this?
For instance, you may have found the informality of online meetings (with everyone in the comfort of their own homes) facilitated more open sharing than before. On the other hand, it may be that discussion had become too informal, and the gravity of decision-making lost.
Consider too whether holding church meetings online when they are no longer strictly necessary sends out a message to church members about the importance or significance of meeting together physically as a church family. Having clear and valid reasons for continuing to hold online/hybrid meetings, and then effectively communicating those reasons to the church, will be important in ensuring people don’t get the wrong message.
In navigating the way forward, we would encourage you to consider how online/hybrid church meetings sit with your convictions on church governance, including in the ways outlined above.
However, we recognise that this balancing exercise is a nuanced one. For example, if you are committed to congregational principles of church governance, you may initially conclude that online meetings are the best way of maximising church members’ involvement; however, as you work through the practical issues around voting and the sharing of views using online platforms, you may ultimately decide that congregational principles are best served by in-person meetings where members are more comfortable voicing their opinions. You may feel that a mixture of online and in-person – or ‘hybrid’ – model of meeting would suit your needs best.
We would be happy to help you amend your constitution to suit your church’s needs. Perhaps you want to amend your church constitution to enable online or hybrid meetings; perhaps you amended your constitution during the lockdown to allow church members’ meetings to be carried out online and now want to consider only permitting meetings to be held online in exceptional circumstances. Whatever your situation, we would be happy to discuss it with you. Please get in touch with us.